The Avalon Underwater Park on Catalina Island (a.k.a. Casino Point) is a super place to dive and has grown in popularity by leaps and bounds since they added the steps and hand rails. This summer thousands are expected to visit, several hundred at the same time on some weekend days. In spite of the crowds, it is still a worthwhile place to visit. Make some adjustments to your plans for diving here and your experience will be much more enjoyable.
WHAT TO BRING; WHAT NOT TO BRING
Bring a tarp or a mat to spread out your gear. While this the area is paved, it is gritty and salty. A mat will minimize this mess.
Bring fresh water—lots of it. Fresh water is unavailable. Bring bottled water for drinking and a separate jug of tap water for rinsing between dives.
Don’t bring tanks and weights unless you have to. The van on the point operates 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week during summer months and approximately the same hours on weekends the rest of the year. They rent tanks and weights, other dive gear and provide air fills. Unless you get a taxi, or stay in a hotel in town that provides a shuttle for your gear (a few do), you have to schlep your gear out to the point. It is a paved path and not too hard with wheels but much easier without the heavy stuff.
Put your gear on wheels. If you use a cart separate from your bag, keep in mind Catalina Express now forbids the use of four-wheeled devices.
Bring quarters for the lockers. There have been some thefts at the point recently. Secure gear carefully. Valuables should be put in a locker. I like to use a small waterproof container around my neck in which I carry I.D., C-Card, insurance cards, credit card, a small amount of cash and hotel key (if applicable). Since my camera is usually in my hand when I enter the water, nothing is left behind of relative value. If I do leave behind a cell phone or additional camera equipment, I get a locker.
Don’t bring a spear. Casino Point is a preserve, but what a lot of people do not know is that it’s illegal to carry a spear through the town of Avalon.
ARRIVE EARLY, STAY LATE
It can get crowded on a summer weekend. Lines pile up at both the van and at the stairs into the water. But if you arrive before the van opens, get dressed as much as possible and hit the van just as they open; you will dodge the crowds. Often, there are only a handful of people at the point this time of day. Finish suiting up and it will be smooth sailing into the water.
Early morning is the best time to dive the park anyway. Water is calmer and the crowds of divers have not yet stirred up the bottom. Visibility is at its best. Also, shy marine life will have not yet departed.
Dive number two can be timed around lunch. The other multitude of divers, especially classes, will be getting in the water about the time you get out. Casually rest up and change out your tank (with the rental tanks the van just swaps out full tanks for empties rather than making you wait, another advantage of renting). By the time lunch rolls around the throng has exited the water, and entry will be once again relatively easy.
Three dives? The crowd thins considerably after 2 p.m.
COMMON SENSE; COMMON COURTESY
Life on the steps to the water at Casino Point has gotten to be a complicated affair. Social graces and etiquette must come into play or the system breaks down into a traffic jam on the 10 Freeway at rush hour. The right side of the stairs are for water entry only, left for exit. DO NOT head for the steps unless you are 100 percent ready to go in the water, except your fins. This means air on, mask defogged (do it before hand with the water you brought), and gloves on. Do your pre-dive buddy check BEFORE heading down the steps. Hold on to the hand rails! That is what they are there for. The steps are slippery.
If you have a problem that requires you get out of the water to fix, exit the water and don’t stop to fix your gear until you are completely clear of the steps.
More experienced and sturdy divers have the option of bypassing the crowded stairs completely and entering the water off the rocks (like we did it in the old days before the stairs were built). This is also a good place to teach, learn and practice rocky beach surf entry and exit techniques.
ODDS AND ENDS
There is no lifeguard at Casino Point. There may be other divers underwater and on the surface, but they are not responsible for your safety. While this is generally considered a beginner dive, it is not the place to get in trouble. You are, frankly, safer on a dive-charter boat.
Food is available at the small cafe on the other side of the Casino. Snacks, drinks and water are sold at the van. There are public restrooms on the ground floor on the other side of the Casino. A single public phone is attached to the Casino behind the lockers—an important note as cell phone service is sometimes spotty here. The nearest public showers are about two-thirds of the way back to town alongside the road. A few quarters will get you a few minutes of hot shower.
If you have never been to Casino Point, start planning a trip now. In a very small area you have a beautiful kelp forest, mini-walls on a great reef, and assorted small wrecks. But make it is enjoyable as possible… A diving visit to Avalon is a great mini-vacation, be it one day or an extended weekend (highly recommended).