The Monterey and Carmel Bays have a great number of fantastic beach dives. However, most divers tend to visit the more popular sites along the inner Monterey Bay and Southern Carmel Bay, while ignoring some of the more interesting and off-the-beaten-path beaches. One of my favorite, yet seldom visited sites is Butterfly House Beach.
The Butterfly House entry is located on the protected, south side of the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and takes its name from the house with the funky, wing-like roof. This house was built in 1955 from a design by the architect Frank Wynkoop, and is sometimes known as the Sea Gull House. This house is hard to miss as you drive along Scenic Road, and the beach entry is located just to the north of the house.
Butterfly House Cove is relatively long and thin with rocky reefs flanking both sides. These reefs provide considerable protection to the entry point from moderate swell, making it a “diveable” entry on most days.
The beach has a few rocks in the surf line that need to be avoided, and then the bottom gradually drops away from 5 to 15 feet over about 50 yards. This is a pretty area to explore if there is little swell. There is a colorful display of marine algae on the rocks and a host of small crabs, nudibranchs and snails can be found. As the depth increases the low profile algae gives way to feather boa kelp, and then palm kelp.
From the shallow, rocky area the bottom then drops to 40 feet to a rock and sand patch reef. From this point the bottom turns into an enormous rocky ridge that runs perpendicular to shore and nearly due west. This ridge makes navigation a snap since you can easily follow one side of the ridge out, and turn around and head due east back to the beach.
The topography along this ridge is simply spectacular. Huge granite monoliths jut up 15 to 20 feet from the 40- to 60-foot bottom. In some areas you can experience diving among tower-like structures; and in other places the rocks are closer together and create a landscape of valleys, canyons, and small caves. This is a good spot for wide-angle photography, particularly for reef scenes.
What is really impressive with this area is the fish life. There are numerous lingcod sitting on rocky perches. Most of these are rather small, but you might find a big one if you look around. On a recent dive there were a great many fat black-and-yellow rockfish, a large number of brown rockfish, and a few vermilion rockfish. I was particularly impressed with the number, size and coloration of the cabezons we found. The larger ones tended to be big, fat and green, while the smaller ones had a black and white mottled pattern. This is a fish photographer’s heaven, since the fish here are particularly friendly.
The most demanding photographer/sightseer will be happy with the large number of colorful anemones, crabs, and small fishes. There were a fair number of lemon nudibranchs out, but not many of any other variety. Unhappily, there seemed to be a large number of purple sea urchins in the 40 to 50 foot depth range.
Anyone who follows the news this year has heard about the changing sea conditions that have allowed the purple sea urchins to proliferate. There is no better place to witness these changes than at Butterfly House. The shallow water has a very healthy growth of various kinds of algae, a sea urchin’s favorite food. As one goes deeper one finds less kelp and lots of urchins. Around 60 feet there is no kelp and no urchins. I, for one, hope the ocean cools down a bit and the urchins’ predators return and keep them in check.
Those with boats will want to anchor on the offshore side of the extensive kelp bed, and ether dive the kelp bed or explore the deep-water reef offshore of the kelp. But, that’s another story.
So, if you are looking for a comfortable dive site with lots of fish life and stunning topography you should look no further than Butterfly House Beach. It is also a great place to get away from it all. On a recent weekend with fabulous weather, we were the only scuba team to dive there, although there were three freedivers and a paddle boarder.
Skill Level: Intermediate or better
Location: At the intersection of Scenic Road and Stewart Way in Carmel.
Access: Drive west on Rio Road from Hwy. 1, turn left on Santa Lucia, and make a left on Scenic Road. Make a left on Stewart Way, and find legal parking near the intersection. Boats may be launched from public ramps at the Monterey Breakwater or between Fisherman’s Wharf and Wharf #2.
Facilities: Limited parking, but no other facilities.
Entry and Exit: The beach is a short, but steep, walk down a narrow trail just north of Butterfly House. Enter and exit from the small beach. Kayaks may be launched here, but not boats.
Depth Range: 15 to 60 feet.
Conditions: Highly variable.
Visibility: Generally good, 30 to 40 feet.
Photography: Great macro and wide-angle.
Hunting: Within the Carmel Bay State Conservation Area. All invertebrates are protected. Hunting for finfish is permitted; this is one of the best spots to spearfish in Carmel Bay.
Cautions: Watch for rocks in surf line, surge and thick kelp.