Santa Cruz Island is a special place in the Southern California ocean. It is a place of transition. Currents mix, converge and collide here in different ways depending on the season and climatic shifts. What you find at Santa Cruz Island is a mixture of temperate and cold water species of fish and invertebrates. This is the sampler platter of California’s underwater world. Here you see bright orange garibaldi typical to southern warmer waters alongside bright white-spotted rose anemones that you usually only see in waters further to the west and north. Perhaps no more is this mixing pronounced than at Morse Point on the backside of Santa Cruz Island.
The reef system is easy to find; just look for the huge kelp forest to the northwest of Gull Island. This is an extensive reef area and would take dozens of dives just get a sampling of the bottom terrain. An experienced dive charter boat captain will put you on the best areas that have pinnacles, mini-walls and canyons to explore. The reef extends from the shore out to about 70 feet, but the shallows are usually too surgy to explore and the better diving is from about 35 feet and deeper.
While the kelp is thick in spots, there are numerous channels through which the diver can easily pass. Just remember your kelp diving techniques — leave enough air in you tank to return under the kelp canopy and, if necessary, crawl across the top of the kelp canopy, face down with your snorkel in your mouth, and use your arms to push the kelp down in front of you.
The kelp forest and reef support a tremendous amount of life. I especially enjoyed the fish life here. Trying to blend right in with its body that imitates a kelp leaf is the kelpfish. Brightly colored baby sheephead are common in the late summer and fall. Big mama and daddy sheephead are common, too. Another fat fish here is the calico bass. Rockfish seem to be everywhere. And on my last dive here a big torpedo ray showed up, leisurely cruising across the bottom through the kelp stalks. Head off to where the sand meets the reef and you are likely to see a bat ray.
In addition to the convergence and mixing of currents, the proliferation of life is due in part to the fact that this area has now been a Marine Protected Area (MPA) for over seven years. This is yet another example that MPAs work.
Not only are the fish protected but also so are the invertebrates. Slow to recruit and grow, rock scallops have begun to return here. Lobsters are numerous and some are quite large. Protected even longer, before the MPA, are the abalone and if you look carefully under some ledges you may spot a pink abalone or two.
Other invertebrates decorating this reef include big growths of gorgonian sea fans, the occasional brightly colored nudibranch, and sea stars, some quite large. Here you start to see the large gray/purple/blue sunstar generally reserved for cooler waters. On my last dive here I saw one that was nearly three feet across.
Diving close by Gull Island is special treat. The nearby big brother reef at Gull Island often overshadows Morse Point. The dive charter boats will frequently head to Gull Island first for a deeper dive and, if you are lucky, they will make a second dive at nearby Morse Point for a shallower dive. If the skipper does, thank them as your dive will be a memorable one.
Location: Backside of Santa Cruz Island in the Northern California Channel Islands chain. It is marked on most charts. GPS: N33°57.805′, W119°50.963′ (do not use GPS as your sole source of navigation)
Access: Boat only, professional dive charter boats recommended.
Skill Level: All
Depths: 30 to 70 feet.
Visibility: Good, averages 40 feet.
Photography: Very good with multiple subjects for macro and excellent wide-angle scenes in the think, lush kelp.
Hunting: None. This is a Marine Protected Area.
Hazards: Thick kelp. Some currents