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SEA FOR YOURSELF: Thousands of people admire the surface of the Pacific Ocean from La Jolla every day.

Thousands of people admire the surface of the Pacific Ocean from La Jolla every day.

On the terraces of Prospect Street’s elegant restaurants, admirers can gaze out upon the expanse of water stretching away from them as far as Japan and the Asian continent.

Below the gaze of the tourists, kayakers and surfers float and paddle just on top of the water and can look down perhaps a few feet into the depths below them, occasionally spotting the blurred orange glow of a garibaldi fish or the dark glimmer of a calico bass.Thousands of people admire the surface of the Pacific Ocean from La Jolla every day.

On the terraces of Prospect Street’s elegant restaurants, admirers can gaze out upon the expanse of water stretching away from them as far as Japan and the Asian continent. Below the gaze of the tourists, kayakers and surfers float and paddle just on top of the water and can look down perhaps a few feet into the depths below them, occasionally spotting the blurred orange glow of a garibaldi fish or the dark glimmer of a calico bass.

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Further down still from the surfers and boaters, La Jolla’s avid band of swimmers have an even better view of the ocean and the life that swarms within. Through their swim goggles, they can look down perhaps a few dozen feet at the swarms of fish milling below and at the creepers of the kelp plants that rise in every direction.

Hidden from view, however, deep in the water’s cold embrace are the real observers of the ocean, La Jolla’s scuba divers.

“You talk about space travel,” said Chris Schordon, a strapping dive instructor at OEX Dive and Kayak Center in La Jolla Shores. “You want to experience weightlessness. You want to totally change the laws of physics. We live on this world on land, and we have to abide by certain laws of physics. You can change that just by going out into the ocean. You’re going into an alien world. You don’t have to go to space.”

Schordon’s sentiments are echoed by divers who live in La Jolla and those who come here to experience the extraordinary array of ecosystems squeezed in between the Cove and Torrey Pines. Every day, come rain or shine, divers from all over San Diego County and beyond descend on La Jolla to wade out through the shallows to the reefs, kelp beds and canyons off the coast or board dive boats to explore the deeper waters further offshore. These divers form a tightly knit band of enthusiasts akin to the area’s surfers in their zeal and love for their sport.

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Scuba diving - scuba stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus - is a far cry from most water-based sports. A budding diver can’t simply hire diving gear and head out into the water unassisted. Those wishing to rent or buy specialized scuba equipment must first be certified. As such, all of La Jolla’s dive shops are connected to databases they use to check the validity of certificates.

By far the most common body that certifies divers is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, more commonly known as PADI. This organization offers training centers all over the world and has strict guidelines governing the certification of divers from complete beginners to professionals.

Divers may also be trained by other commercial certification bodies or by the military, but Jim Metzger, an instructor and master scuba diver trainer at OEX estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the divers he is acquainted with are PADI-trained.

There are multiple options available to budding scuba divers. Complete beginners can opt to take a very basic training course that will typically involve a training and assessment session followed by a dive in about 25 feet of water alongside an instructor. To go deeper involves much more extensive training, including sessions usually held in a swimming pool and execution of emergency drills and equipment recovery. Certification also requires a minimum of four ocean dives.

Once a diver is fully certified, he or she is free to rent or buy equipment such as breathing regulators, tanks and compressed-air refills, all items not available to non-certified divers. That’s where the real fun starts.

“If you get into diving,” said John Moore, a scuba enthusiast with more than 650 La Jolla dives and who runs www.divebums.com, “you’re just really into it and you’re out there all the time. It’s just such an incredibly cool other environment.”

One of the first things one notices upon entering the water wearing diving equipment is how quickly the cumbersome, heavy gear that until that moment has been hot and uncomfortable soon feels a part of one’s body. The flippers that on land seemed so ridiculous and clumsy now offer a graceful, sweeping movement in the water. The buoyancy control device, with its attached weights and various tubes and gizmos, soon becomes one with the diver, and the mask and regulator or snorkel become the divers’ eyes and mouth.

On the water’s surface, a diver can quite happily float, due to the buoyancy control device, which is akin to a flexible life-preserving vest. The amount of air held within the vest can be increased or decreased by the diver, thus controlling buoyancy. Letting air out of the vest, one begins to sink slowly towards the sea bed. To rise, a button lets the compressed air from the scuba tank into the vest, though this must be done with caution, as too rapid an ascent can be dangerous.

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Underwater, everything changes. The whistling of the wind, the lapping of the waves and the sounds emanating from land are blocked out and are replaced by the Darth Vader-like rasping of the breathing apparatus and the tinkling of escaping air bubbles rushing past.

Not only is the equipment barely noticeable underwater, it is also remarkably non-constricting. While one might think scuba diving involves a lot of paddling and kicking to move around, divers often prefer to simply let the ocean take them where it wants to, especially in relatively shallow water. Even in motion, one barely notices the 7-milimeter wetsuit and heavy oxygen tank.

In this silent world, vision is everything. Divers communicate using hand signals. A hand placed palm down, waving from side to side means emergency. Thumbs down means “let’s head down,” while a thumbs up means “head for the surface.”

The ubiquitous signal used by divers is the “OK” sign, with forefinger and thumb forming an “O.” This can mean anything from “I’m OK, don’t worry,” to “Wow, that’s awesome,” in reference to a sea creature or a particularly interesting piece of underwater scenery.

La Jolla’s nearshore ocean houses a number of environments. In a relatively small area, there are large sandy swathes of sea bed, rocky, sea grass-covered reefs, enormous kelp beds and two large underwater canyons, the La Jolla Canyon and the Scripps Canyon. Beginners can happily hone their skills in the shallow waters of the marine preserve off the Cove and La Jolla Shores, while more experienced divers can access the La Jolla Canyon, which sits directly offshore from La Jolla Shores Beach, or the Scripps Canyon, which runs further north off Black’s Beach.

Metzger said La Jolla Canyon almost seems to have been put there to please divers. “My favorite spot is the canyon, you’ve got a ledge at 45 feet, another at 60, another at 80, 120 and it just gets deep really quick. It’s just a really sweet area.”

Moore has dived at La Jolla Canyon and Scripps Canyon hundreds of times. These days, he is landlocked in Wisconsin, but he wistfully recollects some of his most memorable dives, including watching dozens of soupfin sharks cruise through the kelp beds last summer. A few years ago, he witnessedLa Jolla’s infamous squid run in La Jolla Canyon. Though a squid run has not occurred in San Diego for a few years, Moore said millions of squid would congregate in La Jolla Canyon every year to propagate. A lucky diver could have themselves an awe-inspiring experience.

“The ’95-'96 and ’96-'97 squid runs were both absolutely mind-blowing,” said Moore. “You would go down there and it was like you were in your own National Geographic special.”

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Moore’s account of the squid runs was corroborated by George Spalding, a member of the UCSD Seadeucers scuba diving club, who Moore described as a dive freak. Spalding, who has completed close to 1,000 dives in La Jolla’s canyons, works with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and has a scientific collection permit.

Spalding also has a species of underwater slug named after him - Doriopsilla spaldingi - that he collected on one of his dives. Spalding has ridden on manta rays and whale sharks and has traveled all over the world to dive, but he rates La Jolla’s squid runs as one of his most memorable experiences.

“When the squid run in big numbers, you literally cannot tell bottom from top,” said Spalding. “You are surrounded by squid.”

Schordon of OEX said one of his most amazing dives was in La Jolla Cove when he came face to face with a baby gray whale.

“That was very rare,” he said, “to see something that size in the water and to have it not swim away from me. It was actually curious, because it swam around me probably 10 to 12 times.”

Metzgen is especially a fan of sea lions, which he calls the dogs of the ocean. He recalls being embraced by sea lions and playing with them in the ocean. Metzgen is also a huge fan of diving with sharks.

While Hollywood would have people believe sharks are vicious, evil creatures to be avoided at all costs, divers see sharks in a different light. Moore remembers an anecdote he was told a few years ago.

"(If) you’re on a dive boat and someone yells ‘shark,’ everyone on the boat will throw on their gear and jump in the water. If you’re at a beach with tourists and you yell ‘shark,’ everyone’s going to run out of the water, and it’s the divers that actually know the reality. ... They’re going to jump in the water and go look at it.”

Schordon said the most dangerous animals in the water are humans. He said on the whole, however, scuba diving is not at all dangerous.

“It’s far safer than driving. ...” said Schordon. "(But,) it can be as safe or as dangerous as you make it.”

Generally, the healthier a person is, the easier and safer it is going to be to dive. Metzger said it is also important to check visibility and surf conditions. This is especially important for divers entering the water at La Jolla Shores, which is usually a very calm spot for surf but can occasionally bear the brunt of large swells.

Schordon estimated that nearly all accidents while diving result from diver error. He said equipment failure is rare.

La Jolla’s scuba divers are a passionate, committed bunch. If there is one thing that unites divers it is inquisitiveness. Schordon shuddered at the use of the word “extreme” to describe what he does, He insists there is nothing extreme about it.

“You have to have a love and appreciation of the ocean ...” said Schordon. “You start off like everybody else. As a little kid, you are first introduced to the ocean. You go to the beach one day. Then maybe you start wondering, ‘What’s below me?’ You have to have that natural curiosity about what’s under there.”

Eric Donovan, president of the UCSD Seadeucers, said time at the beach was one of the main things that brought him to La Jolla. He said what attracts him to diving is the feeling he is having a unique experience every time he wades out into the ocean.

“You really just need to get down and dive to experience it,” said Donovan. “It feels like you’re in this world where no one’s ever been before. There’s no manmade stuff. It’s all these weird creatures and you think about it, only 100 feet under the ocean where all the surfers and swimmers are everyday, no one ever really gives a second thought about it.”


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