The majority of divers certified in Southern California get their first taste of the ocean’s underwater world at Catalina Island.
Catalina is one of the most heavily dived islands in the world, with good reason. There are over 100 excellent dive sites all around the island, many of them world class. Walls, kelp forests, big animals, macro dives — all make up the collage available to the diver. All skill levels will be pleased here, from novice to the expert. But more than anything else, this island was made for the Beginner diver. A “Beginner” is a diver that has at least a handful of dives outside of the class environment. (a “Novice” is somebody fresh out of a certification class experiencing their first few dives.)
In this article we are going to highlight just a few of Catalina’s excellent beginner dive sites — and Catalina has many. The great thing about these sites is intermediate, advanced, even expert divers return to them time after time and come away smiling.
Three hundred yards off the island, just to the west of the Isthmus, Eagle Reef is far enough from Catalina’s large land mass to give it an edge in water clarity. An almost constant current also adds to the clear water as well as keeping the reef abuzz with activity.
The reef is a series of pinnacles, some coming to within just a few feet of the surface with deep valleys between. While sections of the reef drop off vertically to deep water, it is easy to have a very satisfying dive here averaging at 50-60 feet or less.
The kelp is thick and lush. There are a lot of fish. The mini-walls are covered in invertebrates and this is one of Catalina’s better lobster spots.
The only down side of this spot is the current — at times it can be strong. Keep and eye on the angle of the kelp. If it is laying down, the current is too strong to dive.
BIRD ROCK WALL
Bird Rock is a fun dive and many check out dives take place here on the flat rocky shelf. But just off the northwest corner of the rock is a wall that is fun and beautiful.
Anchor in 20 to 30 feet of water off the west end of the rock. Head due north and the rock bottom will drop off vertically 40 feet straight down. Water clarity is excellent here. Take a moment at the top of the crest and look out into the deep blue sea. Move to the east along the wall and you will find hanging gardens of gorgonians, deep crevices and small caves. The further you move east, the more dramatic the wall becomes. While current can be an issue here hugging the wall keeps you out of the swift water.
BLUE GROTTO CAVERN (a.k.a White Rocks)
Between Blue Cavern Point and the Rock Quarry are cliffs dropping vertically to the water. At one point several house-sized slabs of the island have broken away from the rock and settled on the steep slope underwater, protruding just a few feet above the surface near the cliff. Underwater, at 25 feet, a particularly large slab has come to rest on some big boulders forming a cavern that can hold two or three divers at a time. Inside, gorgonians hang from the ceiling forming a frame at the entrance to the blue-green kelp forest beyond that will take your breath away. Bring a light and at least stick your head in the cavern. Feeling more adventurous? Head into the hole and to the back about 20 feet and there is a vertical chimney that open at the top in about 10 feet of water. For maximum fun, exit this way.
These are great dive sites in their own right, but their main attractions are seasonal, mainly in the warmer months of spring through fall.
Italian Gardens is ground zero for the dramatic comeback of the Giant Black Sea Bass. Starting as early as late April, these huge fish congregate and hang like blimps in the water allowing divers to approach very close. The protected fish vary in size from a yard long to over five feet and weighing in at several hundreds of pounds. Most of the diving with the black sea bass is less than 70 feet. Later in the season as the water warms they head up into as little as 30 feet.
Do you like sharks, especially the harmless ones? Torqua Springs is the place to go during the summer. Two kinds of sharks gather here during the warm water months—leopards and soupfins. Leopard sharks are bottom dwellers that move onto shallow sand and gravel bottom in the summer where it is thought they will breed and/or bear young. They are distinguished by their dark colors and large spots on their backs. Even so, they have a classic shark shape and can be quite large, ranging in size from three to six feet long. They are skittish, so the best way to approach them is very slowly and quietly in the shallow water close to shore.
Seeing soupfin sharks is less likely but very much worth a try. Soupfins are sleek, blue gray in color looking much like their open water cousin the blue shark but with a different shaped tail. Ranging in size from four to six feet they patrol the kelp in constant motion from 10 to 30 feet down. They show no fear of divers, nor are they aggressive toward them. The hardest part about observing these sharks is finding them. The reef at Torqua Springs during the summer is a good place to start. The only other problem is their constant motion. Sometimes you get really lucky and drop into a school of several dozen.
Soupfin and leopard sharks make Torqua Springs a another good choice for beginners during the summer.