Down, down we dropped into the darkening green-brown waters off Point Loma, one nautical mile straight out from the sewage treatment plant toward the south end of the point. My friend Bill Causee and I had already dived onto the sewage outfall pipe that carries some 190 million gallons of treated wastewater every day from throughout San Diego County and squirts it into the ocean, two and a half miles out, in 210 feet of water. That previous dive, a week before, was to a depth of 50 feet. Today’s dive, on Saturday, September 9, was going to be made just north of the outfall, on Point Loma’s outer shelf, called the Lomas Sea Cliff, which is a jagged drop-off from a rutted plateau 75 feet deep to a flat, sloping, sandy bottom at 115 feet.
As the surface light faded, it became harder to see the white anchor line in the typical Point Loma murk. Visibility was 8 to 12 feet. Bill’s bubbles were a gray smudge I could barely make out, though he was only a few feet below and ahead of me. As usual on a deep dive, the descent seemed to take an excruciatingly long time, and the alloyed sense of anticipation and trepidation solidified as the water turned colder and darker.
We had come to this place for two reasons. First, as sport divers who had completed many excursions for abalone, rock scallops, and fish under the Point Loma kelp canopies, we were curious about these deep ledges outside the kelp bed, which we had never explored. Second, I was working on a story about the sewage outfall, which is at the heart of a complex, acrimonious debate concerning how much, if any, damage San Diego’s sewage dumping has caused off Point Loma and whether the federal government is justified in its requirement that San Diego institute secondary treatment of this wastewater.
Many local scientists and politicians think that the price of a secondary treatment system (at least $1 billion) is not worth the benefit of dumping less organic material out of the end of the pipe. But there’s no question that the sewage plume, called the waste field in technical jargon, has on occasion been carried back into the kelp bed by ocean currents, in violation of state health standards. What effect the increased bacteria counts and sedimentation has had on the kelp beds is debatable. It’s possible that the bacteria and viruses in the plume could make divers sick, but reports of illness among Point Loma divers are rare. Respected scientists claim that all that is needed is an extension of the outfall pipe for another mile or so out to deeper water, a project that would cost about $100 million. As an informal but not unbiased arbiter of this debate, I tended to lean toward the side favoring secondary sewage treatment. As a diver, I went to the deepest place one could safely reach, on the northern edge of the pipe, where the northerly ocean currents could be expected to carry sedimentation and bacteria from the outfall, to find out first-hand what effects the sewage dumping has had on the marine life.
As we hit the bottom at 100 feet and adjusted our face masks, checked pressure gauges, and tried to become oriented to the half-light, my heart sank. I must confess that after a couple of weeks of research, I was convinced that this deep ocean cliff was a desert, with little marine life. Lee Olsen, a former president of the San Diego Council of Divers, had reported seeing slimy organic material in the crannies and ledges here some years ago and had said there was a real lack of diversity of marine life. He attributed that to the presence of the outfall and like many serious divers, was extremely critical of the city’s lack of interest in protecting the kelp beds. Other respected divers had claimed over the years that these cliffs were hurting. And I had talked to a scientist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Professor Paul Dayton, a marine ecologist, who has studied the Point Loma kelp beds for almost 20 years, who concurred, saying these deep reefs were “pretty dead.” But Dayton didn’t attribute that condition to the outfall; he said it was just the way nature was out there, even many miles from the outfall. So Bill and I were expecting a rather depressing dive, and I expected to indict the sewage outfall in my story.
What we found instead on the Lomas Sea Cliff was a profusion of sea life that shocked us both. We moved up-current past the ropey holdfasts of bull kelp – whose huge wafting leaves were visible as dark shapes 30 feet above us. On both sides were boulders the size of small houses, with sheer drop-offs that would satisfy most wall-dive enthusiasts. In the patches of sand between the boulders, small white gobies darted, eyeballed us, and fled under ledges. Various wrasses followed us everywhere. Orange corals were more common here than anywhere else I’ve seen off San Diego. Purple bryozoan hard tack covered many sections of rock. Strange puff-ball sponges, some the size of volleyballs, squatted on the flat surfaces. Fat, sourpussed sculpin harrumphed a few feet away when prodded. Orange-tipped nudibranchs, two –inch long snail-like creatures, were easy to spot, as were their larger, fat, white cousins, the ones with plume-like gills. Finger sponges and beds of tiny strawberry anemones carpeted some depressions. The orange lips of rock scallops smiled from beneath the ledges. China cod, black and yellow treefish, calico bass, halfmoon perch, and female sheepshead abounded. I keep thinking that just over the next boulder we’d drop onto a dead patch of algae or stir up some snotty sludge. Damn, my impassioned plea for secondary sewage treatment to save what was left of Point Loma was fizzing away in each exhalation. This was becoming one of the most interesting dives I’d had in Southern California.