Local Currents: Get Your Gills Wet


“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.” –Jacques Yves Cousteau


The ocean has to be both the greatest escape and one of the best reset buttons that exists for me. It is an amazing liberating force for the soul. When my wife and I moved to Laguna Beach with our boys over a decade ago, we decided to take full advantage of the wealth of beaches, coves, reefs and surf that are available here.

We love getting our gills wet, and we do it deliberately.

The Pacific Ocean just reached 76 degrees as I was leaving to go to LAX this weekend. We still haven’t had the Brooks Street contest, but the waves have been decent and summer has finally arrived. I hate leaving town when the warm water finally shows up.

Visiting friends ask me, “How many days a week do you surf?” I always tell them the same answer, “I try to get in the water every day that I’m in town, whether it’s surfing, free diving, standup paddling or swimming.” I do it because it keeps me sane.

“The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” inspired me as a child. As a second grader, the aquatic Frenchman and the Calypso motivated me to draw myself scuba diving with a speargun. I even lied about doing it. I was desperate to be a frogman.

Now that I can dive, surf and whatever else comes to mind every day, I do.

Cousteau’s journeys, his adventures and explorations became his narrative of life. He traveled the world in his converted military mine sweeper to help others fall in love with the ocean the way he had.

It worked.

To keep his content fresh, Cousteau had to keep developing the stories and adventures for his viewers at new locations. The best part about Laguna Beach is that it’s easy to stay occupied exploring our variety of local coves, beaches and reefs.

My cousin Dan visited me with his wife and step-daughter from the Bahamas this summer. So my brother, Joel, and I took him free diving out in the kelp forests around the Cress Street reefs to the outer reefs at Brooks Street. Although Dan freedives and spearfishes the waters around Grand Bahama, he was impressed with the display of Laguna’s more temperate sea life.

Fortunately, divers have been planting kelp over the past few years, and we now have large forests growing between Cress and Cleo Streets as well as around Heisler Park. The dense sea plants have created a nursery for diverse aquatic creatures.

At low tide, the new kelp lays flat on the surface and creates an organic ceiling. As you dive down into the dark cavernous forests underneath, your eyes adjust to the shade and you see schools of striped perch, calico bass, bright orange Garibaldi and the occasional bat ray swooping by. We watched a beautiful, four-foot leopard shark cruise the reef, light grey with large dark spots while a chubby little spotted harbor seal observed us.

The real excitement in diving the kelp is finding your way through it. Normally we spot the surface to look for holes that are a reasonable distance to swim to underwater. As you dive into the darkness, part of the fun is looking for the sunlight on the bottom as you pass through the tall stalks of leaf and tendril—it signals the opening on the surface where you get to breathe again.

Last week, we had two friends visiting from Long Island, New York. They kept talking about the beauty of the beaches, ocean and coves we have as we stand up paddled and surfed around town. They kept saying how they want to move to Laguna Beach one day, too.

Cousteau also said, “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.”

If you are lucky enough to live in Laguna Beach, you have an opportunity every day to live an extraordinary life. Share it and be deliberate about getting your gills wet.


David Vanderveen is a Laguna Beach resident, husband, father and energy drink entrepreneur. His email is [email protected].

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