TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Diving

Terry diving off Shell BeachKayak Diving for Marine Research on
California's Central Coast

by Marine Biologist Terry Lilley

Photos: Terry Lilley, with help from photographers Sue Sloan and Vince Shay

It was a beautiful fall day at Spooners Cove in Montana de Oro state park located along the coast of Central California. The surf was small and the water clear, which doesn't happen too often along this rugged stretch of coastline. At 60 feet deep I was filming a big lingcod back in a large cave with my new Sony high definition underwater camera.

Wold Eel at Spooners CoveThe lingcod was flanked on one side by a large wolf eel and on the other by two gopher cod. After doing over 200 hours of underwater filming I knew this was going to be an amazing shot. Turning on the LED lights I zoomed in on the lingcod's giant blue green eyes. The world felt like it had come to a standstill: totally silent, looking into the eyes of this ancient creature.

White spotted rose anemoneFilming fish at a remote place by myself at 60 feet deep is like being the first one to walk on the moon! There is just no way to describe it. As a diver I was always told to dive with a partner but this day I could not get anyone to go with me. Actually, filming fish is easier when you are alone, so you do not scare them.

I had been down for 45 minutes and getting cold as the water was only 52 degrees! When the camera lights started shaking all over the place, I knew it was time to go up and get warm. I got the shot of the day and was happy so looked at my compass to figure out what direction to go to get back to my "dive boat".


So far Terry Lilley has documented more marine life than has ever before been studied underwater along the mid-California coastline. His movies have been on five TV shows, a DVD series and are being used by Monterey Bay Aquarium, The Sierra Cub, Surfrider, Reek Check, Save Our Seas, Ships 2 Reef, several well known universities, fishing clubs and dive clubs. You can see more photos here.

The first of five full length videos titled "Central Coast Rockfish" available now at Tom's TopKayaker Shop. You can read Tom's review here. This movie is just stunning and the viewer gets to see most of the common game fish up close and can observe some unusual feeding and behaviors never before documented. Preview below:


As I was swimming back along the bottom to the spot where I had dropped down, I could see something bright blue ahead in the gloomy green water. Nothing natural would be that color. I was confused until I got close enough to see the bright blue object was my kayak lying upside down on the bottom at 60 feet deep!!

Shell Beach Giant Kelp from belowWelcome to kayak scuba diving! I have done over 500 dives off my kayak and have had all kinds of crazy experiences from having a great white shark between me and my kayak to loosing my kayak in the fog, but this situation was a little more difficult to deal with.

I was about one mile off shore with a large kelp bed between myself and land. Swimming to shore was a major effort with a movie camera and 60 pounds of dive gear. It took me about three hours.

I was exhausted, but my work had just begun! I had to drive back to my house some 20 miles away and get several more tanks and my extra kayak.

Lingcod in Shell BeachThen I went back to Spooners, paddled out and dove back down with a spare tank to my sunken kayak. I carried a rope with me that I tied to the kayak above and then tied the other end to the one on the bottom. I put my extra tank in the hull of the sunken boat and turned on the valve to try and pump in enough air to float it to the top.

This whole procedure did not work well at all. After a long time I did get the kayak to the top but it was still half full of water. I then towed it back to shore and eventually got it up on the beach after pumping out the remaining water.

What a day, and I was so tired I barely made it back home!

Nudibranch in Shell BeachWhy would anyone want to kayak scuba dive you may ask? The Coast of San Luis Obispo County is super rugged and I have surfed and fished there for over 20 years. There is a great deal of marine life, from seals and sharks to fish and whales and the scuba diving environment is just stunning!

The problem has been that there were no dive boats in the area and the shore diving is not good due to sediment in the water and waves. I started kayak diving about 6 years ago and have done over 500 dives since then, at over 50 dive sites. Over 100 of those dives have been with my dive buddy Sue who is the only regular female kayak diver I have met and she helps at spotting hard to see creatures and setting up the underwater lighting.

Red club tipped Anemone in Avila BeachI am pretty sure that no human has ever been to many of these dive sites before. Check out the photos on my photo web at www.pbase.com/lilley. Diving off a kayak can be very difficult dealing with wind, waves and marine creatures.

I think that a large sea lion may have sunk my kayak at Spooners Cove trying to jump up on it. They have done this in the past when a great white shark is in the area. I use a 100 foot nylon rope with a large brick on the end as an anchor but sometimes it breaks loose and then you have to swim after the kayak with all your gear. It is also quite difficult getting your gear on and off the kayak if there is any wind and along our coastline it is usually rough! (For diver visibility & anchor suggestions see TopKayaker.net's Kayak Diving Instruction Section)

Green anemone in Avila BeachOn one dive someone called 911 saying there is a loose kayak way outside with no one on it. When I finished my dive and came up I had 2 fire trucks and news vehicles on the shore and the Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol in their boats looking for me! Now they know me quite well and ignore the common 911 calls.

Now to the good stuff! As a biologist I am in heaven kayak diving! I just grab my camera and paddle out to a kelp bed a mile out, drop down and film. It is like going to another planet and there is no one around. Most of my dive sites are very remote and have not been visited by other divers before.

I have seen and filmed new fish species, big sharks, huge lingcod eating other fish, thousands of colorful anemones and nudibranchs and thousands of fish. The marine life is simply not afraid of me since it has never seen a human before. This makes for some stunning movies! In one segment I filmed Sue surrounded by over 100, 15 inch long blue rock fish that she was waving at!

Five years ago I set out to film over 200 known species in their natural habitat and I currently only have four left off that list to film!

If you are an experienced diver and know your dive area really well, then kayak scuba diving is just awesome! I can drive to a spot, launch the kayak, go out for an hour dive, take some video and spear a fish for dinner then be back to work within a few hours. You have no boundaries!

In my DVD series I show the viewer many never before seen sights from insane sponge gardens with every color of the rainbow to 10 foot long wolf eels with huge heads and crooked teeth.

The next few videos I have filmed currently being edited include sharks and rays, flat fish like halibut and flounders, abalone and lobsters, a kelp forest from below, seals and birds underwater and the amazing array of colorful and strange invertebrates.

More Articles:

Invasive Species in Kauai - Fish brought in will cause us to loose all our reef fish in Hanalei and along most of Kauai's coastline within 30 years!

TerryAbout the author:

Terry diving in Shell BeachTerry Lilley is a 1980 graduate of Cal Poly. A career marine biologist, he has photographed, surfed, and studied wildlife around the world and all over the mainland USA and Hawaii, creating movies from the dive footage for schools, government agencies and the public to educate the public about the ocean, including the health of the reefs, health of the marine life, and invasive species like roi, ta'ape and to'au.

Terry currently works with The Hanalei River Heritage Foundation continuing to do daily underwater studies in Kauai with a concentration on the marine life in Hanalei Bay. Catch up with him at Under Water 2 Web - Terry's BLOG including links to his most recent videos and underwater photography.

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