Gaviota/Refugio Vista Point

There are not too many out-of-the-way places anymore. Practically all of the California coastline has been dived and explored underwater. But there are new areas to explore if one is willing to make the effort.

Between Gaviota and Refugio State Parks in Santa Barbara Country is a lonely stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway of high bluffs, deserted beaches and thick kelp forests. Every time I drove down to Los Angeles I wanted to stop and dive here. But the trick was to bypass those bluffs and get to that inviting water below.

Driving down the southbound lane, I pull off near a signpost directing me to Vista Point, a large parking area adjacent to railroad tracks and an abandoned concrete bridge. Scouting ahead, I spot a narrow path leading away from the bluffs and down to the surrounding water below.

Suiting up in the parking lot, I climb up a short slope and traverse the hard, steel tracks. Starting down the dusty path, I slip occasionally on the soft dirt from the weight of a scuba tank and 30 pounds of lead. The slope gradually eases and after climbing over some driftwood logs I stand on the flat, sandy beach I had seen from the road. The day is warm, the ocean clear and I am the only one here.

Entering the calm surf, I snorkel over a series of rocky ledges, past fields of eelgrass and brown feather boas to open water. After a short swim the first strands of kelp come into view and I submerge.

The bottom is atypical of the California marine environment. Kelp plants stretch into the sunlight. Bottom dwelling oarweeds wave to and fro with the current and rock formations have the usual invertebrates. But there was something about this place that felt different. The marine life seemes to be bigger and more numerous here than in other places I’ve explored. Was that because nobody comes to dive here? Did the marine life feel safer to live here than in other places along the coast?

Zigzagging from one kelp plant to another, I encounter several large lingcod, their greenish coloration contrasting the brown algae of the rocks. Seemingly unafraid at my presence, I move in closer with an impunity I hadn’t experienced in other places. While I move into deeper water, elongated señiorita wrasses trail behind me. Between piles of large, flat stones a few good sized abalones peek out from the dark crevices.

On the side of a large boulder, a wall of purple sea urchins cling to the vertical face, a large red urchin breaking up this perfect symmetry. A tiny nudibranch crawls carefully through the sharp spines clearing bits of algae growing on the rocky face. The rays of the afternoon sun gradually dim as a school of purple rockfish moved slowly through the leafy canopy above me. I swim up to join them only to have the school separate and move around me. Only when the last fish has completely passed me do they rejoin back into a school and swim into the darkness of the forest.

At the outer edge of the kelp forest, a flattened boulder rests on some smaller rocks. Parting the heavy brown growth of oarweed along the edge I turn on my underwater light and peer into the dark overhang. Four legal sized lobsters cling to the underside of the boulder, their antennae moving in and out of the narrow beam of light. I move in for a better look and the spiny crustaceans move back into the security of the stone crevice.

With 700 pounds left in my tank, I head for the surface and the swim back to shore. I was so happy about the dive, I didn’t even think about that long climb back up to the road.

Dive Spot At A Glance
Location
: Adjacent to Highway 1 southbound lane, between Gaviota State Park to the North and Refugio State Park to the South. Look for a sign pointing to Vista Point and park off the Highway. Follow the pathway just below the railroad bridge that leads
Access and Entry: Follow the pathway just below the railroad bridge that leads downward toward the beach. This entire coast between the two state parks is wide open for diving. There are many turnouts and pathways leading to different parts of this coastline, so there are many different areas to explore.
Skill Level: Beginner to intermediate.
Depth: Up to 35 feet.
Visibility: Good, up to 20 feet.
Photography: Many excellent subjects from macro to wide angle. Because of the climb up and down the high hill, a light camera rig might be better than a heavy one.
Hunting: Should be no problem with the taking of fish or invertebrates, but check local laws of Santa Barbara Country.
Facilities: Lots of bushes.
Conditions: Best in summer for calm water and better visibility.

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