When Monterey divers board a charter boat and head south they look forward to clear water and an abundance of the critters that make California diving so spectacular. When conditions are just right, they pass Point Lobos and head south to Big Sur for the most exciting diving along the Central California Coast. One of the best sites along Big Sur coastline is the Diablo Pinnacles.
The Spanish called the area south of Point Lobos “El Paos Grande del Sur” (the big country to the south). This is a very fitting name for one of the world’s most inspiring coastlines with waterfalls that drop onto white sand beaches and naturally sculptured cliffs textured with tunnels, caves, and arches. Diablo is Spanish for “devil,” and was commonly used to name places throughout California. However, this heavenly location is anything but devilish.
The Diablo Pinnacles are a pair of rocks located offshore from the Granite Canyon Bridge. In summer the pinnacles can easily be located by the thick, offshore kelp bed, otherwise you will need a depth finder or GPS to find them. The pinnacles jut up from the bottom to about 20 feet below the surface. This area is a relatively flat rocky plateau that drops off to 90 feet on the inshore side and to over 140 feet on the ocean side. The top of the rock is covered with bull and palm kelp. Along this part of the coastline the dominant kelp is usually giant kelp. However, bull kelp thrives in unprotected reefs where the big storms predictably tear out the more fragile giant kelp.
The rocky top of the pinnacles has numerous small canyons, seemingly carved out of the rock by a giant chisel. The square-sided canyons wind along the rocky plateau until they reach the edge and leave you at a precipice. The canyons are filled with large rose anemones, and large trees of pink and purple hydrocoral are sprinkled about. At most other sites large anemones and hydrocoral are found along walls or on rocky projections where they can most efficiently grab food from the passing current. Here, however, these critters are tucked way back in cracks and canyons and the unprotected rock is either bare or covered in low-profile invertebrate life. The currents and the winter storm swell is so powerful here that these high profile animals can only survive in protected locations on the reef.
Look for small snails and crabs living among the branches of the coral. This is a good spot to photograph chestnut cowries, nudibranchs and decorator crabs. There were not as many nudibranchs here as I would have expected on such a pristine site, however there were hundreds of abalone shells along the canyon bottoms, and quite a few large abalone grazing on kelp. This is sea otter country, so the presence of so many abalones is both surprising and very welcome.
What makes these pinnacles very special is the abundance of large fish. There were thick schools of blue rockfish circling the pinnacle and copper, gopher, black-and-yellow, and rosy rockfish hiding in the cracks of the rock. There were also a great many olive and black rockfish seemingly paired in a synchronized swimming event. As a group these are some of the biggest and fattest rockfish that I have seen for decades. Just for fun a huge, male sheephead swam by and checked me out.
This is one of those sites that you would like to dive every day, but Mother Nature may not always allow it. On those special days when the wind and swell are very low you will not find a better dive site. The predictably best time of year to dive here is during the fall. However, the best conditions are found between winter storms.
The author would like to thank Captain John Freutel and the crew of the Silver Prince for their help in the preparation of this article.
Location: About 2/3 miles offshore of the Granite Canyon Bridge. Those with GPS may find it at 36° 25.957′ N, 121° 55.825′ W.
Access: Boat dive only. Private boats may be launched from the public ramps Monterey Breakwater or between Fisherman’s Wharf and Wharf #2.
Depths: 20 to 140 feet
Visibility: Very good, 20 to 50 feet
Skill level: Intermediate or better
Photography: Great for both macro and wide-angle.
Hunting: Good spearfishing for lingcod and rockfish. Abalone are protected here.
Hazards: Watch for boat traffic, thick kelp and strong currents.