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Lurking in the Hide Pools

Laguna Labyrinth Allows Scuba Divers to Test Their Skills in Underwater Maze


LAGUNA BEACH — The veteran divers call it the Laguna Labyrinth.

The craggy cliffs that meet the beach in this famed seaside city do not end at the water's edge. Instead, they reach beneath the waves to create robust reefs and, in one cove, a winding maze of tunnels and crevices that are ominous and irresistible to scuba divers.

"I've been diving in the Red Sea, I used to live in Hawaii, I dived in a lot of places--but I've never seen anything like it," said James Jach, 31, a diver from Rancho Santa Margarita. "It's a little hairy if you don't know your way through. But it's a thrill, too."

Another diver, Sally Harrison from Tustin, shakes her head when asked about the maze that sits off the flat, sandy beach at Shaw's Cove. "It's fun, but not the first time," she said.

The labyrinth is only one of the underwater attractions that make Laguna Beach the preeminent dive destination in Orange County. Easy access, vivid sea life and the after-dive attractions among the restaurants and shops near Main Beach draw scuba mavens from across Southern California.

The best diving is in the fall, especially if the Santa Ana winds are gusting, when visibility is highest and the waters "are like a flat pond," said George Vellos, owner of Bottomtime Scuba in Costa Mesa.

Right now, visibility is low. Red tides and weather patterns make the reef waters murky and dense, although the steady parade of Orange County scuba students keeps the coves busy despite the poor show.

But, at its best, the reef rivals Catalina Island and other more publicized dive spots, locals insist.

"Catalina is a full-day deal," Vellos said. "For locals, they can get to Laguna at a reasonable hour in the morning, get in a few dives, and be home with their gear cleaned by noon. It's our backyard, our playground."

A playground rife with sea life. Bold garibaldi, which often charge divers who stray too close to their nests, dash between yellow and brown sea fans swaying with the water.

The bright gold fish are joined by calico bass and, recently, the docile horn shark, with its flat head and twin spikes. The careful eye might also spot the small, iridescent purple and orange body of the sea snail among the rocks.

Visit often enough, and you also might see a local landmark--the "granddaddy" moray eel that has been the talk of locals for years. The creature is said to be anywhere from six to 10 feet long, coiling out of the deep coral recesses.

The total package of nature and access draws scores of divers each weekend to Shaw's Cove, the local hot spot and site many instructors use for classes. Other spots include Diver's Cove and Heisler Park.

A tougher dive, with a more daunting entrance over rocks, awaits more experienced divers at coves off Saint Anns Drive, Cress Street and Cleo Street. These sites, further south, are more of a challenge, but can provide a calm, crowd-free dive for veterans.

For many locals, the allure of Laguna's reefs is strongest at night.

"There's the day-shift sea life and then there's the night-shift sea life," is how Vellos describes it. "It's two different worlds."

Octopuses, eels, lobsters and bat rays are out and about when darkness descends, and the chestnut cowries emerge from their sleeping spots among the reef crevices. At high tide beneath a full moon, the night life underwater rivals the bustling weekend scene on shore.

For Jach, the night dive heightens the adrenaline rush and sense of discovery that drew him into diving five years ago.

"At night it's even more of an adventure," said Jach, marketing manager for an Irvine computer company. "That's when the most wildlife is out and you get more of a sense of escape, too."

Escape of a different sort is on the minds of divers who brave the labyrinth that begins with a craggy opening that leads deep into the reef about 50 yards off shore. A current pushes divers away from the entrance, and they wrestle a bit for handholds to pull themselves in.

Novices and students are advised to dodge the entrance altogether and follow the perimeter of the reef for a picturesque--and safer--tour. And even veteran divers should have a guide with them, locals caution.

Inside the maze, the path narrows and widens and breaks off into different paths. Keep turning left, Jach advises, to find the clear route that delivers divers back to open water. Some can't wait to run the maze again.

"It's like diving into the great unknown," Jach says. "And that's what it's all about."


Diving Laguna

Locals say Orange County's best scuba diving is along Laguna Beach's beaches and coves, which offer a range of challenges for new and experienced divers. Some of the hot spots:

* Shaw's Cove: (also called Santa Ana Cove) Divers love the flat, sandy beach entry here, which allows them to dodge the submerged rocks at other local coves. Also, for experienced divers, this is the gateway to a maze-like underwater cave. Off Fairview Street.

* Diver's Cove: The north end of Heisler Park gives way to this cove, which shares a reef formation with the adjacent Fisherman's Cove. Off Hawthorne Road.

* Cress and Cleo street: These two streets, less than a half mile apart, hit the beach near favored spots for veteran divers who want to escape the crowds at the more popular coves north of Main Beach. The access can be tricky, though, because of underwater rocks.

* When to dive: The best diving is in the fall months, especially if the Santa Ana winds are gusting, when visibility is highest and the waters calm. Currently, visibility is low. Red tides and weather patterns have the reef waters murky and dense.

* To get to Laguna Beach: Exit the San Diego Freeway (405) at Laguna Canyon Road (133), which winds south to the city and its beaches. The Pacific Coast Highway is an alternate route, with access to the city from the north or south.

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