Diving the Rock: Sutil Island

I don’t know why Sutil is called an island because this popular dive site about 700 yards off Santa Barbara Island looks more like a large, triangular rock. Rising some 300 feet above the ocean’s surface, its steep sides are pocked with caves.

The north side of Sutil is subject to swells and is dived infrequently. The west side is subject to swift currents that could sweep you out to sea and is never dived (at least not by charter boat). Thus, most of the diving is done off the east side of the island in thick kelp forests no deeper than 60 feet and, when it’s very calm, off the sheer face of the south side, which drops below 100 feet and is noted for anemones, nudibranchs and scallops.

When there’s surge is this area, which is often, you want to stay away from the rock and below 40 feet. The underwater topography consists of canyons and ledges. What you see depends upon what you’re looking for.

One calm, sunny day during an El Niño year I dived this site when there was 100-foot visibility. It was beautiful. The sun sparkled down through the thick kelp canopy, orange garibaldi gamboled in front of my camera, and I wanted to stay forever in the 64°F seas.

That was a wide-angle day. But when the visibility is poor or there is surge, you’ll be limited to macro, which is not a bad thing. Since kelp is so abundant, photograph it. Start with the holdfasts and work your way up to the canopy.

 Lots of little critters live in the holdfasts and the blue, purple, pink or red haptera—the “roots”—of the plant are colorful subjects all by themselves.

On and among the haptera look for small brittlestars, seastars, bryozoans, anemones and sponges. Juvenile shrimp and fish live here, too. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll spot a tiny baby abalone or perhaps a kelp gribble. These latter are, according to the book The Amber Forest, “small, whitish pill-bug like crustaceans that chew their way through the haptera, making a series of tunnels.” I’ve never seen a kelp gribble, but you might.

 Purple sea urchins love to munch on kelp, so you’re very likely to see them on and around the holdfasts in the Sutil Island area as well.

As you move up the water column, look for fish (especially giant kelpfish and kelp bass) hiding among the kelp’s stipes and blades and for snails, nudibranchs and flatworms that use these parts of the kelp as mini low- speed highways. You’ll find bryozoans and hydroids growing on the gas filled bladders and the blades, which also harbor tiny amphipods.

Because Sutil has heavy kelp, good navigation and air monitoring skills will ensure you don’t surface in a thick canopy and have to crawl your way back to the boat.

Because of its varied terrain, Sutil Island can be an advanced, intermediate or novice dive—it depends upon the conditions.

P.S. If you see a kelp gribble, let me know!

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