Taking Plunge Into Secrets of Sea : Coast Offers Lots of Scuba Diving, Snorkeling Spots

Although many North County beaches are often filled to capacity in summer, countless others are vacant even on the most popular holidays. But there is a catch to visiting them: These beaches are under water.

The quickest, easiest and least expensive method of looking beneath the sea is with a mask and snorkel. Throw in a set of dive fins, and you have everything necessary for exploring the many colorful reefs and vast sand beaches that stretch for miles beneath the ocean from Del Mar to Oceanside.

Although underwater visibility and sea life here do not approach that of world-class dive locations such as the Caribbean islands, first-time divers are nonetheless in for some beautiful surprises in local waters.

At some locations, the terrain changes right at the shoreline. When the water is clear and the visibility is more than 10 feet, one can see all sorts of unusual and colorful plant and animal life. Octopus, starfish, eels, lobster, sea slugs and many varieties of fish are common.

Underwater caves are favorite spots for fish such as garibaldi, a protected, slow-moving fish that looks something like a wide-bodied foot-long goldfish. Garibaldi, designated as the state ocean fish, are numerous in North County waters.

One of the best places for diving in North County is in kelp beds, a precious resource akin to a tropical rain forest. The kelp in most places is located a few hundred yards from shore, and sinks to a depth of 40 to 65 feet. Unless one is an excellent swimmer and an unusually good free diver, visits to the kelp require scuba gear.

There are probably no sunken treasures and very few sunken vessels to observe in North County. But archeological finds, such as a 100-year-old lumber schooner that washed ashore at Seaside Reef in Solana Beach last fall, were first spotted and reported by divers. Some divers have reported seeing old cannons rusting beneath the surface. Pieces of sunken ships or other relics can shift with the tides and swells.

Although there are few hazards associated with North County diving, caution is, nonetheless, the rule. A sharp knife should be carried at all times in order to cut free from possible entanglement in lobster trap lines or fish nets. Underwater caves should be approached with caution. Everything looks about 30% larger under water. Caves may contain less room than they appear to, and may have no rear exit.

Stingrays, which are at first difficult to detect because they lay flat on the bottom and are the same color as sand, are also common. Physical contact with them should be avoided. The barb on the tail is a fast and effective weapon that injects a mostly non-lethal, but very painful, poison. Manta rays, which do not have stingers, grow far bigger than stingrays, sometimes exceeding 4 feet in width.

First-time shark sightings are often panic-inducing, although few inshore sharks in the North County area are dangerous to humans. The most common sharks in this area are sand sharks, leopard sharks and shovel nose sharks. Most varieties common to shallow waters of Southern California have either no teeth or teeth too small to inflict any damage. Sharks shorter than 6 feet--as most sharks in the region are--are easily frightened away.

Macco sharks and blue sharks, which can be dangerous, are often found in deeper waters, a mile or more from shore. The further out to sea one goes, the more common the dangerous sharks seem to become. Occasionally, great white sharks are seen a mile or more from the shores of North County.

Diving with a mask and snorkel is inexpensive and easily learned by a competent ocean swimmer. Diving with scuba equipment requires special training and is more costly, but it allows for longer and deeper dives. If you intend to go beyond exploration and hunt for fish, a spear gun or pole spear is also needed.

Good snorkeling equipment is available at most dive or sporting goods stores. Mask, fins and snorkel range from about $50 to $200. A pole spear costs from $30 to $60. A spear gun, which is useful for larger fish, costs from $130 to more than $200. Wet suits, needed when water temperatures dip, start at about $100.

The depth that can be comfortably attained without scuba equipment depends on the individual, but generally ranges from 10 to 30 feet. That is more than adequate for most close-to-shore reefs in North County.

In order to observe the deeper regions, including kelp beds, scuba equipment is necessary. Scuba gear allows a diver to stay under water for up to an hour, which is time enough for extended exploration in shallow waters or for going into areas 200 feet deep and beyond.

Scuba certification, typically a four-week course with 30 hours of instruction that costs about $150, is vital to learning safety rules and proper methods of diving. Scuba courses are offered regularly by area colleges, the YMCA and diving shops.

Tanks, sometimes known as cylinders, contain the air vital for breathing beneath the surface. Regulators facilitate the breathing of air off of the tanks. Gauges, sometimes called instruments, reveal how much air is left in the tank, the depth and the time spent below.

Buoyancy compensators (BCs) are necessary for adjusting buoyancy under water.

Scuba-diving gear ranges from $600 to more than $2,500. Equipment can be rented at most dive shops for about $30 a day. Once all of the equipment is obtained, air typically costs $2.50 a refill.

The equipment weighs about 50 pounds on land. In the water, however, it is virtually weightless.

Underwater fishing requires a license, which can be purchased at most dive shops and some local stores for $17. The license allows the taking of designated fish and of lobster when in season. There are legal limits on the size and numbers of most fish caught, and it is the diver's responsibility to know them.

The state Department of Fish and Game strictly enforces these laws. Anyone caught fishing without a license or taking fish that are undersize or protected faces fines of several hundred dollars.

Bass, corbina, perch, croaker and sometimes California halibut are common and good-tasting fish found on most North County reefs and sand bars. The fish come and go with seasons, tides, water temperatures and other variables. Although fish are sometimes plentiful, at other times they are scarce. Early mornings and late evenings are generally considered the best times to see fish. Incoming tides bring fish closer to shore.

Scuba gear is advantageous in hunting for lobster, but the noise created by breathing can scare away some of the more sensitive fish, such as calico bass.

During lobster season, the first Wednesday in October through the first Wednesday after March 15, seven "spiny" lobster may be caught per person. Each lobster must be at least 3 1/4 inches, when measured on the mid-line of the back, from the rear edge of the eye socket to the rear edge of the body shell. Except for commercial lobster fishermen, it is illegal to take lobster by any method other than by hand.

A complaint made by some commercial fishermen that scuba divers are responsible for depleting fish and lobster populations is rebutted by Ray Wolf, manager of the Diving Locker in Solana Beach.

"I am pretty thoroughly convinced that a group of the very best fishermen could not, in their lifetime, come up with what one commercial boat does in one trip out. Spearfishing is an art. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of time," Wolf said.

Burt Kobioshi, a diving and marine biology instructor at UC San Diego, has been diving for more than 30 years. He says interest in diving waxes and wanes.

"A lot of people learned to dive in the early '70s, but the movie 'Jaws' caused a dramatic dip in the industry. In the last two or three years, however, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of people learning to dive," Kobioshi said.

"A lot of people miss out on diving because they are afraid of sharks, but it's very rare to see a dangerous shark," he said. "Diving is very safe and can be learned by nearly anyone."

There are few physical limitations to diving, but being a good ocean swimmer, with an understanding of currents and riptides, is essential. Diving conditions are usually poor when the surf is high, because the waves churn up sand and make the water murky.

Although the summer months produce the warmest water, sometimes in the low 70s, the clearest water in North County is usually found in October and November.

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