For a lobster hunter such as Bill Johnston, heaven couldn't be much better than a good day on a massive reef named Cortez Bank.
Desolate, 40 miles from the nearest land, the submerged southern extension of the Channel Islands is not the type of place to which most people would choose to spend eternity. Or even 10 minutes.
A typical day might see six-foot ocean swells, strong winds and currents that are impossible to swim against. Conditions can get much worse, very quickly. And when they do, there's no place to hide.
Boats have been wrecked there, leaving shattered hulls on the rocks. Last year, the aircraft carrier Enterprise smashed into a high point at Bishop's Rock, causing $17 million in damage and leading to the demotion of its skipper.
Cortez Bank can be deadly, and at the very least, uncomfortable. As one dive shop owner put it: "If you tend to get seasick, it's not the place to be."
Yet Johnston, a 67-year-old skipper who owns two San Diego-based charter dive boats, has been diving Cortez Bank as often as weather and time permit. His first visit there was 26 years ago.
What drives him and a small club of veteran Cortez divers to make that pounding 10-hour boat ride over and over again? The answer is simple, and has nothing to do with the clear, pristine waters full of brilliantly colorful corals, anemones, sea slugs and curious fish. The divers are after big "bull" lobsters, and Cortez Bank has more of them than any place else in Southern California.
"We've been diving all over the Channel Islands, and there's no better place (than Cortez Bank) for lobster," said John Ford of the Pinnacle Dive Center in Santa Rosa.
Bill Proud, a 20-year veteran of the Santa Monica Blue Fins dive club, said his group goes to Cortez several times a year, bypassing the popular and relatively safe lobster grounds at San Nicholas Island. "We wouldn't go to Cortez if we didn't think it was better," he said. "It's a longer trip and it costs more, and often the weather is so bad you can't get to it. But when you hit it right, it's worth all the trouble."
Picked-over lobster grounds along the coast and at islands such as Catalina and San Clemente may yield a few barely legal one-pound "bugs," while at Cortez Bank a skillful diver can often find his limit of seven lobsters weighing up to 10 pounds each.
Lobsters that size, probably at least 20 years old, act differently than their skittish young cousins. They tend to stand their ground when threatened, stubbornly wedge themselves between rocks or charge forward at the dark, unfamiliar shape of a diver.
"A big lobster is like a burro," Johnston said. "The thing is to push him in and out in a hurry. Just shake those horns and sometimes he'll wander out like he's punch drunk."
Johnston, who probably knows Cortez Bank better than any other diver, is a methodical hunter who usually does at least as well as any customer on his boat. He sprints through the water to make the most of his time, leaving less agile swimmers to follow in the wake of his fins.
His advice: Cover as much ground as possible while looking into caves and ledges for telltale antennae, and note the depth and type of rock formation when you do find a lobster. In Johnston's opinion, lobsters move in a pattern according to currents and water temperature, so each catch is like a clue in a scavenger hunt, and the big prize is a cave full of giant lobsters.
He and several crew members found such a cave five years ago. "It was a huge cavern, absolutely built for lobsters. You're talking about 50 or more lobsters in there." They marked it and mapped it, but haven't been able to find it again.
One problem with mapping Cortez is that the terrain of gullies, pinnacles, ledges and caves all looks pretty much the same for about 30 square miles, ranging in depth from about 15 to 80 feet. With a single Coast Guard buoy the only landmark and rough weather almost guaranteed, orientation is difficult. But Johnston said he is in the process of transferring 26 years of scribbled chart notes to a more accurate system using LORAN satellite coordinates.
When Johnston and several friends first visited Cortez on his private boat in 1961, the area was known only to a few commercial fishermen and sport divers. "We didn't know much about the place," he said. "We would just find 50 foot of water and jump in. Slowly, we started finding where the hot spots were, where the bull caves and areas the bulls like to live in were."
The limit then was 10 lobsters, and Johnston said he and his buddies invariably captured 100 pounds of lobster each. Since he started taking diving charters to the area nearly 20 years ago, he said the success rate has dropped, but blames it on the skill levels of most divers rather than the state of the fishery.
Only a few charter dive boats visit Cortez with any frequency: The Charisma out of Los Angeles made several trips this lobster season, which began in mid-October and ends March 16; the Mirage out of San Diego went twice; Johnston's Sand Dollar has been half a dozen times. One or two commercial fishermen occasionally lay traps in the area, according to the Department of Fish and Game. Small private boat owners rarely risk the rough, unpredictable seas to go there.
The reef is protected by inclement weather, which causes about half the scheduled charters to be canceled or re-routed to safer islands, and, being an inconvenient 95 miles from Los Angeles and San Diego harbors, by distance.
Some say the lobster diving at Cortez is as good as it has ever been, but some of the new divers, hampered by bulky dry suits and electronic equipment, may not be up to it.
Also, charter organizers are selective about who they will take. "I probably talk as many people out of going to Cortez as I talk into going there," said Proud of the Blue Fins club. "And I tell them they should be prepared to sit it out if it's a little bit beyond their capabilities."
Ford of the Pinnacle Dive Center, whose group captured a record 248 lobsters on a Sand Dollar trip last year, said: "One of the reasons we're so successful is that we make it real clear to people that it's advanced diving. Everyone who goes with us is a pretty hardy diver."
Danger is undoubtedly part of the appeal for some divers, who may push safety precautions to the limit for the sake of grabbing one more big bug. Like any thrill sport, diving at Cortez Bank has an element of risk.
"One of the things that makes Cortez interesting is its unpredictability," said Terry Nicklin, general manager of the Diving Locker in San Diego. "You could be in a world of trouble if the swell comes up and the wind starts blowing. It's probably the high adventure diving spot in Southern California."