Pretty much from the moment I got certified seven years ago, it’s just been a given: when I’m traveling near or around a body of water, I’m looking up the local diving in the area. Once I realized I was heading to California for two weeks and would have a dive buddy in the form of Kat, my dive instructor friend from Thailand, I knew we’d find somewhere along the shore to submerge.
Did we ever.
We looked into various overnight liveaboards and dive trips from Los Angeles, but they tend to run only over the weekends and options were somewhat limited. Once we decided to add San Diego to our itinerary, it seemed like a more logical choice given the waters temperatures are a few degrees higher. I got in touch with Women Diver’s Hall of Fame president Bonnie Toth, who sponsored the grant I won in 2013 and has been supporting and encouraging to me in my dive career ever since, to ask for leads on diving in her local area.
She did one better than just offering advice — she vowed to set up the dive charter of our dreams alongside accomplished fellow underwater photographers Allison Vitsky Sallmon and Andy Sallmon. How could we say no?
Allison took the reigns in arranging our day out on the water, generously offering me some of her cold water gear to fill in the gaps in my warm water set and directing us to a local shop where we could rent tanks and gear for Kat. While images of the area’s infamous kelp dives danced in my head, Allison on how challenging and visibility dependent the success of those sites can be, and urged us to consider a trip to Los Coronados, a group of small uninhabited islands — rocks, really — over the watery border into the Mexican side of the Pacific Ocean. She promised encounters with a playful pack of baby seals, who would dance and perform for our cameras. Clearly, we couldn’t have been happier to defer to the local experts on this one.
We had plenty of time to get acquainted on the boat ride over, and I was amazed at the passion and experience of my dive buddies for the day. When it came time to suit up, I was brimming with excitement. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to dive with seals before in Peru, so I tried to remain somewhat skeptical — but I couldn’t help it, I was buzzing.
And oh, did it every pay off! We spent the entire dive in a shallow cove where over a dozen baby sea lions frolicked, played, and stared curiously into our camera ports.
It wasn’t all underwater rainbows and sea-unicorns, though — this was a very humbling dive. Though I’ve tried my hand at drysuit diving once, my experience with cold water diving is otherwise nonexistent. I struggled getting into my hood, gloves, and 7mm wetsuit, and felt like an Open Water Manatee™ when I finally flopped into the surf. Things didn’t really improve upon submerging; I struggling to maintain my buoyancy in the unfamiliar gear and strong surge, and cringed wondering what these graceful dive geniuses must have thought of me — a supposedly experienced certified PADI Divemaster — flailing around underwater!
I also struggled with my camera. I was tried to fiddle with new settings which upon reflection was probably unwise — with so many other changing variables, perhaps I should have stuck to what I knew. I even struggled to access the controls with gloves! For the second dive I pulled my gloves off in a fit of frustration and found that it improved my spirits wildly — I preferred to be a little cold and have better fine motor control than to keep my fingers toasty.
Yet overall, I was pretty disappointed with my photos at the end of the day, none of which I’d ever consider printing or popping in a frame — I waffled about posting them at all. For some seriously gorgeous images of these stunning creatures, check out Allison’s work!
Still, in terms of jogging my memory of an amazing experience and encounters with some of the oceans most curious creatures, they are perfect.
The sea lions were so captivating that we didn’t really explore the rest of the dive site until the last few moments of the dive.
After a surface interval spent swapping stories of spectacular dives and serious travels, we geared up for a second go. Though there are several dive sites around the area, we were captivated by the sea lions and decided to double dive the same spot twice.
Unfortunately, the sea lions were obviously a little less captivated by us. Though September is pretty much the peak time to see the pups in peak playful form, they are wild animals and don’t necessarily cooperate with a dive schedule. So while we waited patiently for them to reappear underwater, they snoozed carelessly up on the rocks.
Luckily, we had other creatures to encounter. I was so excited when I saw a free-swimming octopus slither by me, as it is rare to see them out of their holes. Andy noticed my enthusiasm and did his best to assist me in getting a great shot of both our tentacled friend and a strange nudibranch that appeared nearby. Unfortunately the photographic results were sub-par as I swayed back and forth in the surge, but I’ll treasure the moment.
When we surfaced, the sea lions looked up sleepily to bid us goodbye.
This was definitely a more logistically challenging and expensive dive trip than the ones I’ve casually hopped aboard in tourist towns everywhere from Bocas del Toro to Perhential Besar. The cost of the charter was $1,000 total, so $200 each — which did include a delicious homemade lunch from our lovely captain. But we also had to separately procure our own gear and tanks, and transport ourselves to and from the launch site (luckily for us, it was less than a ten minute drive from our Mission Beach rental!)
But despite my neoprene-related buoyancy challenges and my frustrating shutter struggles, it was worth every penny. I got face to face with a magnificent mammal that’s been alluding me underwater for years, I stepped fin in Mexico for the first time (olé!) and I spent the day with an amazing group of divers with whom I had as much fun on the surface intervals as I did on the dives. I hope it will be the first of many!
It was a humbling reminder that my love of a challenge is one of the things that first attracted me to diving, and that shouldn’t fade no matter how thick my logbook grows.
Alright, California divers! Where should I flail around underwater next?
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative.
Love this post so much and I think your pictures are great! What camera do you use? I like the black and white – they look so vintage.
I went diving with seals in Cape Town in January and while I also struggled with the temperatures and buoyancy (good comparison, I was a manatee) it was so fun! Seals are awesome and really cute. I did a lot of barking, clapping and rolling around underwater just to keep the entertained.
Ha! I’m definitely adding that to my list when I finally get to Cape Town. You can find out more about my cameras on my Obsessions page 🙂
Those were great dives you got to do. I have had expensive dive trips as well but when I factor in the whole experience at the end of the day, the cost was totally worth it.
Try to find a dive trip to the kelp forests which are from the La Jolla area up past LA then north to San Fran. The kelp forests are amazing. I got to dive in some that were averaging 40 to 60 feet tall. They can be pretty spooky because you can’t see very far even if the water is crystal clear. The sea lions like to play hide and seek with you and my first encounter was totally unexpected and I almost spit out my regulator. Then it became cool. But the forests can be dangerous with entanglements. Have multiple knives in strategic locations around your body so, for example, if you get in a kelp bear hug, you can still reach one of the knives. I carry four. One on the vertical strap over my heart; one on the inside of my leg above the ankle; one on my right hip (side of dominate hand); then one strapped to my right bicep. Sounds crazy but if you ever get caught up in fishing line (that was my wake up moment) or kelp, you’ll appreciate being able to get to a knife to star cutting yourself loose.
It seems like you are having a great experience!
That’s a great tip — I actually don’t own a dive knife which is something I should really correct. Thanks for the reminder to do so!
I love the photos of the sea lions….the head on one, the ones of them swimming so gracefully, and the last one of them on the rocks, one of them looking like he is saluting you. Great shots under difficult conditions….
Thanks! They had such personalities… I think they are the puppies of the sea.
After all these San Diego posts, I’ll have to book a trip there soon! I thought your photos were awesome!!!!
Thanks Cate! San Diego totally charmed me and four days was way too short. Can’t wait to return.
I completely understand having a “bad” day at doing something you absolutely love to do and theoretically have a lot of experience in. But, that’s the great thing about having a hobby–you get to learn constantly.
Indeed! This day was an awesome reminder of that.
Yay, so happy to hear/read about this!
I’ve only gone diving once in California and that was plenty.. WAY too cold. (Although it was in Monterey so maybe I could give southern CA a try). My boyfriend’s family always goes in the Channel islands off the coast of SB and it sounds beautiful, but I will stick to tropical waters please (I actually thought Roatan in Feb was a little cold haha). So kudos to you for being much braver!
Also, these photos are beautiful. You capture their spirit well 🙂
I’m definitely a warm water wuss, in general 🙂 But I think I can brave one or two cold water trips per year, if it leads to fun days like this!
Great, great blog, Alex! I shared it on the WDHOF Facebook page.
Thanks so much for sharing, Bonnie… and thank you for setting this whole day in motion! We had such a blast!
Great photos Alex!! I’ve gone to the beach a few times at Sunsst Cliffs- south of Mission Beach where you were- and sea lions have popped up in the surf right in front of me! And of course, La Jolla is a great place to see them, as well as dive the kelp forests. They have a lot of little leopard sharks in La Jolla as well. I would definitely suggest La Jolla for your next dive in San Diego.
Oh my gosh, that sounds amazinggg. Four days in San Diego was WAY too brief. I absolutely want to return again soon — and with regular trips to Los Angeles on the books, it shouldn’t be too hard!
Really cool pictures! This looks like so much fun, thanks for sharing.
You’re so welcome Carmen! Thanks for reading!
My Mt Everest of dive trips was Bikini Atoll. That was part of my WanderLust! What’s your Mt Everest?
Good question! I think a liveaboard in the Coral Triangle. I can’t wait to get there someday!
These photos are great despite what you think! Sea lions are adorable and your photos show how playful they are.
I’m hoping to have a similar dive in Cabo next month, but if I can’t, we’ll be headed to San Diego after. This could be a great back up.
Ahhhh, Cabo! Make sure to post lots of pics 🙂
Best photos ever-thank you
Aw, thanks Carol 🙂
I LOVE the picture of the baby sea lion looking straight into the camera. So cute!
That was my favorite too 🙂
I still think that you managed to take some great shots of the sea lions and even if you don’t feel they were your best, it sounds like you had a great day anyway 🙂
Thanks Amy! You guys have definitely made me look at these in a different light 🙂
If you are in SD again, try a blue/mako shark dive (only snorkeling) with SD Expeditions! I went a few months ago and it was truly magical if you like sharks, of course.
Oh my gosh… that sounds amazing. And scary. And thrilling. Sounds like I need to do it 😉
I really love the pictures you took, although you were not as happy with them.
I also can imagine how irritating it was to dive in the cold water with all that weard and unknown gear as I tend to dive more in warm waters as well although I got certified in Germany. You can imagine that German lakes are everything but not the Caribbean 😉
It was definitely a little unfamiliar! I think I’ll be much more mentally prepared next time… kudos for getting certified in chillier waters!
Great Pics!! Seals looks so cute..It seems like you had a great time…
Thanks Maggie! I did!
Ha, you’re pictures look beautiful! If I would’ve attempted to take photos in those conditions I think I would fail miserably. The memories are always more special than the photos though and swimming with sea lions should definitely be treasured!
It totally is — I definitely want to go back and do it again someday.
No way, that’s so funny! We were just diving there two Friday’s ago. It’s been a while since we’ve been cold water diving… and it was freakin cold! I was getting a little more comfortable by the 3rd dive, but it took that long to get situated. Ha! I’m also glad to see that I wasn’t the only one having trouble with buoyancy issues thanks to the lovely 7mm, hood, boots, gloves combo. 🙂 If you want to go diving there again, but don’t want to spend as much on a private charter, then I recommend Waterhorse Charters. They leave right out of Mission Bay and I think it’s about $160 pp for the Coronado trip. They also do local SD dives. Of course it’s not as intimate as a private charter, but it’s a lot cheaper. Catalina is nice; similar to the Coronados, but more kelp (and I second the knife! Just bought one for these dives and so glad I did) I think it might be a bit chillier though. My next to-do (eventually) is Anacapa Isl. It’s suppose to be really neat! Anyway, I’ll be posting a short video on my YouTube channel this week from the Coronado dives if you want to check it out. If you’d like more info on the dive op I’ll be happy to answer any questions, or you can just Google them. 🙂
Hey Kate, thanks for the tip! As we had five people the private charter was only $40 more per person than Waterhorse but I’d definitely consider booking with them in the future if I didn’t have a full crew. Love hearing about all these dives in Southern California… hoping to hit a few more this summer!
I really like these pictures, Alex! The colours are so vibrant! My underwater photos (go pro) always look very blue despite some tinkering on picasa (which is as far as my skills go)…
Anyway I’m impressed that you dived there in only a 7mm wetsuit! I feel cold in a 5mm in 26C (79F) water and it definitely messed up my buoyancy but thanks for sharing your struggles, I feel less incompetent as a diver knowing that even DMs can have issues!
GoPros are awesome for video but especially underwater they just can’t compete with something like the Canon G7X. Still, considering their size and cost, I think they do a pretty good job! One of the divers in our group was in a drysuit… I think that would have been a whole new level of struggle 🙂
I think your pictures are fabulous! Particularly the one of the sea lion looking right at your camera. We’re always our own biggest critic, right?
Indeed! Especially when it comes to photography, in my case.
Definitely adding this on my diving bucket list! And I love the pictures!
Thanks Andrea! Hope I get the opportunity to go back someday 🙂
What?!? Girl, I can’t believe you don’t like your photos. I was thinking how awesome they were, especially the cute little close up!
Sounds like an epic dive though, even worth diving in super cold water for…eek.
Maybe I was being too hard on myself and comparing my photos to those of my brilliant dive buddies for the day 🙂
Okay… At first I was quite excited for this post, since I’ll be doing my final open water dives for certification in San Diego next week.
Did you freeze to death or do the dry suits really work? Don’t lie to me…
I wasn’t even in a dry suit… I was in a 7mm wetsuit! Horrors! It was cold but actually I think I was SO excited by the sea lions I was kind of distracted from the cold. The one dive that I will never forget the cold of was my dive in Iceland, when I was indeed in a dry suit. But they can’t cover your face!
Alex, Next time you visit Southern California and want an amazing Sea Lion adventure check in to a charter out of Ventura. My husband and I took the Spectre out to Anacapa Sea Lion Rookery and literally swam with hundreds of Sea Lions. They actually followed us back to the boat on the surface. Very Cool!! thanks for the info on Coronado… Hope to get there soon.
Wow that sounds amazing! Thanks for the recommendation… I will be checking it out!