I’ll wager most Central California divers did at least two of their certification dives at the Breakwater. This dive site is the most protected in the Monterey Bay Area and is an ideal spot for open-water certification dives. As diver’s skills improve, most divers migrate away from the Breakwater to find more challenging sites and to avoid the crowds. However, as more and more divers take up underwater photography, the Breakwater is now known for its incredible collection of photogenic marine life. Even within an area that is well known for its excellent macro photography, the Breakwater stands out as one of the best. I recently dived the site after a long hiatus and was happy to find that all of my favorite critters were there in abundance.
The Breakwater sits at the southern end of Cannery Row, an area rich with history. The Coast Guard built the jetty in 1934 at the site of the old Coalinga Oil & Transportation pier, and the jetty extends 200 yards from the end of the pier. San Carlos Beach and Park is to the north of the pier and was formerly the site of the San Carlos Canning Company, which burnt in 1956. The E. B. Gross Canning Company was located just to the north of the San Carlos facility, and the Monterey Bay Inn sits on the north side of San Carlos Beach on the site of the former Enterprise Packing Company.
Divers enter the water from San Carlos Beach on the north (ocean side) of the breakwater. Extending from the beach is a sand bottom that gradually slopes down to a maximum depth of 60 feet along the breakwater. To the left of the Breakwater stretches a rocky patch reef that extends all the way to McAbee Beach. Scuba classes are normally conducted here. Divers will find kelp-covered rocks with an interesting assortment of hermit crabs, small fish, and nudibranchs.
The Breakwater itself was fabricated from large granite blocks that create a labyrinth of small crevices and passageways in which a virtual army of sea creatures can find shelter. Striped shrimp hang on the undersides of rocky ledges and monkeyface pricklebacks peer out of holes. On this recent dive there were a few 9-inch abalones back in cracks that were too small for a sea otter to fit into.
Small shrimp, juvenile abalone, flatworms, a huge variety of nudibranchs, and an assortment of small crabs will make macro photographers think that they are in heaven. Orange cup corals dot many of the rocks and make great photographic subjects. These little corals possess fluorescent pigments in their tissues and cause the rocks to glow orange.
Rockfish and surfperch hang out in the kelp. Living on, and feeding on the kelp itself is an assortment of photogenic subjects, including brilliantly colored blue-ring top snails and bright red kelp crabs.
One of the biggest attractions that the Breakwater has to offer is its large colony of California sea lions. The last half of the breakwater itself is not accessible to people from the wharf and is a favorite hauling-out location of these large and noisy mammals. Sometimes they will stay on the jetty and avoid divers, and at other times they will dive down and check us out. Diving with marine mammals is a delightful experience.
While most sand bottoms are generally uninteresting, this one is dotted with sand dollars, sea pens, and aggregating anemones, many of which have intricately colored radial disks. Translucent tentacles of white, orange, and purple tube-dwelling anemones wave to-and-fro in the surge. Sand-rose anemones are found in deep water near the end of the breakwater. Look for a large anchor in shallow water near the entry as you swim along the breakwater.
There are quite a few rainbow nudibranchs here and they are a real treat to discover. These deep red mollusks are the largest nudibranch found in California waters. They owe their existence to the tube anemones, on which they feed, mate, and lay their eggs. When disturbed, they fly through the water with an undulating motion California Spanish dancer.
So if you have not dived the Breakwater since you were certified, I encourage you to check it out. All of the diver support services you could ever ask for are within an easy walk, and the sea lions and little critters make for a very enjoyable dive.
Location: At the south end of Cannery Row in the City of Monterey.
Access and Facilities: Fee parking is available at the foot of the Coast Guard Pier and in several large parking lots up the hill from the water. The lots fill up quickly in summer and during salmon season, so plan on getting there by 8 AM on weekends. Access is via a short set of concrete stairs and a wide, calm beach. There are restrooms, fee showers, deli, and a free launch ramp.
Depth: 10-60 feet
Visibility: 10-30 feet
Skill Level: Novice to advanced
Visibility: 15 to 30 feet
Hunting: None for divers. The Breakwater is part of the Edward F. Ricketts State Marine Conservation Area, where only recreational take of finfish by hook-and-line is permitted.
Photography: Excellent macro photography as well as good opportunities to photograph sea lions and octopuses. Only get your wide-angle lens wet on exceptionally clear days.
Hazards: Divers should watch for boat traffic. This site is the most protected entry in the Monterey Area.