‘When El Niño-driven winter storms hit the California Coast it is best to view the ocean from a long, safe distance. However, the times between storms produce the finest diving of the year. Regardless of El Niño conditions the water temperature in winter is considerably warmer than that found during spring and early summer; and calm, winter days produce the best visibility of the year, often over 80 feet. One of my favorite winter dives is the Carmel Bay site called Fire Rock.
Fire Rock sits south of Pescadero Point at the northern most point of Carmel Bay, and marks the western end of Stillwater Cove. The line between Fire Rock and the tip of Pescadero Point defines a shallow reef. On the lee side of this reef is a protected dive site with lots of marine life that offers a comfortable dive even in a moderate swell.
The area near the rock is a jumble of boulders 15 to 40 feet deep. On calm days these shallow waters are an interesting place to explore for those who enjoy macro photography or looking for tiny invertebrates. The rocks are adorned with a colorful assortment of strawberry anemones, cup corals and sea cucumbers, along with an assortment of crabs, shrimps and little reef fish. Many of the rocks are covered with a layer of encrusting sponges that act as colorful backgrounds for photographers.
There were not many nudibranchs out and about on my last dive, but those I did find were doing interesting things. One was busy laying eggs on a bright orange sponge. Another found itself tucked under the chin of a rather large kelp rockfish. I could not determine the nature of the relationship. Was the rockfish fascinated by the nudibranch’s color? Was it pondering the idea of making an easy meal of the seemingly helpless nudibranch? They are brightly colored to remind predators that nudibranchs are not very good to eat. Maybe this rockfish did not get the memo?
At about 40 feet the bottom falls away in a vertical wall that terminates on a flat rock-and-sand bottom at 80 feet south of Fire Rock and about 60 feet north of the rock. On the wall you will find large, bight red, fish-eating anemones and large sunflower stars. Trees of hydrocoral may be found in deeper waters. Orange cup corals and colorful sponges cover much of the wall. It has been illegal to take invertebrates for some time here and the rock scallops have grown big and fat.
Although I could not find the origin of the name “Fire Rock,” I do know that “Pescadero” is Spanish for “a place where fishing is done.” This is an apt name for this area since a great many fish, and many different species of fish are found here. The rugged bottom offers shelter to many species of rockfish. Large gopher, black-and-yellow, and brown rockfish may be found tucked into their favorite crack or hole. This is a place where you can always find vermilion rockfish. These bright red fish are also known as Pacific red snapper in California fish markets. This is a disingenuous attempt at marketing since red snappers are only found on the East Coast.
In addition to all the small fish and invertebrates the chances are good that you will run into some large creatures as well. Harbor seals will often follow you on your dive, and I have seen thresher sharks here. Ocean sunfish enter the bay in the fall to be cleaned of parasites by the reef fish, and some very large lingcod are common in winter and early spring. This is when the really big fish come up from deep water to mate and guard their nests. Gray whales are often seen near the point as they migrate to and from their feeding grounds in the North Pacific, and mating/calving lagoons of Baja.
This is a perfect spot to dive when the swell is up since the steep wall protects divers from the northwesterly swell. The shallowest areas should only be dived when the ocean is calm. Either way this a great place for beginner and experienced divers to enjoy Monterey’s diverse marine life.
Skill Level: All levels
Location: Offshore of Pescadero Point at the north end of Carmel Bay at 36° 33.556’ N, 121° 56.975’ W.
Access: Boats may be launched from the public ramps at Monterey Breakwater or between Fisherman’s Wharf and Wharf #2.
Entry and Exit: Only boat access
Depth Range: 15 to 80 feet
Conditions: Predictably very calm
Visibility: 20 to 40 feet
Photography: Great macro and fish photography. Great wide-angle photography of anemones when the visibility is good.
Hunting: This site is within the Carmel Bay State Marine Conservation Area. No invertebrates may be taken; spearfishing is permitted, but discouraged.
Cautions: Watch surge and boat traffic.