Throughout the world there are dive sites with name recognition. Some are famous for their beauty; others are infamous for their challenging dive conditions—the ones requiring a higher level of skill and comfort to enjoy. And, then there are those that are both beautiful and challenging. Monastery Beach just south of Carmel is one of these.
The Monastery Beach entry is composed of a steep beach, with loose, coarse sand and plunging breakers. The unstable footing and rough, but short, entry requires a bit of skill and confidence to execute. Monastery is a site that you aspire to after your certification dives at the Breakwater or McAbee.
My favorite way to dive Monastery is to enter at the far north end of the beach, and swim on the surface around the kelp bed to the outside of the large wash rock. Then submerge and head down the wall toward the west. The wall between 80 and 130 feet is steep with large boulders, undercuts, caves, and vertical surfaces. This topography makes for an interesting dive even in the absence of marine life. At 120 feet there is a large cave full of red abalone, too deep for otters and too illegal for divers to touch. The rock walls are dotted with large Tealia anemones, and brightly colored sponges. Divers should watch their depths here, since it is easier to get much deeper than you would like. They should take the time to look out into blue water every now and again. They may be rewarded with a glimpse of a large purple jellyfish, a sea lion, or a school of blue rockfish.
I then head north along the wall, and slowly work my way south back up the wall, and then east. Look for lingcod hiding in crevices, cabezons porch sitting on large boulders, and kelpfish gliding amongst the algae. This area is impressive for its variety of rockfish. There are, of course, the “normal” blue, black, grass and coppers, but you should also look for of vermilion, gopher, quillback and canary rockfish.
As I make my way to shallow water and the beach, I prefer not to head directly to the beach, but to take a detour under the kelp bed into the shallow area. Here you will see one of the best collections of invertebrates on the West Coast. A great many species of nudibranchs are found here such as the brightly colored Spanish shawl, the thick-horned aeolid, several species of dendronotids; and, of course, many dorids. Look for nudibranch feeding on bryozoans and hydroids. In the shallows also look for encrusting orange and cobalt sponges, sea stars, and brightly colored red and orange sea cucumbers. This is an extraordinary place for macro photography and sightseeing. Remember all of these critters are under a thick bed of kelp, and you should leave plenty of air to navigate beneath, rather than through, the kelp. Exit where you entered in the lee of the kelp bed.
Monastery Beach has a reputation of being an advanced, challenging site. The trick to diving monastery is to time your entries and exits to quickly get through the short surf zone between the sets of waves. Entries and exits are a bit tricky, but the combination of interesting bottom topography and fascinating marine life make the challenge well worth the effort.
Dive Spot at a Glance:
Location: Along Highway 1 next to the wide beach just south of the Crossroads Shopping Center in Carmel.
Access and Entry: Short walk to the beach. Small inflatable boats and dive boards may be launched from the sand beach on very calm days.
Skill level: Intermediate to advanced, with beach diving skills.
Depths: 20 feet to deeper than you will want to go.
Visibility: 20 to 70 feet.
Hunting: The entire Carmel Bay is an Ecological Reserve (check) and no invertebrates may be taken. This area is heavily fished and good-sized fish are scarce.
Photography: Good macro for nudibranchs and fish portraits, and good wide-angle photography for reef and kelp scenes.
Facilities: Free parking on Hwy. 1. Toilets on the south end of the beach.
Hazards: This beach is very steep with plunging breakers, and unsure footing on coarse sand. Divers can easily get into trouble in the surf line. Enter only from either end of the beach and not from the center. Access to extreme depths only a short swim from shore.