Flipper ... Is That You?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Vacation Special, August 1997
 D I V I N G   T H E   C H A N N E L   I S L A N D S  

Flipper ... Is That You?

North mixes with tropics in the Channel Islands' underwater bizarro world.
By Peter Taylor

August 24
Barnegat Bay Crab Race and Festival
Seaside Heights, New Jersey
Crabs vie for a chance to compete in the nationals in Maryland on the 30th; losers get steamed and eaten. 908-349-0220.
August 29-31
On the Waterfront
Rockford, Illinois
Rock, jazz, country, and rap on the banks of the Rock River; lucky boaters can listen to faux Elvises from their decks. 815-968-5600.
August 29-31
Windjammer Weekend
Camden, Maine
'Jammer water parade, plus a lobster crate race on the Atlantic. 207-236-4404.
Suspended 40 feet beneath the surface. Visibility, maybe five body-lengths. Kicking in slow motion through a forest of kelp. Enormous, sinuous stalks, some nearly 200 feet long, rise from the sea floor and grope for light.

To the right, a large, dark shape lingers, barely discernible in the green murk. Consider the possibilities. It's not a curious sea lion, or it would've already stormed your face mask. A great white shark would make great bar-stool fodder, but those are thin odds; people dive southern California for decades without even glimpsing one. Charlie the Tuna? Easy, man; don't lose your grip here.

Whatever it is, it's approaching. The other divers seem to have vanished. But then, adrenaline surges and otherworldly ambience are the draw in the Channel Islands, less a Disneyesque reef dive than a bushwhack through the jungle. Warm and cold currents collide here, attracting a through-the-looking-glass collection of species that rarely lurk in the same circles. Other kelp forests grow up north, and some of the same fish, invertebrates, and mammals swim farther south, but only here do they mingle.

At last, the behemoth emerges from the soup: a giant sea bass longer than you, bulkier than you (maybe two or three hundred pounds), and probably tastier, too. Gargantuan up close but a runt among its peers. Its world-record forebear, weighing in at almost 600, succumbed to a hook near Anacapa Island in the sixties. Mouth gaping and eyes bulging, this one circles around and then back for a second pass —unusual for a fish —before it slips away into the gloom. The pulse gradually slows.

Nights later come the surreal dreams, of hulking, amorphous creatures seen only out of the corner of the eye. And in the morning, musings about the ones that choose not to be seen at all.

W A T E R I N G   P L A C E S
Scott Shipley, two-time World Cup champion whitewater-slalom kayaker.

"To relax after the Olympics last summer, I went to Skookumchuck Narrows in British Columbia. You catch a 7 a.m. ferry from North Vancouver to the Sunshine Coast —a phenomenal wilderness area of massive fjords with waterfalls tumbling to the sea. Then you paddle upstream to the Narrows. If you time it just right you catch the start of a four- to five-hour tide, roaring in through Skookumchuck Inlet. The tide kicks up a really fast wave —12 to 15 knots —that stretches across the mouth of the channel. You can get eight or ten people up surfing at the same time, next to Canada geese and harbor seals, who chill out between rides by bobbing in the holes like corks. And the water's so thick with starfish, you could almost scoop 'em up and decorate your boat with them."

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