|Exiting the water on the swimstep, I breathed a deep sigh, both for a spectacular dive but also one of relief as this was a particularly challenging dive with the strong currents. I was no more on the boat doffing my tank when, to the surprise of both my buddy and I, the boat swung around quickly as the anchor line again went taut but with the bow facing the opposite direction. The current had shifted direction 180 degrees in a matter of moments. I have logged scores of dives on this reef and I often find it's full of surprises.
Strong currents, often viewed as a curse, are actually what make many dives sites exciting and vibrant, as it is with Eagle Reef. Far from the northern shore of Catalina Island, about 600 yards, it is exposed to a steady flow from nutrient rich oceanic currents. The waters are clear and full of life, which means food for the critters on the reef.
Currents here generally flow from west to east, which makes the leading edge of the reef the west end, my personal favorite section. Schools of blacksmith swirl through the thick kelp along with numerous opaleye, perch, señoritas, sheephead, calico bass, and rock wrasse. Then, of course, there are the ubiquitous bright orange garibaldi. Large schools of jack mackerel occasionally draw in yellowtail and even white sea bass, although these are rarely seen by scuba divers.
The rocks themselves are home to what seems like millions of neon colored blue-banded gobies. I think there are probably more here than any other spot on the island. Look closely and you might find their cousin, the much rarer but also colorful zebra goby. Equally beautiful, although admittedly not as striking are an abundance of black-eyed gobies (also known as ghost gobies), island kelpfish and painted greenlings. There are also sedentary rockfish, black and yellow striped treefish, and an occasional lingcod and horn shark. All these reef fish make for excellent macro photography or just general study of textures and colors.
The topography of this reef makes for excellent fun exploration. The reef, approximately 100 yards wide and 400 yards long, is made up a series of peaks and valleys. Vertical ridges mark the drop-offs into the trenches. The highly varied reef makes for great pockets to tuck in out of the currents. If you can, check out the mini-wall on the west end of the reef with its garden of beautiful gorgonian sea fans (not a plant but actually a colony of tiny animals). At one point there is a small wall of bright yellow zoanthid anemones. You'll also find fist-sized clumps of colonial cup coral under the ledges.
Lobster hunter? This is good spot, particularly on the rock piles on the side of the reef that faces the island's shore. Along this shoreline section of the island is an invertebrate preserve. Lobster may not be taken. But Eagle Reef is just outside of this reserve and many wander over to the cracks, crevices and holes during the dark of night. Night is a good time to catch them here as lobsters are nocturnal and move about in the inky blackness.
With all this current, kelp growth is lush and healthy. From the surface it is good gauge of current strength and direction. If the kelp is flat against the bottom, and waving in the "breeze," you might want to consider a different dive site. Remember your current and kelp diving techniques. End your dive as close as possible to the boat but save some extra air in case you have to submerge below the kelp canopy to return. Start your dive up current and always use a current line here behind the boat. Should you find yourself down current, you can then us it to assist in getting back to the boat.
For this dive site, a professional dive charter boat operation is recommended, but if you do take over a private boat anchor carefully and securely, preferable off the west end of the reef. Use extreme caution over the center of the reef and the depth here is only 3-5 feet, depending on the tide. The red buoy marks the east end of the reef.
This dive site is well deserved in its naming. The bald eagle has returned to the island and on a recent visit I was privileged to see a beautiful specimen hover above the reef taking aim at one of the many fish in the water for its dinner.
Location: West of Ship Rock approximately 600 yards offshore from island. East end of reef marked by red buoy. GPS N33°27.678', W118°30.687'.
Access: Boat only.
Depths: 5 to 120 feet.
Skill level: All but only with current experience.
Photography: Excellent macro with lots of small fish on reef and great wide-angle kelp forest vistas, varied bottom and gorgonian.
Hunting: Good for lobster. Yellowtail in the summer. Calico bass but most are too small.
Hazards: Boat traffic. Currents.
Suggested Dive Charter Boats Serving This Area:
Sundiver - (800) 555-9446
Scuba Cat - (800) 353-0330
Sand Dollar - (877) 279-3483
or see the California Scuba Calendar section of this issue for trips to Catalina Island.