There’s a spot in the Channel Islands that offers a little bit of everything for divers. And by “everything” I mean consistently good underwater visibility — 60 to 80 feet and often over 100 feet — lush kelp forests, a reef with colorful fish life and fascinating marine creatures, arches and tunnels to explore, and at deeper depths, a wall. Oh, and bugs, too. At Pyramid Cove at the south end of San Clemente Island, you can see all this, and probably a couple dozen lobsters, all in a single dive.
Now that I have your mouth watering about this spectacular dive site I do have to tell you that it is not always available for diving. First thing is getting there. San Clemente is one of the outer islands and finding a charter boat trip out there is not always easy and even then it is on a weather-dependant basis. The passage between Catalina Island and San Clemente can sometimes be too rough. Summer is your best bet.
The U.S. Navy controls this island and naval exercises are conducted on a nearly continual basis. Several sections of the waters near the island are closed year-round, others only sporadically. Pyramid Cove is one of those locations. The area onshore from the cove is regularly used for shelling practice (in fact you will see remnants of some of the sacrificial bombing victims ashore). It is because of these sporadic bombardments that the cove will be closed to visitation now and again. A professional skipper on a commercial charter boat will know when entry to the cove is possible. Also, while you are diving Pyramid Cove should you find an unusual metallic object on the bottom do not touch it or bring up. Instead, note its location so Navy divers can check it out and dispose of it properly.
Pyramid Cove gains its name from the pyramid shaped rock at the south end of the cove. There is great diving around this landmark edifice, but strong currents around the point often restrict activities. The area immediately to the west is more protected with dozens of dive sites and excellent conditions.
Most of the more exciting dive sites are those featuring steep or vertical drop offs. The top of Deep Arch starts at about 85 feet with the bottom of the massive arch about 140 feet down. Another arch, simply known as Underwater Arch, while not as large, sits about 75 feet down. Many of the reefs start from breaking the surface as rocks that boil in the swells and then drop steeply in stair steps to over 80 feet finishing up in bright ivory. Inside and Outside Boilers are good examples of this reef formation. Canyons cutting through the reef and deep undercuts and holes make for fun exploration and critter watching.
Lobsters abound. These reefs are pot-marked with caves, small and large, which are ideal hiding spots for bugs. San Clemente Island, however, is known as the “land of the shorts.” The lobsters here, although abundant, are mostly small in size. If you are hunting be persistent and you may eventually come up with a legal-sized meal.
Spearfishing is fair to good. There are many calico bass of legal size but they are quite wary. Bonus for experienced free-diving spearfishers are the big ghost-like white sea bass that hover near the kelp or yellowtail moving through the area at a rapid pace.
Underwater photographers should set up their rigs for wide-angle imaging. The big hit here is the kelp vistas in the clear water with schools of fish and bright orange garibaldi against the beautiful blue-green of the kelp forest. You may even get dive bombed by the resident sea lions. Along the rock walls are fantastic stands of red and golden gorgonian clinging to the drop-offs. Top this off with frequent sightings of the protected giant black sea bass and you have wide-angle photo ops that top any in the Channel Islands. Macro imaging is, however, only fair. There are a limited number of nudibranchs, abalone, and some small reef fish.
As for the kelp forest itself, this is a very fishy dive location. The gatherings of blacksmith, jack mackerel and other small schooling fish are huge. In the kelp and over the reef opaleye, perch, and half-moons hover and feed. Bat rays, leopard and soupfin sharks frequently pass through the stalks of kelp.
Pyramid Cove has over a dozen specific dive spots. With so much to explore, and the fact that this location is not dived as often as nearby Catalina Island, it makes this a favorite destination of many divers and dive charter boats. Live-aboard charter operators offer multi-day dive trips to San Clemente Island during the summer months but they fill up fast so book your spot soon. You will be pleasantly surprised at the incredible diving experiences this island has to offer.
Location: South end of San Clemente Island, the southern most of the eight California Channel Islands.
Access and Entry: Boat only. Going ashore is strictly prohibited. Stay well clear of the island and check online at scisland.org (select “Schedules”) before entering the area. Diving from a professional dive charter boat is recommended.
Skill Level: All levels depending on specific location. Many sites drop off steeply to deep water.
Depths: 20 to 130+ feet but average dive depths are 70 to 80 feet.
Visibility: Excellent. Averages 60 to 80 feet with 100+ feet possible.
Hunting: Many lobster but most are shorts. Fair spearfishing for calico bass, yellowtail and white sea bass.
Photography: Excellent wide-angle kelp vistas and reef scenics.
Hazards: Do not enter cove without checking scisland.org first! Do not touch any questionable object (may be unexploded ordinance). Watch currents. Multiple hazardous reefs make boating for inexperienced skippers dangerous.