Virgin Reef

In last month’s issue of CDN, there was a single panel cartoon about finding someone’s secret spot. The diver said to the other, “Go North 30 yards, West 10 yards, South 30 yards, then East 10 yards.” Essentially saying there is no secret spot. But—there are a few spots that are rarely known.

A recent dive aboard the Encore had us pulling up to the West End of Catalina Island and Captain Pam announcing “this is known as the ‘Secret Spot’ or ‘Virgin Reef.'” Dale and I had never dived here, nor heard of this site. Topping out at 50 feet, this was a deep dive on a steep pinnacle.

We descended the anchor chain, and found ourselves on a plateau at 65 feet about the size of a small house. The plateau had a somewhat flat top with rocky ridges and an almost vertical drop off on three sides. The typical Catalina marine life is found here, but the environment is more than spectacular.

Dale gestured to move on. Thin kelp strands reached skyward and the clear waters were heavily peppered with blacksmith fish. We circled this rock, descending the fantastic vertical walls and overhangs, hovering over an abyss that bottomed out at 120 to 140 feet down. In the clear waters I could see divers exploring the boulders below like insects in a pile of gravel. Lobster antennae protruded from the jumbled boulders at the base of the wall. Gorgonians and scallops clung to the rock face. Bright stars and nudibranchs provided splashes of color.

Having circled the plateau, we headed in the opposite direction across a valley to explore the other surprises of this spectacular dive site. We moved parallel along the reef and came upon a tall sharp underwater mountain peak. It was such an incredible sight I almost lost my regulator from the jaw- dropping effect the sight gave me. I had the incredible feeling that I was flying across Disneyland and was about to land on the Matterhorn. Kind of like Tinker Bell but in reverse.

The top of this site has three distinct areas, the plateau, the peak, and the valley-like area between. The two upward juts held little kelp. A few stands, but enough to give home to huge kelpfish. The golden amber of the fish blending in nicely with the amber of the kelp. You don’t have to look too closely, due to the thin kelp; it is easy to find them. As the seasons change, though, you may see a thicker kelp growth or quite the opposite. Along the reef face you will see a lot of the low-lying very wide blade kelp. The kelpfish will be seen in here too.

Hornsharks of varying sizes can be found tucked in close to the reef and among the kelp. They’ll probably be startled by you and swim off, but can be found within a few yards of where you first encountered them. This is due to their slow moving territorial nature, and also because the plateau of this reef is so narrow. They will not likely swim down the steep wall.

Once we found and surveyed the “matterhorn” we made our way back toward the initial plateau and found ourselves in a valley of sorts between the two pinnacles. There, we found more of the same plant and animal life and found bubbles coming from cracks in the reef. Upon further inspection I realized that the bubbles were coming from other divers in a cave under us. They had discovered lobster in the dark hole about 85 feet down. By the time we found the cave, we reached the end of our bottom time and it was time to head back to the surface.

This is a deep advanced dive. While the top of the reef can be covered in the 80 feet and above range, it is just too tempting to go deeper. Be careful to check your air frequently, you want to have enough air to comfortably finish your dive and for your 15-foot stop. This particular dive had a mild current, but keep in mind that conditions can change quickly and you may experience strong currents here.

The captain put us right on the pinnacle and we easily descended and ascended on the anchor line. A special thank you to Captain Pam Driver and the crew of the Encore. It has been a long time since I have experienced a dive like this and, more importantly, it was great to share her “secret spot.”

Dive Spot At A Glance
Location
: West End Catalina Island near Johnson’s Rock (by request of Encore Captain Pam Driver, we cannot give you GPS coordinates).
Access: Boat only.
Depths: 50 to 140 feet, but count on a dive of at least 90 feet.
Skill level: Advanced.
Visibility: Excellent.
Snorkeling: None.
Photography: Spectacular wide-angle in good visibility. Good macro.
Hunting: Lobster early in season.
Hazards: Deep Bottom profile, currents and seas can come up.

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