San Diego’s “Wreck Alley” is the Mecca for wreck divers, right? There are 4 main wrecks within a few square miles, with the crown jewel being the 366- foot long Canadian destroyer Yukon. It is all great diving, but many don’t realize that there is another spot in Southern California waters with over a half a dozen wrecks all in the area about the size of three football fields— and it can be dived from shore. Conditions are nearly always excellent with water visibility averaging 40 to 60 feet. It is a dive site that many are familiar with but have never fully explored—the Avalon Underwater Park, in particular, the east end of the park.
The Avalon Underwater Park at Casino Point has long been a hive of diver activity. Since the stairs into the water were put in a few years ago and Catalina Diver’s Supply upgraded their airfill and rental van on site, the site has become even more popular with classes, the casual diver, and underwater photographer. Most divers, however, rarely explore the east end of the park. Directly out in front of the stairs is a nice open area ideal for classes. To the west are the most interesting reefs with drop-offs and canyons as well as the Cousteau memorial. At the far west end, just about under the outermost corner buoy, is the wreck of the Suejac, a 54-foot long ferro-cement sail boat that was shoved up on the rocks in 1980. Most divers know of this wreck and it is explored often.
But as you drop in off the stairs and head east, you are in for a different set of delights altogether. Almost directly off the stairs, just a little to the left in 35 feet of water are the remains of a wooden motor boat that sank here long ago. Any shape of the hull has long since disappeared, but two engines can still be seen side by side, now inhabited by gobies and island kelpfish.
More to the east and deeper, at about 35 to 40 feet deep, are the remains of an old pier. This pier was at one time used for a “diving bell” where tourists paid a fee to get a glimpse into the underwater wonderland. The most prominent feature of this wreckage is large pilings lying roughly perpendicular to shore, pointing out to sea.
The bottom on the east end of the park is mostly a gently sloping sand bottom with kelp here and there attached to wreckage and an occasional boulder. Obscured by kelp most of the time and difficult to find are the remains of the psuedo-wreck La Crusado. Dive promoters in the 1970s wanted a new attraction for divers, so they created an underwater wooden replica or a Spanish Galleon complete with old anchor. It did not last long but the anchor and commemorative plaque remain, overgrown with kelp. Good luck finding it. It is in about 40 feet of water.
Main attraction at this end of the park, however, and so often overlooked, is the sunken swim platform. It is almost directly under the outer buoy marking the northeast corner of the park. The deck is rotted away exposing a large grid of steel that supports gorgonian, rock scallops and a healthy growth of kelp. The structure is about 30-feet long and 20-feet wide, lying roughly parallel to shore. Resting on a 60-foot deep sand bottom, it rises from the bottom about 5 feet.
To find more wrecks, swim northwest about 50 yards parallel to shore along the 60-foot profile. Visibility is almost always great in this area, so it is not difficult to spot bottom features. To your left you may see some old tires and inshore more engine blocks, some used many years ago for mooring boats.
Soon you’ll come across two wrecks nearly stacked on each other. The first is the Kismet, a small fiberglass sailboat that foundered in a storm a number of years ago then towed to the park and sank. Subsequent storms have shoved it around on the bottom until it finally lodged against the second wreck, an old glass bottom boat. The Kismet lies stern toward shore, upright but listing to starboard. The kelp growth of the wreck is heavy and the fish are very friendly and make for excellent photography.
The glass bottom boat is my favorite. The irony in this wreck is that it landed upside-down. You can easily penetrate under the wreck and look UP at the fish through what use to be the viewing windows to looked DOWN on them! There are lots of other crevices and dark holes with lobster and shy fish. Bring a light. Both the Kismet and the glass bottom boat lie in about 65 feet of water.
If all this is not enough, there is another small fiberglass sailboat wreck just of the west northwest of these, also at about 65 feet deep, but this wreck has been known to move around in storms so its position is not always definite.
You can visit all these wrecks on the east end of the Underwater Park in one dive but why rush yourself? The airfill van opens at 8 a.m. on weekends. Plan for a two or three tank dive day at the Underwater Park and explore all the environs of this fabulous slice of California underwater heaven.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: The northeast end of the Avalon Underwater Park at Casino Point on the northeast side of Avalon Harbor.
Access and Entry: Stair with hand rail right into usually calm waters. 24- hour access.
Depths: 30 to 70 feet
Visibility: Very good, averaging 40 to 60 feet
Snorkeling: Good on the rocks near shore but poor over wrecks due to depths
Hunting: None. This park is protected. Take nothing.
Photography: Good wide-angle on the various angles that the wrecks present. Lush kelp is also good wide-angle backdrop. Macro good for friendly and cooperative fish subjects.
Facilities: Air fills and rentals at van next to Casino building weekends year ’round and seven days a week during the summer. Call (310) 510-0330 for specific hours. Lockers and phones near stairs. Restrooms on harbor side of Casino building and pay showers on road half way into town.
Hazards: Occasionally strong currents usually running from west to east. Heavy boat traffic outside of park boundaries (indicated by buoys and rope on surface to keep boats clear).