Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove is one of Anacapa Island’s best dive sites, offering plenty of things to see and photograph, as well as conditions suitable for divers of all experience levels.

Anacapa is the second smallest of the eight Channel Islands (after Santa Barbara) and the one closest to the mainland—only 11 miles offshore. It’s actually three islands: West, Middle and East Anacapa.

Island Packers and Truth Aquatics run land trips to East Anacapa, noted for its frequently photographed Arch Rock and lighthouse. The island is the most beautiful in the spring, when the wild flowers—especially the giant coreopsis—bloom. These marguerite-like plants are only found on some of the islands and in a few coastal areas, and they only bloom for a few weeks each year.

I saw Cathedral Cove for the first time while hiking East Anacapa. From my vantage point high above the water, I was impressed with its calm, clear water. The Cove’s rocky shoreline drops quickly to a 15-foot sandy bottom dotted with rocky structures, some of which break the surface. From there, the sand slopes gently seaward, finally reaching depths below 50 feet several hundred yards from shore.

The Cove is a pretty dive, sheltered from the wind by its location on the north side of the island. Visibility is often outstanding. Kelp grows on the rocks and garibaldi flit here and there among the stipes along with juvenile sheephead and señoritas.

Cathedral Cove is special to me because of two creatures found there: blenny-like fish called sarcastic fringeheads and California sea lions.

Fringeheads live in wavy turban shells partially buried in the sand in water at least 50 feet deep. At first, the shells appear empty. If you’re patient, however, the fish living inside will eventually emerge. Fringeheads have long, tapering brown-red or black bodies that can grow to lengths of 12 inches. Just behind their bulging eyes are small, fleshy appendages called cirri, which resemble minuscule tree branches.

Fringeheads are aggressive, territorial and seemingly fearless. If two take up residence nearby, they will fight until one is banished.

The fight is fascinating. The fish dart at each other, opening their enormous mouths as wide as possible and flaring their fins. These displays can go on for quite a while. Finally, one fish will dart into the other’s shell, grab the hapless victim in its mouth and pull it out of its shell.

As the loser slinks off, the victor moves into the vacated shell, even if it’s a lesser accommodation than the one it just left.

Cathedral Cove is also home to California sea lions that are almost as friendly as those found at Santa Barbara Island. The cove is a great place to photograph them with rocks and kelp as a background.

On a calm, sunny day, I can’t think of a place I’d rather be than underwater, sampling the delights of Cathedral Cove.

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