It was a beautiful fall day, with calm seas, but I had neglected to plan ahead ahead and all of Monterey’s charter dive boats were full, so it was time for a beach dive. Conditions were perfect so we decided to try a spot that is normally too rough to beach dive, and were rewarded with a couple of fantastic dives.
At the very tip of Monterey Bay divers find Point Pinos, a site most often dived from a boat since the beach entries can be a bit tricky. However, on calm days these beaches make for the best beach dives in Monterey Bay. The point was named Punta de los Pinos in 1602 by Vizcano after the huge forest of pine trees that overlook the beach. Over the years this point proved itself to be treacherous to shipping and was marked with a lighthouse in 1854. Even with a lighthouse many ships have come to rest on the jagged offshore rocks, including the Frank H. Buck on May 3, 1924.
The more protected east side entries are boulder-strewn beaches. It is easy to twist an ankle walking across the rocks, and the rocky shallows are difficult to traverse at low tide, so use caution. It is best to dive here at high tide. However, a short walk and short swim will put divers on one of the most interesting shallow reefs in the Monterey Bay.
The bottom drops off gradually in steps to around 60 feet. Divers will find a bit of sand in between large rocks, and most of the marine life is found on the vertical rock faces. Anemones, bryozoans and sponges cover the rocks. A healthy bed of giant kelp covers the surface during the summer and fall.
There were great numbers of nudibranchs here on my last dive. Most were aeolids, including Hilton’s and horned nudibranchs. Most were either mating or laying eggs. Eggs cases were everywhere, promising a healthy crop of nudibranchs for next year.
A great many small fish, mostly sculpins, gobies and greenlings, hide in the nooks-and-crannies of the reef. There are also quite a few large rockfish such as gopher and black-and-yellow, although this site seems to have fewer lingcod and cabezons than surrounding reefs. There is the broken up wreckage of a modern, fiberglass fishing boat at about 45 feet on the outside of the kelp bed. An engine, propeller and pieces of boat are strewn about over a large area.
The entry on the east side of Point Pinos is a small, protected, coarse sand beach. The bottom drops away quickly to about 110 feet as one swims north towards the Point Pinos buoy. The near-shore shallow water is covered with giant and feather boa kelp that is very thick in late season. This gives way to fields of mostly red but some green sea lettuce at about 20 feet. This area has a few nudibranchs and anemones, but is a nursery to thick schools of juvenile rockfish. This type of algae community is uncommon in Monterey and is more typical of what one finds at Southeast Farallon Island.
The area deeper than 50 feet offers the best diving. The reef from here to 100 feet consists of massive rocks that jut up straight off the sand bottom. These ridges run roughly south to north and create a series of straight canyons with steep-sided walls. The rocks are covered with a cornucopia of invertebrates; white-spotted rose anemones, lacy bryozoans, and colorful sponges. There are also more nudibranchs than I have seen for some time in one place. Most either chowing down on bryozoans or hydroids, or laying eggs.
There are quite a few fish here: solitary gopher, black-and-yellow, and schools of blue and black rockfish. There are many kelp greenlings hiding among the kelp fronds. We saw the cutest little lingcod I have ever seen. There was a notable absence of large fish, but the large numbers of juveniles will keep fish watchers and photographers engaged.
You cannot dive Point Pinos every day, but when those wonderful fall days produce flat seas, this is the best beach dive in Monterey Bay. Hunters will be disappointed in this area, but sightseers and photographers will be overwhelmed by both the bottom topography and variety of marine life.
Location: Point Pinos is located at the northern tip of the Monterey Peninsula.
Access and Facilities: Park in the turnout across from the Pacific Grove Golf Links. There is a small beach on the west side that is the most exposed, but is the easiest entry at mid tides. There are several entry points on the east side. All require navigating a boulder-covered beach and a swim through shallow water. The east side is more protected, but is best dived at high tide. Do not attempt at low tide.
Depth: 20 to 110 feet.
Visibility: 15 to 50 feet.
Skill Level: Intermediate on calm days, advanced when the seas are up.
Hunting: To the west of a line drawn between Point Pinos and the offshore buoy is the Asilomar State Marine Reserve where nothing may be taken. To the east of the line is the Pacific Grove State Marine Gardens Marine Conservation Area where only finfish may be taken. Visit www.wildlife.ca.gov for info.
Photography: Great place to photograph nudibranchs as well as other small invertebrates and fish.
Hazards: Look for thick kelp in summer and fall, wind, swell, and boat traffic.