Dive Spot: Malaga Cove

Unfortunately, during the late summer through the early fall, occasional tropical storms off Baja kick up large swells that land on south-facing beaches in Southern California. The large surf makes most beach diving difficult, if not impossible.

All is not lost for avid beach divers. When south-facing beaches are getting hit with the southerly swells, where do you head? For a north-facing beach, of course! But where in Southern California do you find a north-facing beach? Only two spots: One is La Jolla Cove and the other Malaga Cove.
The Santa Monica Bay is bordered by a long sweeping sand beach that faces west. At the south end of that beach the shoreline meets the rocky cliffs of Palos Verdes and the shoreline makes a sharp turn west creating a brief stretch of coast that faces north. Much of the winter and into spring this area is open to the prevailing northwest weather, but during the late summer and early fall this cove is protected from south swells, and the northwest weather is usually calm.
Whenever you have a transition zone in the underwater world, you have a bounty of marine life in an interesting variety. Here is where the long sweeping sand flats of the Santa Monica Bay meet the rocky reefs of Palos Verdes. The kelp is thick and extends far to the west over reefs reaching beyond practical swimming distance.
Meet up with your buddies at the top of the bluff across from Malaga Cove School. While there are no facilities here, there is a large free parking area. A gazebo overlook gives a good view of the dive site and prevailing conditions. A short steep path, paved most of the way, begins on your right. It follows down in front of you crossing over a small stream flowing into the ocean. If conditions here look poor, there is the alternate dive site a few miles up the coast at the Redondo Submarine Canyon off Veteran’s Park.
In planning your dive, you should take some things into consideration. First, dive here at high tide. Many of the reef ridges are shallow and surge can be rough. The water clarity will also be better at high tide. Second, you have a choice of entry and exit points. The further to the west (to your left) you enter, the shorter swim, and you will have the better diving–but you will have to enter off the rocks (high tide is a must). I do not recommend exiting over the rocks. Rather, if you start your dive over the rocks, head to the outer edge of the kelp (where the diving is best) and swim underwater toward the sand beach where you can easily exit. Your other option is to simply enter and exit over the sand. The swim to the best diving is a bit farther but entry is generally easier.
As mentioned previously the best diving is on the outer edge of the kelp about 200 yards from the sand beach. Visibility averages 10 to 15 feet but often reaches 25 feet in the fall. Unfortunately, runoff from the nearby stream ruins water clarity during times of rain. Water clarity, by the way, is usually pretty trashed close to shore no matter what.
Depths on the outskirts of the kelp reach about 25 feet. There is no shortage of garibaldi, opaleye, and perch. Urchins, stars are also prolific. On a recent dive a large school of mackerel cruised through. I have seen also schools of small barracuda with their predator right underneath, the giant black sea bass. This is the only place I have ever seen the very shy white sea bass while on scuba, albeit they were quite small. Calico bass inhabit the kelp and across the reef you will see painted greenlings.
This is always a popular dive spot the opening of lobster season. There are several here, but, frankly, most are shorts. For better luck take a long swim, kayak or boat toward nearby Flat Rock Point. By the way, when you find lobster, close behind you will find their predator, the octopus, and they are here hidden in the reef.
Don’t ignore the sand life. Here, you will find small halibut, big bat rays and medium sized angel sharks and guitarfish.
As you cruise on back into the sand beach, stay submerged as long as possible. Even in the shallows you will see round stingrays and thornback rays.
Location: Trail begins at the end of Via Arroyo across from the backside of Malaga Cove School, Palos Verdes Estates.
Access and Entry: Down path that is paved most of the way with choice of rock or sand entry.
Depths: 10 to 25 feet.
Skill Level: All with beach diving skills
Visibility: 10 — 15 feet and up to 25 feet in the fall.
Photography: Fair in the kelp with a wide variety of subjects.
Hunting: A few lobsters, halibut, but most are small.
Hazards: Rock surf entry at low tide not recommended. Thick kelp.
Ocean Conditions: www.surf-forecast.com
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