The Biltmore Hotel has been a graceful landmark on the Santa Barbara coastline since 1927. Being one of the most premier hotels in all of Southern California, its elegance is not just owed to wonderful architecture and supreme customer service but also its incredible location. Looking out from the hotel you’ll enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara Channel and the silhouettes of the beautiful Northern Channel Islands. The views are spectacular across the thin sand beach where honeymooners often stroll at sunset.
The draw for us divers is the offshore reef, which offers easy access. The beach dive site has a lot going for it. The dive site at the Biltmore Hotel has good diving but is not well known outside the local Santa Barbara diving community, which makes it an attractive alternative to other more popular and busier dive sites.
You’ll find the best diving at the extreme east end of the beach out from the historic Coral Casino (marked with a predominate tower). There are two main reefs: an inner reef very close to shore and an outer kelp bed 100 to 200 yards out.
The sand beach here drops off quickly to about 15 feet. Because of this, the surf zone is narrow and the breakers are powerful plungers. This type of wave is good in that the surf zone is short and, with proper timing, it’s easy to get out of the surf quickly. The bad news about plunging waves is they pack more of a wallop. Time your water entry and exit carefully to coincide with wave sets and intervals.
The inner reef begins just beyond the surf line. The bottom is strewn with various-sized boulders covered with a mixture of eelgrass and feather boa kelp. Eelgrass and feather boa kelp does not break as easily as giant kelp so use caution. You’ll sometimes find giant kelp on this inner reef but its presence and abundance is dictated by water conditions and recent storms.
Among the kelp you’ll find large schools of surfperch and opaleye. For spearfishers, both calico and sand bass are abundant and large. Halibut can sometimes be found in the sand adjacent to the reef. Other fish filling the waters around this inner reef include señoritas, kelpfish, and gobies.
The inner reef rocks are not particularly interesting so devote the bulk of your dive to the outer rocky structures.
The outer reef is about 150 to 200 yards out. Sometimes there is a kelp canopy stretching across the surface. Beware of boat traffic coming from Santa Barbara Harbor, and consider a flag and float. A good dive plan would be to surface swim to the inner reef, descend and then head out straight out from the Coral Casino tower to reach the outer reef.
The sand flats between the two reefs are a great place to observe thornback rays, halibut, sea pens, and sand stars.
Water depths on the outer reef run from 20 to 30 feet. On the outer reef kelp is sometimes abundant depending on recent water conditions. Lucky divers may spot abalone or lobster among the crevices. Color is provided by small stands of golden gorgonian and bat stars. As with the inner reef, schools of perch, and some rather large opal eye, cruise the kelp trees.
Water conditions at this site are consistent but usually only fair. Visibility averages 10 to 15 feet. As the dive is relatively shallow, surf of three feet or higher can stir up the bottom. With the exception of the surge, currents are rare.
The easiest way to reach the Biltmore is to exit the 101 Freeway at Olive Mills Road. Follow Olive Mills Road south toward the beach where it will curve to the right and become Channel Drive. The beach is long and narrow with the most interesting diving at the east end directly out from the Coral Casino. Parking is limited along the street and free. Easiest access to the beach is via the gentle handicap ramp on the east end of the beach.
In the coming months plan a trip to one of Santa Barbara’s iconic landmarks that is the Biltmore Hotel. Then turn your eyes in wonderment to the Pacific Ocean, Earth’s largest feature. So many of the visitors gaze at it in enjoyment but we divers are privileged to explore fully in all its beauty beneath the surface.
Skill: Novice or better with beach diving experience on calm days.
Location: In front of the Santa Barbara Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, 1260 Channel Drive, Montecito. Parking on street.
Access and Facilities: A few steps or gentle ramp lead to a narrow sand beach.
Entry and Exit: Steep slope sand beach with rocks and plunging breakers.
Depths: 15 to 20 feet on inner reef, up to 30 feet on the outer.
Currents: Surge is common.
Visibility: Averages 10 to 15 feet.
Photography: Fair along outer reef.
Hunting: Spearfishing fair to good.
Hazards: Boat traffic. Plunging surf.