Eddie Kisfaludy stood balanced at the back of an alarmingly small motor boat bouncing over the waves of La Jolla Bay, like it was no big deal, this Olympic balancing, even as I leaned over the side to throw up.
This should not be considered the fault of Eddie, who had kindly taken me out to show me some of San Diego's finer and less-well-known dive sites. If my stomach couldn't handle the waves, well, I wasn't the first, nor will I be the last, to pitch my breakfast into the briny deep.
Eddie, though, hasn't had such an incident in years. A lifelong San Diegan and water rat, he's more comfortable on the water than he is on land.
'The ocean kept me out of trouble,' he said. 'While my friends were messing with cars and graffiti, I was out here.'
Technically, Eddie is a marine technician at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but he's known to the faculty and grad students as 'the collector.' As in: 'Eddie, go collect me some samples!' So, about twice a week he lowers his boat from the Scripps Pier in La Jolla and rides out to net, bottle or clip whatever it is the scientists need. To get this gig he volunteered part-time at the Birch Aquarium while in high school, then embarked on a part-time apprenticeship with the previous collector while he was in college. In 2000, the old guy retired, and Eddie took over the job. During his off time, he dives, surfs and snorkels. When it comes to diving in San Diego, he knows the where it's at.
Take the Cabezon Cruiser, for one. About 70 feet down near Scripps, this 16-foot water-ski boat sunk around 10 years ago. Besides the sheer joy of exploring a wreck (hey, they can't all be 18th-century pirate vessels), a scuba diver will see cabezon, halibut, gulf grouper and sheephead.
But that's not Eddie's favorite spot. He turned the boat north and took us among the cliffs north of the pier, past the famed Mushroom House to a spot near Box Canyon. Go out about 200 feet from the beach and the beach ends in a cliff that marks the start of Scripps Submarine Canyon. Floating underwater along the wall of that canyon 'is about as close as you can come to being an astronaut,' Eddie said.
He steered our boat south from there over the chop, letting the engine run fast and loud as he took us in the direction of the La Jolla Caves. Before we got there, he pulled us up at a seemingly random part of the ocean, known to divers as 'The Marine Room,' so named because it's about 300 yards straight out to sea from the Marine Room restaurant. Because the ocean waves bounce off the canyon north of these beaches, the water here is remarkably calm, making it a perfect spot for a type of flowering marine grass called Zostra. Eddie said it's the only place in San Diego you can see it. You can also see invertebrates in their more youthful stages and pregnant leopard sharks (don't worry, leopard sharks are ground feeders-they can't hurt you).
Later, he took me out to Quast Rock, which rises 20 feet from the seabed and provides a protected spot for a colorful array of sea anemones, sponges and other invertebrates.
But first he took us near the network of caves known as The Clamshell to locals. It's a fine place to snorkel-you can swim in and out of the caves and see many different kinds of fish, including the bright orange Garibaldi and the rare black sea bass. But for Eddie, the high rocks have a more sentimental feel.
'When I was a kid, they didn't have all this fencing,' he said, gesturing toward the rail fence above our heads, 'and we used to jump off these cliffs. We named all these jumps.'
The lifeguards forbid jumping off the cliffs these days, so Bear Claw, Double Bear Claw, Dead Man's Leap, Thread the Needle and Washing Machine are empty and bereft of swimmers. But Eddie still recommends it, even if you need a kayak to get there.
'It's the best snorkeling in San Diego,' he said.
Sheltered near the caves, Eddie took a moment to talk to me about places we wouldn't see. In Mission Bay, he recommends diving off Mission Point.
'Everyone thinks it's a cesspool, but as long as you wait at least 72 hours after a rain, there's some interesting stuff down there,' he said. And he mentioned Wreck Alley, off Pacific Beach, famous for wrecks of a Canadian destroyer and some other boats about 100 feet down.
On our way out to sea to do some actual collecting, he gestured to a buoy that marks a good spot to find soupfin shark, near the north end of the La Jolla kelp forest. He calls it 'the llama buoy.'
'There used to be this guy in La Jolla who kept a llama and a dog. The beach has a no-dogs rule, but it doesn't say anything about llamas, so he'd walk it on the beach, and take it around town. It would eat people's roses, but he was a really friendly guy and people didn't make a big deal.' Eddie paused. 'But then one day he put the llama in a friend's yard, swam out here, dove down and handcuffed himself to the buoy chain and killed himself.'
Eddie paused again, looking very much the wind-bitten sailor spinning a yarn for a landlubber.
But he didn't crack a smile as he revved up the engine and took us out to sea.
Experienced divers should check out www.divebums.com for advice on good spots and a community of like-minded folks. Intermediate divers will want to use one of the many scuba tours, like the one through Scuba San Diego. The cheapest certification programs for beginners are usually through community extension programs at SDSU and UCSD, but there are many options in the area. Google 'scuba San Diego' and pick any of the many reputable companies. Prices for certification range between $195 and $395.