Time to make some bubbles and dive into Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area! In this story from Todd Shanklin, Orange Coast District, California State Parks, he describes SCUBA diving in the marine protected area (MPA) adjacent to Crystal Cove State Park.

On July 16th, California State Parks Dive Team Members combined their Public Safety Dive Training with a habitat survey of Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area. Crystal Cove State Park’s Marine Protected Area (MPA) is comprised of 1,150 acres of underwater area and provides undersea explorers the opportunity to experience a rich sample of Eastern Pacific marine life. Led by Dive Team Coordinator Ken Kramer (and taking all necessary COVID-19 precautions), Dive Team members from Orange Coast District made multiple dives working towards new certifications, but the primary mission of the excursion was an attempt to locate a lost underwater rockpile with great historical significance.  Crystal Cove State Park was granted the lease of the underwater area through the State Lands Commission in 1980 due in large part to the existence of a now long lost submerged pile of rocks measuring about 100 yards by 20 yards in 120’ of water off the Historic District of Crystal Cove State Park. Esteemed Marine Biologist Dr. Wheeler North was one of the first scientists to explore this natural reef. Dr. North stressed the importance of these submerged reefs to local flora and fauna and his studies of this reef in particular were instrumental in the granting of the lease and the creation of Crystal Cove State Park’s Marine Conservation Area- hence the dive teams quest to locate it and study it again.

State Park Peace Officer (Lifeguard) Todd Shanklin inspects an empty abalone shell. Shells and rocks are among the things protected by Crystal Cove State Park’s MPA. The shell was carefully returned to the ocean floor.

Starting with a known depth, some latitude and longitude coordinates, and a vague description, the team utilized the bottom sounder and the GPS aboard Surfwatch VII in an attempt to locate the reef in question. They soon thought they had found something promising rising up off the ocean floor. Four dive team members entered the uncharacteristically murky water, but once on the bottom they unfortunately only found 51-degree water, more murk, and a large ball of kelp wrapped around some discarded lobster trap line.

Although unable to find Dr. North’s rockpile on this day, team members made the most of the situation and executed additional shallow habitat survey dives and navigation dives. Using compasses, depth gauges, and kick counts, dive team members practiced their underwater navigation skills. These skills are critical when performing searches and also when mapping underwater cultural resources. While navigating, team members occasionally looked up from their compasses to photograph some of the local inhabitants of the MPA.

Looking into an underwater cave, dive team members were greeted by a nocturnal California Spiny Lobster (Panulirus interruptus) spending its day hunkered down in the safety of its den. Further along, divers disturbed a few of the unmistakable (and grumpy) California State Fish, the brilliantly orange Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus). The males of the species are extremely territorial when guarding their nests. Garibaldi make a thumping sound by grinding their pharyngeal (throat) teeth together. They are a gutsy and gritty fish for their size and will approach intruders much larger than them in an attempt to protect their eggy brood, thumping and charging in an attempt to shoo away the trespasser (or in this case, photographer).

Garibaldi males are extremely territorial when guarding their nests and make a thumping sound by grinding their pharyngeal (throat) teeth together. They are gutsy and gritty fish for their size and will approach intruders much larger than themselves to protect their eggy brood, thumping, and charging to shoo away the trespasser (or in this case, photographer).

The State Parks Dive Team came across a spiny lobster during their survey. Unlike Atlantic lobster, California spiny lobster have no claws. 

Careful inspection of the underwater area might reveal the legally protected and well camouflaged Green Abalone (Haliotis fulgens). The Green Abalone is a marine snail that eats algae and one can often follow their dining history along the denuded line on the rocks they attach to with their powerful foot.  Consistent overfishing led to a shocking decline of this species off the California coast decades ago. Thoughtful management and strict conservation efforts have assisted in the mollusks slow return and the system of MPAs across the State have played a critical role in the continued survival of these species. On this particular dive, besides finding many live abalone, team members also found a number of empty abalone shells on the bottom. These shells were studied to confirm the species- they are identifiable by the number of open siphon holes (Green Abalone usually have 5-7 open holes). All the shells were returned to the ocean floor as Crystal Cove State Parks MPA also protects shells and rocks.

The underwater areas found off California’s State Parks play an important role in both preserving our State’s precious underwater biological resources and providing opportunities for high-quality recreation. The State Park Dive Team is proud to play an important role in the continued management and stewardship of these areas.

We don’t know about you, but this story makes us really want to jump into Crystal Cove and dive with the Garibaldi and California spiny lobster!

All photographs by Nick Milward, State Park Peace Officer-Lifeguard.