Underwater photographers looking for the ultimate macro dive site are in search of a gold mine, a motherlode. I know. My macro camera is big and bulky and I don’t get much pleasure out of swimming around a lot with it. I want to drop down onto site where I can shoot a whole roll of magnificent subjects in a 50-foot radius. I want a target-rich environment. San Diego has its fair share.
By now, San Diego’s “Wreck Alley” is quite famous, especially with the recent addition of the 366 foot long Canadian destroyer Yukon. But no man-made structure has been underwater longer in “Wreck Alley” than the NOSC Tower, or at least part of it.
The platform, looking much like a small offshore oil platform, operated in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and was used for various ocean research projects by a number of agencies over the years. Years of marine growth accumulated on the lower half. Then, in 1988, a severe storm toppled the abandoned tower and the whole thing has been underwater ever since.
It’s a small area of wreckage but absolutely covered with invertebrates, large and small. Anemones are the predominate theme — corynactis, aggregating, and more. Brittle stars thread in and out of mussels which provide a healthy food base for larger stars of incredible color and size. Dancing in all of this are shrimp, small fish, and nudibranchs.
I especially like this site because it is not especially deep, only 60 feet maximum to the bottom and much of it is shallower. There is a lot of bottom time for shooting. Also, because of the jumbled configuration of the wreckage, it’s easy to get a variety of camera angles on your subjects.
The tower wreck is about a mile off of Mission Beach, not too far from the entrance to Mission Bay. (GPS coordinates: N32°46.315, W117°16.121, GPS for reference only. Do not use as your sole source of navigation.) You’ll need a depth finder to help you find this one.
Off of Point Loma is a shallow rocky shelf that extends 1/2 to 3/4 miles out to sea. On this rocky shelf is one the largest kelp forests in the state with a plethora of diving opportunities. The kelp ends abruptly in a feature known as Sea Cliff.
During the last ice age, sea levels were lower and the wave action cut cliffs into the bedrock. Those cliffs are now underwater that run along most of Point Loma. Depending on location, the cliffs begins in 65 to 80 feet of water then drop vertically 30 to 40 feet and then steeply within boulders into the abyss.
It is the upper current-swept lip of the cliff that hold the most interest to the macro photographer. Small rock formations are strangely shaped and decorated with gorgonian, anemones, orange cup corals, and sponges. And right next door is the kelp forest with fun little critters in the kelp fronds. Look for the bright orange Norris top shell, kelp crabs, and kelp fish. Down the rocky slope or the cliff are rockfish, lobster, and other photogenic subjects.
Because this is long stretch of reef, use a professional dive charter service to put you on just the right spot for macro-photography. Keep in mind that this dive is somewhat deep and often swept by strong currents. Plan your dives accordingly.
LA JOLLA SUBMARINE CANYON
I know, I know: it’s a beach dive, but the vertical walls and many overhangs, cracks, and crevices of the walls hold an abundance of subject material, enough to justify a long swim with a macro camera. Of course you can also always boat dive the Canyon.
Most people access the La Jolla Submarine at La Jolla Shores beach, Vallecitos, and La Vereda in La Jolla. Another beach access point for a different section of the Canyon, although it is a longer swim, is at the Marine Room Restaurant (Spindrift Dr. and Roseland Dr.). There are other points to access the Canyon on a beach dive but the swim out is especially long.
Your macro subject material in the Canyon area reside in three different environments. The vertical walls have many overhangs and crevices. Within the recesses are scorpionfish, gobies, sprigs of gorgonian, and colorful shrimp. On the wall faces look for nudibranchs.
In many locations the Canyon drops off steeply in a series of shelves. On these shelves, some broad and deep, debris accumulates. Crabs congregate. In the winter, squid move into the canyon at night, mate, and lay eggs on these shelves and on the lip of the canyon. All of this activity makes for good photo material.
And finally, often bypassed by many divers heading to the darkness of the canyon, is the sand flats inshore of the canyon lip. This rippled sand bottom has a larger population of animals than your typical sand flats because of the proximity to the canyon. Small rays and flatfish make for good material. Sand stars and sea pens will provide your more stationary subjects.
The Ruby E and El Rey wrecks: Also in “Wreck Alley,” the Ruby E has been down since 1989 and is covered with anemones and other critters. Although on an 85-foot bottom, much of the wreck is less deep. The El Rey, the oldest intentionally sunk wreck in “Wreck Alley,” is a fantastic dive but most of it was leveled in a storm years ago and so most of the wreck is deep.
The Pipeline, Horsehead Reef and New Hope Rock: All of these sites lie in the Point Loma kelp forest area. Major protrusions from the bottom (the Pipeline is a man-made structure), these structures capture currents that color macro creatures so dearly love. Small fish, gorgonians, sponges, scallops, and nudibranchs can be found at all these sites.