There are sites that require divers to swim great distances to take in the full grandeur of the reef. At other sites divers only need to plant themselves in front of a rock or two for the entire dive, and enjoy the beauty of the reef and watch life’s drama develop before them. One site where you do not have to swim more than a few feet from the anchor line is at the Yellow Brick Road.
The Yellow Brick Road is located south of Lovers Cove. The reef system runs roughly parallel to shore, and consists of finger-like rocky projections that run perpendicular to shore. Many of the rocks are steep-sided and rise about 10 feet off the 40-foot sandy bottom, creating a series of mini-walls and small canyons. Each rock supports is own ecosystem.
The rocks are covered with an intricate variety of encrusting invertebrates. The most conspicuous inhabitants are the yellow sponges. Some rocks are only 5 percent covered in sponges, while some are 40- to 50-percent covered, but the impression from above is of a yellow road extending out past the edge of visibility — hence the name, Yellow Brick Road.
These brightly colored sponges bring the reef alive with color and provide both food and shelter for a variety of invertebrates. A number of dorid nudibranchs feed on these sponges. The sponges re-grow lost tissue rather quickly; they produce a natural antibiotic that prevents bacteria from infecting the wound. The nudibranchs incorporate toxins from the sponges to make them unpalatable to predators, and perhaps hold onto the sponges” pigments as well. There are a lot of nudibranch species here, but it appears most are dorids and most of these are yellow.
Don’t expect to find abundant fish life here. On a recent dive we saw many black and rubberlip surfperch and a number of good-sized cabezons, but not much else. However, the numerous, small fish provided ample opportunity for fish watching. Nearly every rock had two or three painted greenlings and there were numerous snubnose and coralline sculpins. The small recesses in the reef were home to numerous blackeye gobies.
However, what steals the show at Yellow Brick Road are the invertebrates. Every square inch of rock is covered with some kind of encrusting invertebrate. There are orange and red sponges in addition to the yellow ones. There are several species of bryozoans with their intricate, lacy structures and lots of tubeworms and tunicates. There are also a number stony corals and strawberry anemones. One rock is home to an enormous white metridium anemone. Various shrimp and crabs hide in cracks in the rocks.
My favorite way to experience reefs like this one is to hover just off the reef, or kneel on the sand next to the reef, quiet my breathing and watch the marine life go about their daily activities. It is amazing how much drama takes place on one small rock. I was drawn to a number of hermit crabs scurrying along the base of a large rock. They seemed to be engaged in some form of mortal combat as they tried to pull one another from their shell. It seemed that one of them had the “best” shell and the others were trying to take it from him.
On a nearby rock a pair of strawberry anemones appeared to be engaged in a tug-of-war as they fought over dinner. These anemones often feed by extending specialized tentacles from their gut to capture and retrieve food floating in the water column. These two apparently latched on the same tasty bite and each attempted to wrestle a meal away from the other.
Diving Yellow Brick Road is a lot like a scene “Men in Black,” in which the aliens believe the entire universe consists only of their little area. Each rock can be a universe unto itself. All you have to do is sit back and quietly watch life unfold around you.
The author would like to thank Captain MaryJo Nelson and the crew of the Beachhopper II for their help with this article.
Location: Offshore between Lovers Point and Hopkins Reef in Monterey Bay. Those with GPS may find it anchoring at 36° 37.493″ N, 121° 54.660″ W and swimming north.
Access and Facilities: Accessible only by boat or kayak. Kayaks may be launched from Lovers Point. Private boats may be launched from the public ramps Monterey Breakwater or between Fisherman’s Wharf and Wharf #2.
Depth: 20 to 45 feet.
Visibility: 10 to 30 feet.
Skill Level: Beginner or better.
Hunting: This site is within the Lovers Point State Marine Reserve where nothing may be taken.
Photography: Great for nudibranchs and small invertebrates and fish.
Hazards: Look for thick kelp in summer and fall, and boat traffic.