In our humble opinion Bird Rock is among the best dive sites on Catalina Island. The underwater terrain varies from shallow reefs, a steep drop off down a wall, and even an underwater arch. We have been on dive charter boats at Bird Rock with a range of skill levels from certification classes to advanced divers and every body seems to come up smiling.
The west side of the domed rock surface gives away to a gently sloping rock bottom with small ledges. Depending on the season, sometimes there is a kelp forest here. Due to the recent warm water temperatures brought by El Niño, kelp isn’t found here, but you never know — kelp is very fast growing, up to two feet per day. When conditions are favorable, the kelp forest can be thriving in no time.
Close to the rock are shallow areas ideal for snorkeling. Years ago we brought our children here for some of their first underwater experiences. A bit further from the dome the reef spreads out in a gently sloping fashion. The water is nearly always clear, calm and generally without current — perfect conditions for certification classes to work through their skills and at the same time enjoy a good sample of what colorful southern California diving has to offer. A lot of orange garibaldi dance around the rock ledges. Named after a flamboyant 19th century Italian general known for wearing bright orange shirts into battle, the garibaldi is the California State Marine Fish and is fully protected.
Scattered across the reef are thousands of blue-banded gobies. You can’t miss their iridescent colors of blue and red. Ranging from one to three inches in length, they are great for macro photography — if you can just get close enough! It takes patience and good technique.
Experienced divers will want to head over the edge and explore deeper down the wall. Take a moment to peer over the edge into the blue. On a clear water day it can be humbling and impressive to gaze out into the blue and wonder just what could be out there in the deep vast ocean. Our favorite portion of the wall drops vertically from about 20 feet to 70. Further to the east, on the north side of the rock, the wall starts at the surface and does not end until 85 feet with deep undercuts, including one that reaches back 20 feet. In this area you might be lucky enough to find a rare white abalone — the only invertebrate currently on the endangered species list. Should you spot one, do not disturb it, make note of its location, and report it to California Department of Fish and Wildlife marine biologists.
Colorful creatures dot all sections of the wall. As you pass down the precipice, there will be numerous cracks, crevices and cuts into the rock face. Here you will find resident rockfish, painted greenlings, and thousands of brightly colored blue-banded gobies.
There is no shortage of colorful invertebrate life along the wall. Nudibranchs, mainly the violet and orange Spanish shawl, dot the rock ledges, as do colorful pisaster sea stars. Bright pink gorgonians cling to the wall. Under the ledges you will find small clusters of aggregating coral, orange cup coral, and some small scallops.
More to the west the wall breaks up in chunks and boulders. Between some of these chunks are deep crevices and holes where numerous lobsters hunker down. Saying this is a good hunting area for lobster is problematic. The border of a State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) splits right through these reefs and the SMCA prohibits the taking of lobster among other marine life. Err on the side of caution and take nothing here.
Following the reef farther to the west to a depth of about 55 feet will bring you to the underwater arch, which is a great photo opp. A good dive charter boat skipper will be able to pinpoint it for you.
Outward from the wall are scattered boulders and at depths from 60 to 80 feet deep there is often kelp here but it is frequently laid over in the current. Although this dive site is generally not known for its current it can increase as you move farther from the main rock.
Reaching Bird Rock is easy. There are a number of dive charter boats both from the mainland and a few operating out of Avalon. With numerous marinas on the mainland, most with private boat launching facilities, reaching the dive site on your own is a breeze for the experienced skipper.
There are also many excellent alternate dive sites nearby including Isthmus Reef, Ship Rock and Eagle Reef to name just a few. Isthmus Reef is literally just a few hundred yards to the south.
Bird Rock is a multi-faceted Catalina Island gem. We have dived Bird Rock probably a hundred times and never grow weary of it.
Skill Level: All levels, including shallow areas for snorkeling.
Location: A large domed rock just inside Isthmus Harbor, mainland side of Catalina Island. Most diving is done off the west end of the rock. GPS N33°27.144’, W118°29.324’
Access: Boat only. Several charter boats leave from the mainland and a few from Avalon. Public marinas are also on the mainland.
Depth Range: 10 to 90 feet
Conditions: Good to excellent. Currents uncommon except on outer sections.
Visibility: Averaging 40 feet but often over 60.
Photography: Good macro and wide-angle.
Hunting: On the border of a conservation area prohibiting the take of most species. Since this is a popular spot, hunting is discouraged.
Cautions: Boat traffic. Currents on the outer areas usually running from west to east can be strong.