Catalina’s Best Advanced Dive Sites

Divers often gain their first certification dives at Catalina leading many to think that this place is for beginners only. But there are also advanced sites that will please even seasoned divers.

An “advanced” diver is not always one with that stamp on their certification card. For definition here we will qualify “advanced” as a diver with a minimum of 50 dives (preferably 100) in a variety of situations including strong current, deep (100+ feet) and with proper equipment and knowledge to use it.

FARNSWORTH BANK

This is the best advanced dive at Catalina, perhaps in California. 1.6 miles off the backside are submerged pinnacles in open ocean. The shallowest reaches to within 55 feet of the surface with diving depths averaging 100 feet across the top of the massive main pinnacle. The water is crystal clear and drop-offs monumental descending vertically to 160 feet or more into the abyss. There are deep cuts and valleys in the monolith as well as ledges along the walls. One can make hundreds of dives here and still be thrilled by the grandeur of this Yosemite of the underwater world.

Marine life is prolific and colorful. Huge schools of fish hover over the narrow plateaus with pelagic predators often close behind. Main attraction is the large stands of purple hydrocoral. No other place in California is there more purple coral and it is everywhere. Protected, this slow growing hard coral (although not a true coral) fills the gullies providing an excellent backdrop for photographing garibaldi, treefish, lingcod and other reef fish that are abundant on this spectacular dive.

Cautions: Large swells, currents, vertical drop-off to very deep water. Watch air consumption and buoyancy.

LITTLE FARNSWORTH

In spite of its name, Little Farnsworth actually bears little resemblance
to its big brother. Yes, it is a rocky pinnacle dropping off to deep water but not excessive depths (about 140 at the base). The water is not as clear and marine life quite different. The advantage of this site is it is just off Catalina’s frontside and rarely suffers from rough seas. The currents, however, can be very strong.

The pinnacle is about 120 feet across at its base with a smaller point toward shore and a saddle in between. Under the saddle is an impassible crack from one side to the next. A lot of fish use this area for shelter. Across the tops of the pinnacle are stands of gorgonian, many adorned with parasitic zoanthis anemones making for pale yellow branches extending into the current. Nudibranchs are abundant. This is a great macro photo spot.

Cautions: Currents, difficult anchorage, boat traffic.

VALIANT WRECK

In 1930 this luxury yacht burn and sank just outside of Avalon Harbor. The bow and stern are intact and offer some fantastic exploration and photographic opportunities. The wreck is roughly perpendicular to shore about 100 yards west of Casino Point Underwater Park. Because this is an active mooring area, permission from harbor master is required to dive and will only be granted during the winter when boat traffic is less.

Stern of the wreck peaks out at 60 feet down. You can spend your entire dive at the stern in less than 80 feet and have a enjoyable dive. The metal hull is heavily corroded with abundant holes for fish and light to move in and out. Great wide-angle photo opportunities are abundant.

But for truly excellent wide angle photos head for the bow. The Valiant is upright appearing proudly defiant in spite of three quarters of century on the bottom. The vertical faces are adorned with gorgonia for color. Have a diver pose at the top and head for the bottom off the bow (you’ll be in 100+ feet of water) and shoot up with the sun streaming overhead. Awesome!

And what good would a wreck be without a legend of treasure? After sinking, an insurance claim was filed for $67,000 in diamonds that reportedly went down with the burning hulk. It has never been found. A few catches — 1) insurance fraud is a possibility, 2) somebody may have found it years ago and never reported it (income taxes), 3) it was in pewter jewelry box that likely melted around the jewels during the fire turning the treasure into a non-descript lump on the bottom.

Caution: Boat traffic.

SHIP ROCK DEEP

Ship Rock is a great dive any way you cut it. While certainly not a beginner dive, intermediate or higher divers can have a great dive in 70 feet or less. But for a different experience, head for the base of the rock mountain in 130 feet down. Angel sharks populate the sand nearby. Look for large horn sharks in the rocks. Exotic anemones, rockfish and other animals generally only found in deep water are seen.

Cautions: Depths, current.

JOHNSON’S ROCK PINNACLES

Near the west end of the island is the wash rock known as Johnson’s Rock. A large, shallow (20-60 feet) reef with accompanying kelp forest surrounds the rock. But farther out and to the west are a number of tall rock pinnacles jutting up from deep water. I am aware of two but I have heard there are more. My favorite rises vertically from 140 feet to within 65 of the surface. Another pinnacle, peaking at 75 feet, is immediately adjacent with a saddle between. A large overhang at the saddle leads to a cave with lobster, scallops, aggregating coral, and anemones. This is a wilderness dive unexpected on the frontside of Catalina. Locations of these special reefs are a closely guarded secret and they are difficult to find as the top surface area is quite small and they rise vertically from the deep. Ordinary GPS is not enough. My suggestion: Ride a charter boat that knows the area well.

Cautions: Depth, current. Buoyancy critical on vertical faces.

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