If you have friends visiting from out of town that would enjoy a quick look at what Southern California diving has to offer, consider a trip to Catalina’s Avalon Underwater Park. You’ll find a lush kelp forest, mini-walls, pinnacles, sand flats, even a few small wrecks, and an abundance of marine life. It’ a “sampler platter” of California Channel Islands diving.
Avalon is a delightful and charming small town on Avalon Bay, Catalina Island — the only municipality on any of the Channel Islands.
Catalina is easily accessible by ferry; helicopter service is also available. The Park lies in the shadow of the Casino building on the western end of the bay. A beautiful round art-deco structure, the Casino was built in the late 1920s by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. Surrounded by the sea on three sides, its casino era was short-lived; today it houses a movie theatre and the world’s largest circular ballroom, with a 180-foot (55 m) diameter dance floor.
The approximately two-acre park is roped off, restricting boat access. This area is a no-hunt zone, which accounts for the abundant diver-friendly fish species seen here, including bright orange garibaldi, señoritas, and perch. Even the large, tri-colored male sheephead, usually wary, are welcoming. Large and bold calico bass (a.k.a. kelp bass) are commonly seen, and in late spring and summer, huge black bass cruise the outer edges of the kelp forest.
Before entering, take a moment to check out the lay of the kelp. While usually calm, the area can have strong currents flowing from west to east.
The kelp clearing area directly in front of the stairs is marked by a buoy and is reserved for scuba training. Most divers head east (to the right of the stairs), keeping the reef on their right. Cruise along at 35 feet and you’ll notice a monument to undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau.
At a depth of about 45 feet, you will find a large ridge. Before the Casino was built, rocks were added to make this into a breakwater for the small harbor. This was a natural reef and much of the original structure remains. Nestled in the nooks and crannies you’ll find lots of marine life, including blue-banded gobies.
Further to the east are more reefs with thick, lush and healthy kelp sloping to a sand bottom at 65 to 80 feet. At the extreme outer eastern edge of the park, almost directly under the buoy, is the wreck of the Suejac. The 54-foot long cement-hulled sailboat was driven up on the rocks in 1980 by a storm that punched a massive hole in its hull. The wreck lies bow down with the stern in 65 feet and bow in 95. Resting on her starboard side, the gaping hole points skyward on the port side, for a great wide-angle photo opp.
Directly out from the stairs in about 60 feet of water you’ll fins the remains of a glass-bottom boat. Other small wreckage can be found to the west and east but tend to get moved around in storms. On the outer reaches of the park to the west is the sunken swim platform. This is a great spot for nudibranch photos.
Underwater photographers will find plenty of subjects; carrying a camera into the water is easy here. As with much of the mainland side of Catalina Island, the waters are nearly always calm. Entry is down concrete steps with handrails specifically installed for divers. Water entries are on the right, exit on the left. The stairs can get crowed at times so arrive early. From the end of the stair the water drops off quickly to 10 to 15 feet of water.
In addition to Avalon Underwater Park being a popular dive spot, the town of Avalon is truly a Catalina Island vacation destination. Accommodations range from luxurious resort hotels to delightful cottages. You’ll find great restaurants, spas, shopping and other activities, including one of the world’s most challenging miniature golf courses.
Location: West end of Avalon Bay on Catalina Island in the town of Avalon.
Access and Entry: Down a few steps to the water’s edge into usually calm waters.
Depths: 10 to 100 feet.
Snorkeling: Good but most snorkelers head to Lover’s Cove on east side of Avalon.
Skill: All levels.
Hunting: Not allowed.
Photography: Excellent for wide-angle in kelp vistas, wrecks, and reefs. Small fish and nudibranchs offer macro photo opps.
Notable hazards: None.
Facilities: For air fills and gear rentals, including onsite, call 800-353-0330 or 310-510-3175. Restrooms located in the Casino building. Lockers onsite. Large dive staging area with a few benches.
Official Website: www.catalinachamber.com