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THE OTHER ORANGE: Surfing may be king...

THE OTHER ORANGE: Surfing may be king in Orange County, but it’s also a major home for scuba diving. The Professional Assn. of Dive Instructors in Santa Ana is the largest of its kind. And scuba divers say local coastal waters have good visibility and are great for diving, “especially between Laguna Beach and Dana Point,” says veteran diver Chuck Mitchell of Newport Beach. . . . “One of the nicest dives is Reef Point by El Morro. It’s spectacular, with a lot of overhangs, rock formations, garibaldi and soft corals.”

BUT NO SHANGRI-LA: But the county’s best scuba diving days are gone, the older divers say. Ron Merker, 63, owner of a Newport Beach dive shop, points out that Crystal Cove State Park was once known by scuba divers as “Shangri-La,” because of its incredible underwater beauty: “You’d look back and 20 fish would be following along behind you.” . . . Diver Mitchell says of the 1950s: “If you felt like abalone or lobster for dinner, you could get all you needed on one scuba dive. You could see giant black sea bass off Laguna Beach weighing 250 pounds.”

FISH TALES: How old is too old to scuba dive? Wheeler North of Corona del Mar is still diving at 73. . . . He’s seen a mighty fish or two since he started in 1949. Says North, whose doctorate is in oceanography: “I’ve dived three times with killer whales. . . . A blue shark came up to me once and I bumped him on the nose with my camera. He went away. I’ve been lucky.” Another day: He was 65 feet down off La Jolla when the area was hit by a tsunami, generated by a Chilean earthquake.

UNDERWATER PARK? Ever heard of an underwater trails system? Crystal Cove State Park field ranger Kirk Marshall has one plodding through for state and local agency approval. . . . His plan would allow divers to follow yellow polypropylene ropes from one submerged rock formation to another off Reef Point. He has gathered most of the materials--including a dozen 125-pound concrete fish to anchor the ropes. . . . Says Marshall: “In a very short time, those fish will become encrusted by mollusks, barnacles, limpids and mussels. I figure that’s better than an old tire full of cement.”

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