Skill Level: Intermediate or better,
advanced for deep portions.
Location: Southeast end of San Clemente Island, lee side. GPS N32°50.353’, W118°22.118’.
Access: Boat only. Charter boats run to San Clemente Island from Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Pedro, Long Beach and San Diego. Several launch ramps along Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego coast are good for experienced private skippers. Occasionally closed due to US Navy activities.
Entry and Exit: Easy in usually calm waters.
Depth Range: 10 to 130 feet and beyond.
Conditions: Currents common. Watch for occasional strong upwellings.
Visibility: Consistently about 60 feet, often better.
Photography: Wide-angle and macro.
Hunting: Okay for lobster at deep depths. Spearfishing good for experienced free divers.
Cautions: Strong currents.
For some divers, it’s all about visibility. If the water is clear enough, it’s a great dive. While I am inclined to disagree with this attitude, clear water certainly does add to the dive.
Of all the Channel Islands, the island with the best water clarity is San Clemente Island. Even the worst portions of the island at the worst time of year will have visibility in the 20-to 30-foot range. But much of the island averages 40 to 60 feet year-round and other locations in prime time will often exceed 80, even 100 feet of visibility — as good as any tropical diving locale.
One of the best areas for clear water is the leeward side of the south end of the island. Clear oceanic currents sweep down along a steep rocky cliff face cleansing away what little silt there is. Dramatic drop-offs, both ashore and underwater, create spectacular scenery. At a dive spot marked on the charts as Little Flower (a.k.a. Disneyland), a large finger reef extends away from the island into the current-swept waters. Here you’ll find dramatic underwater topography and a mish-mash of marine life.
The reef at first is a shallow rocky shelf 10 to 20 feet deep out to about 80 yards offshore. Just before the bottom drops away vertically, it is covered in various marine algae and inhabited by a variety of marine life, including abundant fish species, bat rays in sand channels, lobster, and visiting harbor seals. The clear water creates a magical environment as you hover over the precipice. The shallows are a fun place to snorkel and great for beginner divers, but pay attention, as this area often has a moderate current running.
From the high point at 15 feet the rock face is near vertical to depths of 130 feet and beyond. There are several small plateaus and ledges. Deep crevices and the rock’s face hold an abundance of life, including sea stars. Brightly colored blue-banded gobies are especially abundant. Look closely and you might see the rare cousin of the blue-banded goby, the zebra goby. Hover along the rock face about halfway down and look up to appreciate the size of the drop-off. Gaze down to spot passing bat rays and maybe even a turtle. Because of the way this side of the island is situated — with the deep ocean blue beyond — you could be also be treated to passing pelagic fish. Remember to look seaward during your dive.
The reef hooks out to sea at one point creating a wall you can tuck in behind to rest from the current. Climb up over the reef extension and drop down the other side to more drop-offs with deep crevices at about 50 feet. They are wide enough to let a diver pass and the light passing through the rock gashes is quite photogenic.
This dive site is excellent for the wide-angle photographer with dramatic rock faces and terrain. Many of the rocks are covered with colorful algae that serve as a backdrop for photos of garibaldi, calico bass, sheephead and more. Invertebrates provide good macro photo ops.
The current becomes challenging as you round the corner to head north. Here the flow impacts the wall full speed and comes off the rock face in swirls. An upwelling can be particularly strong.
While the casual spearfisher might do okay trying to hunt some of the medium sized calico bass, it is best you leave your gun on deck or at home. There is one exception. If you are a highly experienced free-diving shooter you could plug a passing yellowtail.
Lobster hunters might do all right if they poke around the rock piles at the base of the drop-off 90 to 120 feet down. Lobsters are also present on the shallow shelf but most of these are short.
If you are a clear water junky, San Clemente Island is the place for you to have an exciting crystal blue experience.