Of the eight California Channel Islands, San Clemente is my favorite. True, it’s a five-to six-hour boat trip one way but it’s worth the time. The water is consistently clear here and, since Clemente is the southernmost of the islands, it’s usually warmer as well.
There’s plenty of diversity and sites suitable for all levels of divers, from novice to advanced. You can visit wrecks (the Butler, Gregory, Koka), deep reefs (Castle Rock) and even walls (Little Flower, Fish Hook). There are caverns, too, (Swiss Cheese) and purple hydrocoral (Coral Gardens, Castle Rock).
Lobsters are especially abundant off Clemente, which has been dubbed “the nursery,” because so many of the crustaceans found here are shorts.
Moray eels are also numerous. It is thought the larvae hatch in the warm waters off Baja Mexico and drift north on the currents.
On nearly every trip I’ve made here in the past few years, someone has seen a black sea bass. I glimpsed a juvenile (actually the tail of one) several years ago but have not yet encountered an adult fish. But the idea that it could happen is exciting.
Twenty-one miles long and two to four miles wide, Clemente is the fourth largest Channel Island, smaller than Santa Cruz, Santa Catalina and Santa Rosa, but larger than San Miguel, San Nicolas, Anacapa and Santa Barbara. It is 41 miles from the mainland; 21 miles south of Catalina. San Clemente is owned by the U.S. Government and administered by the U.S. Navy. There’s a military base on it and every time I visit, a new structure seems to have been added to it.
Clemente is one of only two Channel Islands (San Nicolas is the other) I haven’t toured by land. It isn’t open to the public. I have, however,
dived here extensively.
The Boilers is one of the island’s prettiest sites. Here, a canyon leading to deep water offers walls festooned with gorgonians.
One of my favorites is Little Flower. Boats anchor in a sandy area, but if you swim toward open water you’ll come to a rocky wall. Its numerous crevices bristle with lobster antennae and are crowded with moray eels. Twin Caves and Fish Hook also feature walls. In August of 1998, I found a Panamic arrowcrab at Twin Caves (named for a formation on land), sharing a den with a small green moray. That was a warm water “El Niño” year and the crab was a visitor from Mexico.
In the sandy area at Hawk Reef I photographed a baby bat ray. And last summer I came across a pair of mating octopus at Block House. I saw one, then noticed a tentacle snaking down to a second animal. Both cephalopods remained motionless, with their eyes closed, oblivious to the flashes from my strobe.
Various branches of the military use Clemente for training exercises and occasionally it is closed for war games. Shell casings and other remnants of these activities can be found on the ocean bottom. The U.S.S. John C. Butler was blown apart by UDT and SEAL teams. The stern of the destroyer escort still lies in 70 feet of water in Northwest Harbor, but the bow was towed to deeper water and sunk.
Also in Northwest Harbor is what’s left of the Koka, a 156-foot long Navy tug that ran aground in heavy fog in 1937. It, too, was used for practice demolition. The remains are scattered from the shore to water no deeper than 15 feet but only sharp eyes will find them. (Look for shapes not ordinarily found in nature.)
The Fletcher class destroyer U.S.S. Gregory, 376 feet long, was also blown apart by UDT and SEAL teams. What’s left of her lies on the shore and close to it between Lost Point and Mail Point.
I’ve never minded the relatively long trip home from Clemente (divers sleep on the way out because the boat travels at night). It’s spent napping, eating, reading and spending time with others who love Southern California diving.