The Avalon Underwater Park is like the sampler appetizer platter. It has a bit of everything so that the diver can taste what Southern California diving has to offer. There are kelp forests, mini-walls, small pinnacles, wrecks, sand flats, shallows and deep diving all in one place. And all these environs are chock full of critters, big and small. The waters are clear and it is easy to get to, easy to dive and, for the most part, inexpensive. When I am approached by somebody from out of town looking for a sampler of what Southern California diving is all about, I don’t hesitate to direct them to the Avalon Underwater Park.

Established in 1962 and made official by the city in 1965, the Avalon Underwater Park is the one of the first underwater parks in the world. Avalon, on Catalina Island, is the only municipality on all eight Channel Islands. The park was roped off to keep boats out for the safety of divers, but has been expanded throughout the years to include more underwater reefs and wrecks. It now encompasses the area of about two football fields from just to the west of the Casino, the quintessential landmark of Avalon, eastward to the tip of the breakwater.

A large dive staging area is just ashore and concrete steps with handrails lead to water’s edge. What could be easier? Descending into the water from the steps the rocks drop off quickly to 15 feet and then a moderate slope downward from there. There is a patch of gravel and sand directly out from the steps (usually marked with a small buoy) that a lot of classes use as an area for checkout dives. Visibility here is usually poor due to the activity. Head to the west or east. There is easily enough submarine terrain to explore for two or three dives.

To the east are the most interesting reefs and kelp forests. When the breakwater was created, it was laid over an ancient natural reef that is still largely exposed today. Drop to 35 feet and head west and you will run into the Cousteau Memorial plaque placed in 1997 to commemorate the contributions of the famed underwater explorer. Just a touch to the east are the first of three ridges that extend offshore. This is the largest with a sharp drop off and deep crevices. The rocks are just crawling with brightly colored blue-banded gobies (sometimes called Catalina gobies). This is probably the best area to call for Oscar to come to pay a visit.

Oscar is an exceptionally large male sheephead that calls this reef home. Your calling card will be simple: bang and rub rocks together. Large male sheephead feed by scraping animals from the reef as well as crushing urchins and lobster with their powerful jaws. Scraping and banging rocks together is like ringing the dinner bell! (Do not, however, break open urchins as this is a marine preserve.) Oscar will dodge in and out often, confronting the diver head on and very close.

Swim a bit further on and you might be lucky enough to see another large visitor to this reef, a giant black sea bass that appears every summer. Weighing in at around 300 pounds, this guy runs about four feet long and often allows divers to approach quite close.

As you work your way through the kelp forest look for half-moon fish, blacksmith, señoritas, kelpfish, black perch, opaleye, and many more finned inhabitants that like the life among the fronds. Kelp bass, also known as calico bass, are numerous, big, fat and very easy to approach. And, oh, bright orange garibaldi are, of course, everywhere. The further you head west the more marine life you will encounter. In the crevices are lobster, octopus and moray eels. Orange cup coral and gorgonian sea fans decorate the rocks. While this area is not noted for its nudibranchs, you will almost definitely find a Spanish shawl or two.

On the western edge of the park, just under the outer buoy, is the wreck of the Suejac, a 53-foot sailboat that ran up on the rocks in 1980 and sank. She lies bow down with the stern about 55 feet deep and the nose in 95 feet of water, the deepest part of the underwater park. There are a lot of interesting photo angles on the wreck, so take your time before you head back.

The west end of the park, and directly out from the stairs, are more wrecks and wreckage. At the far outer corner is the wreckage of an old swim platform. While not particularly interesting in of itself, it will allow you to get a variety of interesting photo angles on the marine life that call this home.

In this area are the largest sand flats of the park. Here is an excellent place to spot halibut and bat rays. Head back to the east at 50 to 65 feet deep and you will come across a number of other wrecks including the Eleanor (a small sailboat), the Glass Bottom Boat wreck, the Kismet (another small sail boat) and some others. Some of the smaller wrecks have a tendency to move around during storms so you may have to look around a bit.

Getting to Avalon is easy using the Catalina Express boats out of Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. These ferries land on the opposite side of Avalon Bay so you’ll either have to hoof it around to Casino Point (a pleasant walk along the water front), you can hire a taxi, or you can use the baggage service on in the building next to the ferry dock to transport your bags for a nominal fee. Many divers prefer to leave the heavy gear at home (tanks and lead), walk to Casino Point with wheeled gear in tow, and rent tanks and weights at the air fill van on the point.

Dive Spot At-A-Glance

Location: West end of Avalon Bay at Casino Point on Catalina Island
Access and Entry: Shore dive down steps to usually calm waters
Skill Level: All
Depths: Snorkeling to 95 feet
Visibility: Very good to excellent, averaging 40-50 feet.
Photography: Very good with a wide variety of subject for both wide angle and macro
Hunting: None; this is a marine reserve.
Facilities: Phone, restrooms, lockers and air fill van (rents tanks and weights)