Those of us who started diving several decades ago reminisce about the old days, and rarely are the new days better than our memories of the past. However, on a recent dive in Carmel Bay I was elated to see that the oceans are not only holding their own, they are getting better. On this recent dive off Monastery Beach I saw more and bigger fish in one place than I have ever seen along the Central California Coast, even more than in the “good old days.”
Monastery Beach is located right along Highway 1 and just south of Carmel. It is officially called Carmel River Beach, but divers have called it Monastery for decades because a working monastery overlooks the beach. This beach offers two distinctive dive sites. The south side offers a relaxing dive in relative shallow water, while the north side offers direct access to the Monterey Trench and extreme depths, only a short swim off the beach.
The offshore wash rock off the north end of the beach is a good marker to describe the site. To the north of the wash rock the bottom drops off in a nearly vertical wall. The rock wall descends several hundred feet in a series of giant steps punctuated with enormous boulders. To the south and west of the wash rock the bottom is mostly sand and drops off at a gentler rate, although extreme depths can also be reached here. There are rocky outcroppings along the sand slope that are covered with marine life. Inshore of the wash is one of the prettiest shallow water dives in all of Central California.
I now think of Monastery Beach as the “Texas” of Monterey dive sites –everything here seems to be bigger. Along the wall to the north of the wash rock we encountered more than a dozen large lingcod. In the old days it was common to see one or two large lingcod on a dive, but never a dozen. There were also several huge vermillion rockfish (also called red snapper) and bigger-than-normal gopher and kelp rockfish.
These fish are growing fat on huge schools of juvenile rockfish and señoritas. There were many thousands of tiny blue and vermillion rockfish and numerous species that I was unable to identify. Some lingcod rested on the bottom waiting for dinner to swim by. Others hung vertically in the water column within the school of juvenile fish, and gobbled up the ones that wandered too close. This was my first time to observe this behavior.
Even the invertebrates seemed to be particularly enormous here, from the fish-eating anemones to the gumboot chitons. There was also a pair of clown nudibranchs that were far larger than they normally get. David Behrens in his book Pacific Coast Nudibranchs says they get to 70 mm; two of the individuals we saw were over 100 mm.
After enjoying the depths of the trench and the enormity of the marine life the shallow reef inshore of the wash rock offers a perfect place to safely end your dive. 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 many dorids. In the shallows also look for encrusting orange and cobalt sponges, sea stars, and brightly colored red and orange sea cucumbers. 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.
Now that Monastery Beach is part of a reserve the fish life is even better than the “good old days.” However, the beach is notable not only for its superb diving, but also for the difficulty of the entries and exits here. It is sometimes called “Mortuary Beach” because of the number of divers and beach goers who have met their end here. Please read the hazards section in the sidebar, and dive here for the first time with someone experienced with the site.
Location: Just south of Carmel on Highway 1.
Access and Facilities: There is street parking along the beach. On weekends and holidays the parking fills up fast so get there before 9 AM. There is a restroom on the south end of the beach.
Depth: 10 feet to deeper than you want to go.
Visibility: 10 to 70 feet
Skill Level: Advanced only; see hazards.
Hunting: This site is within the Point Lobos State Marine Reserve. All hunting is prohibited.
Photography: Great macro photography even on days when the visibility is poor. Great wide-angle photography of reef scenes when visibility is better.
Hazards: Watch for thick kelp, surge and surf. This is a particularly dangerous entry and exit due to the steep beach with coarse sand that produces large, plunging breakers and unstable footing. Enter and exit only at the extreme ends of the beach. Divers need to have the skill and comfort level to quickly traverse the short, but formidable surf zone.