If you dive often enough, the ocean occasionally rewards you with truly outstanding diving. We Northern California divers surely know that you cannot always find 100 feet visibility and flat water, but we have learned to appreciate those conditions when they happen. Last fall my buddy and I made our way a bit later than normal towards Monterey. The ocean was mirror-like, there was no wind, and we could dive anywhere we wished—so we headed to Monastery Beach. The parking area was full, but a car pulled out just as we arrived, and just as the sun peeked out behind a blanket of fog. OK, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.
My favorite dive at Monastery is to enter at the far north end of the beach and swim on the surface to the large wash rock. I then descend and head down and west to about 100 feet. I go north along the wall, and slowly work my way south back up the wall, and then east, through the shallow area to the beach.
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 without the marine life. Rock walls are dotted with large Telia anemones, and brightly colored sponges. Divers should watch their depths here, since it is easier to get much deeper than you would like. Take the time to look out into blue water every now and again. You may be rewarded with a glimpse of a large purple jellyfish, a sea lion, a gray whale—or simply nothing at all. Blue water is like that, all or nothing.
On this particular day I was simply stunned by the number and variety of fish. There were lingcod hiding in crevices, cabezons porch sitting on large boulders, and kelpfish gliding amongst the algae. Mostly, I was impressed with the variety of rockfish. There were, of course, the “normal” blue, black, grass and coppers; but there were also a fair number of vermilion, gopher, quillback, and canary rockfish. It was like a who’s who of rockfish. Bear in mind that few of these were worth spearing, but it warmed the cockles of my heart to see so many species in one place. I almost wished I had brought my waterproof fish guide instead of my camera. Well, almost.
The deeper waters were better for fish watching, but the shallows were better for invertebrates. 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. In the shallows also look for encrusting orange and cobalt sponges, sea stars, sea cucumbers, and bryozoans. 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.
Locals call Monastery Beach “The Trench”, because it provides divers access to the Monterey Submarine Canyon. It is also one of the few places where divers can find deep water an easy swim from the beach. Monastery can be rough and dangerous, but on calm days it is one of the best beach dives in Monterey.
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 and no invertebrates may be taken. This area is heavily fished and good-sized fish are scarce. You are better off hunting elsewhere.
Photography: Good macro for nudibranchs and fish portraits, and good wide-angle photography for reef and kelp scenes.
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.