Santa Catalina: The Four Preps Didn’t Know the Half of It

Singing along with the Four Preps decades ago (don’t ask how many), little did I dream I’d ever travel “26 miles across the sea” to “Santa Catalina, the island of romance.” Nor did I ever imagine I’d scuba dive its cool waters.

But I did and I have. And not just once but many times. I’ve hiked the hills of Avalon and even rented a golf cart (fun) to drive up them. I’ve browsed the museum in the Casino; explored the botanical garden; and taken each and every one of the land tours offered.

I’ve photographed buffalo up-close (before I knew better) and seen bald eagles perched high on cliffsides above the sea. I’ve eaten dinner in the restaurant at Two Harbors where Natalie Wood enjoyed (I hope) her last meal. Although I’ve slept on many a dive boat anchored off Catalina, I’ve also slept in Avalon hotel rooms and in the bunkrooms of the Boy Scout Camp and the Wrigley Marine Science Center.

I’ve been treated in the hyperbaric chamber in Big Fisherman’s Cove at the Isthmus, but that’s a story for another day.

But best of all, I’ve dived the frontside, the backside, the East End and the West End of the island, as well as many sites in between. I’ve watched bat rays fly through lush kelp forests. I’ve dived the Valiant wreck at night and greeted the New Year at the bottom of Emerald Bay and searched for mantis shrimp in the shallow, sandy areas of Descanso and Emerald Bays. I’ve dived quarries and rocks Bird, Ship, Church, Ribbon, Hen and Johnson’s. I’ve dived Long Point and Arrow Point.

The reason I mention all this is because, when it comes to Catalina, I’ve got information overload. What to tell you, what to leave out?

Do you want to hear about the turtle (the only one I’ve ever seen in California waters) that sped off at the sight of me off Parson’s Landing or the thornback ray I saw on the same dive? Should I tell you about the black sea bass that posed patiently for portraits or the hundreds of lobsters on Eagle Reef? How about the rocks full of octopus, a head, it seemed, protruding from every crevice at Cape Cortes?

Perhaps I should mention that moray eels, horn and swell sharks are common off Catalina and that garibaldi, the California State Marine Fish, are everywhere. (It goes without saying that most sites are covered with lush kelp forests.)

Maybe you’d like to know that calico bass grow fat and sassy in the protected waters of the Casino Point Marine Park.

You get the point? I could write a book but there are already several excellent ones on the subject.

Okay, okay. I’ll tell you a little about the island, then mention my favorite sites (though it’s hard to choose).

First, let me say the Four Preps had one thing wrong. Catalina isn’t 26 miles across the sea, it’s less than 20 from San Pedro to Two Harbors and just less than 22 from San Pedro to Avalon. This is why so many Southern Californians (myself included) make their very first scuba dives off the island. Transportation is readily available in the form of dive boats, much faster ferries and, for the really impatient, helicopters or private planes. (Did you know there’s an airport atop two peaks ten miles from Avalon?)

Twenty-one miles long and up to eight miles wide, Catalina is the third largest of the eight Channel Islands, only Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa are bigger. Eighty-six percent of it is owned and managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy. The little town of Avalon, population 3,200 year-round, is governed by Los Angeles County.

Is the island the same as it was when I first started diving here 28 years ago? No. Sheephead are no longer large and abundant and abalone are nearly nonexistent.

Topside, condos hug some of the hills goats used to roam. But on the plus side is the remarkable comeback of the black sea bass. Until last year I’d seen only two in 27 years of diving. And then, off Catalina, I was surrounded by seven on one dive. If there’s hope for sea bass, there’s hope for sheephead and abs.

I can’t tell you how many dives I’ve made off Catalina but I can tell you that when the sun is out, the water is flat and clear and there is no current, there are no better places to dive in all the world than Ship Rock, Eagle Reef, and Farnsworth Bank. And what’s the most amazing thing about Santa Catalina Island? It’s less than 26 miles across the sea. How lucky we are.

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