Shale Island

This January I had the pleasure of accompanying Chuck Tribolet on a couple of dives, and he had fun taking me to sites that were new to me. On our second dive he offered up a site within the huge shale bed directly off Del Monte Beach. I am not normally a fan of the shale bed, but new sites are always an adventure. Most of the shale area off of Del Monte Beach consists of low ledges running southeast to northwest, with the face towards the breakwater. Some years ago Kawika Chetron found a high spot that is very different from the rest of the shale bed, and I was completely blown away by this unassuming site.

Shale Island is a slightly raised plateau approximately 400 feet long and 10 to 120 feet wide. It rises above the surrounding 55-foot bottom from about a half-foot in some spots and two to six feet in others. Overall it resembles a mesa in the southwest.The GPS numbers will put you on a semicircular area at the west end of the north side. At the east end of the north side, there’s a large Navy anchor with a heavily encrusted chain running due south nearly to the south side of the mesa.

Due to its profile above an otherwise flat bottom, Shale Island attracts a great deal of colorful marine life. My first impression was a sprinkling of vivid reds, oranges and yellows — strawberry anemones, blood stars, and sponges — on the beige background. On this dive I saw more nudibranchs than I have seen in any one place in a very long time. These were all dorids, but there were many different species, and many were enormous. The plentiful sea lemons were easily eight inches long. Note to photographers: if you ever have tried to photograph dorids and get both their gills and rhinophores extended, there is something unique about this place. I repeatedly flashed a number of dorids, and none of them retraced their gills!

After you get over all of the color on top of the reef, you begin to notice all the little things. First the entire reef structure is honeycombed with boring clams, both wart-neck and scaleside paddocks. These hard-shelled clams rasp away the rock and live deep within the reef with only their siphons protrude above the rock structure. This is a great place to photograph their siphons, since you can easily get level or even below the siphons, something quite impossible at most sites.

The big attraction here has got to be the fringheads. At least three yellow fringheads make their home in the many abandoned clam burrows. These make great and accommodating subjects; they are fearless and have no issue letting you get close for tight portraits. Also, look for an assortment of gunnels, gobies, and sculpins. Octopus hide out in the clam burrows, and if you are lucky they will come out during the day to play. Rockfish rest beneath the ledges.

On the bottom surrounding the “island” were numerous “mermaid purses.” While there were no mermaids in sight that day, these are actually swell shark egg cases. I for one have never seen a swell shark in Monterey, but their egg cases are so numerous that there must be a healthy population here. Perhaps they spend the day in deeper water and only come out at night?

So if you are looking for something different on your next trip to Monterey, check out Shale Island. It is a comfortable dive with lots of color and interesting fish and invertebrates to look at and photograph.

Dive Spot At A Glance

Location: A bit over ½ mile east of the tip of the Monterey Breakwater and about half a mile off Del Monte Beach. GPS: N36 36.531 W121 52.786 (numbers courtesy of Chuck Tribolet).
Access and entry: Boat only site. Boats may be launched from the Monterey Breakwater for a 10-minute ride. This site is difficult to locate with a depth finder only; GPS is required to find this site. Monterey’s charter boats visit this site.Visit www.montereyboats.com
Skill level: Intermediate or better.
Depths: 50 to 55 feet
Visibility: Generally good, 15 to 40 feet.
Hunting: Game may be taken at this site, but there are few things worth hunting.
Photography: Great for photography of colorful invertebrates and fish, mediocre for wide angle.
Hazards: Watch for boat traffic, currents are not normally an issue here, but could be on any given day.

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