Although it’s not true in every case, it appears there is some logic behind many of California’s dive site names. The 16th Century Spanish and English explorers named the major headlands and islands. Offshore rocks normally bear the name of the ship that first ran into them. In the absence of surface features, most California sites are either named after the diver who discovered them, or after a prominent feature of the underwater topography. A good example of the latter is The Needle in Carmel Bay.
The Needle is located outside of the diving restricted area of Whaler’s Cove, Point Lobos State Reserve, but this site goes by many names. Tim Doreck of the Monterey Express calls it The Needle. MaryJo Nelson of the Beachhopper II calls it “Half Dome.” Many old timers simply call it “the pinnacle outside of Whalers Cove.” I am not certain when this site was first dived, but it probably happened 30 years ago when Monterey’s charter boats systematically began exploring Carmel Bay.
I believe “The Needle” perfectly describes this site, since this is one of the most slender and vertical of the pinnacles along the Central California Coast. This is a relatively small dive site, and can easily be explored in a single dive. The needle-like structure allows divers to circumnavigate the site twice in a single dive at different depths.
The top of pinnacle begins at about 45 feet and is covered with a thin layer of palm kelp. On the south and west sides the pinnacle drops nearly straight down to about 110 feet. On these sides the rock wall is smooth, vertical and is covered with a thick and vibrantly colored layer of strawberry anemones.
In introductory scuba classes we learned that water absorbs all red sunlight deeper than about 30 feet, yet these walls glow red at depths of 70 to over 100 feet. This is because strawberry anemones absorb the ambient blue light and reemit red light in a process physicists call florescence. If you photograph strawberry anemones with a blue filter over your strobes you will discover just how powerful these florescent pigments are.
On the north and east sides the pinnacle drops off more gradually in a set of wispy spires. The drop off is more gradual on the north side than on the east, and when viewed from the west the pinnacle resembles the face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The smaller spires offer some protection from the currents and swell, and harbor some interesting marine life.
There are quite a few chestnut cowries here, along with small fish species. You will have to look carefully for these since they are tucked into cracks or are hiding among the strawberry anemones. A fair amount of hydrocoral is tucked into the valleys between the spires. Look for crabs and snails that hide among the delicate branches of the coral.
On my last dive I found fewer nudibranchs and large fish than I would expect on such a remote, pristine and otherwise seldom-dived site. There were, however, a number of larger-than-average gopher rockfish, and a huge wolf-eel in a crack at the bottom of the needle in 110 feet of water. Wolf-eels are reclusive animals and normally hide back in deep cracks during the day. Their lairs can be identified by the piles of mollusk and crustacean shells that accumulate nearby. These fish are more closely related to perches than moray eels and really should be named wolf-fishes.
The Needle is an ideal dive site when the spring and summer northwesterly wind and swell are light. It is also a great site in winter when the weather comes out of the south. When conditions are right this is a great spot to “fly” among spectacular spires, which are covered with vibrantly-colored invertebrate life.
Location: About 1/4 mile offshore off Whaler’s Cove in Point Lobos State Reserve. You will need GPS to find it at: 36° 31′ 34.3″ N, 121° 56′ 55.2″ W.
Access and Facilities: Boat access only. Boats may be launched from Stillwater Cove, Monterey Breakwater, or Point Lobos. Divers should make a reservation in advance to launch at Point Lobos. This site is within the Point Lobos Reserve, but not within the diving regulated area.
Depths: 45 to 110 feet.
Skill Level: Intermediate to advanced.
Photography: Great macro and wide-angle photography.
Hunting: This area is part of the Point Lobos State Marine Reserve and hunting is not permitted.
Conditions: This site is deep on the south side of Carmel Bay and is moderately protected from wind and swell. It is a great spot to dive when there is little wind or swell or when the weather is coming out of the south. Divers should watch for currents, boat traffic, and thick kelp.