I stand on the deck of the vision, soaking in the view of the big sur coast when a man wearing dry-suit underwear and ugg boots bumps into me, tossed by a lurch of the boat.
“Come here often?” I laugh. Diving off the coast of big sur is not something anyone does often. There is nowhere to put in a boat south of point lobos or north of morro bay and those dramatic cliffs make getting into the ocean from shore nearly impossible. The vision, run by truth aquatics in santa barbara, motors here rarely and is, for most of us, the only way to dive out here.
“Yep,” he says, introducing himself as jim vandergrift. “I’ve been diving this coast for 30 years.”
I eye him with interest. Truth aquatics began offering trips here 15 years ago. This slight, greying gentleman is a rarely sighted member of a culture of california adventure divers that is nearly extinct.
SCUBA Diving as an Extreme Sport
“What’s the craziest shore entry you’ve ever done?” I ask him, much later. By now, we have enter tain ed each oth er with dive stor i es through several galley meals.
He laughs. “Most people would regard this as foolish,” he says. “But Dennis and I used to dive at a shore entry called Pfeiffer’s Leap.”
Dennis Judson, Vandergrift’s mentor in his early years of Big Sur diving, is on the boat with us hosting a dive party he’d brought aboard. Judson owns Adventure Sports Unlimited (asudot.com) in Santa Cruz and at 70, still dives sites that would scare an athlete a quarter of his age.
In the galley, Judson is mixing cocktails for his guests. Athletic, fit with the years written only on his arthritic hands, he has seen deeper water than most people alive. And even if most of us on the boat didn’t know it, we were diving out here because of him. Vandergrift explains that Pfeiffer’s Leap is south of the falls at Julia Pfeiffer State Park. Have you have seen that stretch of cliff? Now imagine hiking it in a thick wetsuit carrying a SCUBA tank, fins, mask, snorkel and 30-pound weight belt.
“After we got down the path, we had to do some rock climbing to get out a ledge,” he says. “We brought a weighted climbing rope, knotted at inter vals with a carabiner at the bottom. We threw it off a 20-foot drop into the water. Then we geared up and waited for a wave. As soon as a big wave hit the cliff, we jumped. We had to time it so we rode that wave out. You did not want to ride it in and slam into the wall.”
Dropping 20 feet into water with SCUBA gear on is daunting. That’s a higher jump than most boat entr ies, high enough to keep most sane divers dry. A landing at that speed allows no time to stop and fiddle with gear before descending.
“We really punched through the water,” Vandergrift agrees. “ We wer e 2 0 fe et deep before we stopped.”
The diving was worth it, though. There are no sheltered coves off the Big Sur coast but when conditions are right, the diving is fantastic. There are huge schools of fish, hydrocorals and kelp beds—a richness and diversity of life that is hard to find anywhere else on the planet. The visibility can be anywhere from nonexistent to 80 feet.
It Started with Otters
Back in the ’60s, when everyone thought the otter had been driven to extinction by Russian fur hunters, a small pod was sighted hiding out under Bixby Bridge. The rough Big Sur coast had protected them from the hunters. This pod eventually re-inhabited the coast of California. Back then, it was Judson’s job to count them.
“After graduate school, I got a grant to study those otters,” he explains. “I ran around those cliffs, trying to get as close to them as I could.”
Judson didn’t start diving until later. But when he did, he went back to that coastline which he knew intimately and dragged a cadre of adventurous divers with him.
“We were young,” he says. “We jumped off cliffs, carried boats and compressors down mountains, and built saunas on the beach. We loved it. But it was a lot of work.” And he knew there were better sites he couldn’t get to from shore.
Finding a dive site in uncharted territory is an art. A sounding map helps identify places shallow enough. Kelp—which you can see floating on the surface—means there is a reef. But Judson likes to follow red rock fish.
“They love beautiful water,” he says. “So we asked the fisherman where they were.”
The fishermen knew. But getting there was difficult. He needed a dive boat to do it.
Glen Fitzler, the owner of Truth Aquatics, was always looking for uncharted dive sites, Judson knew. But it’s a long run from Santa Barbara to Big Sur. Fitzler could take a boat to Mexico as easily. Judson worked on him, pointing out that Big Sur was an opportunity to dive sites untouched by other humans.
“And when we dive The Vision at Big Sur,” he says, “we are diving places no one has been before.”
To Boldly Dive
“Dennis talked me into diving Big Sur,” laughs Fitzler. “But it wasn’t hard.” This is the kind of thing his operation loves and he took to the task of going where no diver had gone with enthusiasm.
“There are only large-scale charts of that area with very little detail,” he says. So he and Judson cruised around, looking at depth findings, setting anchors and diving.
“Some places Dennis had been on kayak,” says Fitzler. “But mostly we just looked at the fathometer and guessed.”
They found dozens of sites, named them, and put them on the charts. Today The Vision takes tourists, adventurous ones, to those sites. It also keeps discovering new sites. Everyone on this boat was diving sites these two had charted back then.
I asked all three of these oldschool divers to estimate how many people have seen their favorite Big Sur sites. None could give me a precise number but agreed the number is vanishingly low. Their favorite site—deep, covered in hydrocorals, so treacherous it requires perfect conditions—has been seen by far fewer people than have seen the top of Everest.
In a world where there is so little that’s unknown, it is thrilling to look of off our coast and know that out there lies some of the most unexplored territory on the planet. And if you have the skills and gear, it is possible—if not easy—to see it for yourself.