High Education – and Entertainment – at Hopkins Reef

Have you ever thought about diving in a school? No, I’m not talking about being one with the fishes. I’m talking about a real school, with laboratories and classrooms. Well, if you ever dived at Hopkins Reef, off Point Cabrillo, that’s sort of what you’ve done.

There is an extensive reef system directly offshore of the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. Stanford University operates the lab named after one of its co-founders, Timothy Hopkins. Here students and professors have the opportunity to learn more about the ocean and its inhabitants.

The inshore area is a patch reef system with large granite outcroppings interspersed along a sandy bottom. As one gets deeper the bottom drops away in granite steps to 60 feet in the reserve and then to over 90 feet beyond; this area is called Hopkins Deep Reef.

The rocks of the inshore system rise up from the bottom only several feet. While there isn’t a lot of structure here, these rocks are covered with a diverse assortment of invertebrate life. The thick covering of coralline algae and the holdfasts of giant kelp provide shelter to a great many crawly things. Nudibranchs of every color and shape may be found in plain view. Here you will find many of the common and uncommon California dorids, and some outrageous Spanish shawls and horned nudibranchs as well. An assortment of crabs and shrimp hide in crevices in the rocks or among the encrusting algae.

This reef was initially protected in 1931 as a study site for Stanford University and University of California scientists, and in 2007 was given additional protection as a reserve under California Marine Life Protection Act. Thick schools of blue rockfish hang out at the edge of the kelp bed. Many other species of rockfish hide in the kelp, back in cracks, or rest in plane sight on the sand or rock bottom. On a recent dive we found large yellowtail rockfish, kelpfish, cabezon and the occasional lingcod throughout the dive. I was particularly impressed by how approachable the marine life is — they’re accustomed to sharing their home with researchers. Consequently this is a great place for fish watching and for fish portraiture. Within the reserve these fish exhibit a natural curiosity towards divers that is completely absent in areas where they are hunted.

The rocks of Point Cabrillo are a haul out site for a large group of harbor seals. These playful animals will often choose to swim with divers and is it is a special moment, indeed, to peer around a rock and have fuzzy face peer back. If you visit early in the morning, you’ll notice harbor seal moms leave their young onshore while they hunt offshore. These pups are not “abandoned” so observe them form a safe distance and never try to “rescue” them.

Hopkins makes a great winter dive, particularly on those days when the wind is blowing and the seas are churning. The combination of Point Pinos and Point Cabrillo effectively protects this site from all but the most violent of winter storms. For photographers and sightseers this is a great place to find friendly fish and colorful invertebrates.

At-A-Glance

Skill Level: Beginner or better
Location: Offshore of Hopkins Marine Station, Point Cabrillo, in Pacific Grove between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Lover’s Point.
Access: Boats may be launched from the public ramps at Monterey Breakwater or between Fisherman’s Wharf and Wharf #2.
Facilities: None
Entry and Exit: Only boat access
Depth Range: 20 to 90 feet.
Conditions: Generally quite calm.
Visibility: Generally good, 20 to 40 feet.
Photography: Great photography for fish and encrusting invertebrates, fair wide-angle photography on good days.
Hunting: This site is within the Lovers Point-Julia Platt State Marine Reserve and no marine life may be taken.
Cautions: Watch for thick kelp and boat traffic. Anchor outside the study area marked with buoys, to avoid damaging underwater experiments.

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