As wonderful as Catalina Island diving is, seasoned divers can get complacent about visiting many of its great dive site “Been there, done that,” they say. Well it is time to scream “Westward Ho!” and head for the Wild West of Catalina Island.
The best diving on the far west end of Catalina Island is the reef and kelp forest area around Johnson Rock. It is an exceptionally large area with fascinating underwater terrain to explore, and marine life to enjoy.
But here’s the thing. The west end is open to the prevailing northwest wind and waves, so when conditions are rough at Johnson Rock there’s no place to hide. Aim for it only when weather conditions are favorable. And be mindful that area can have strong currents at times.
What excites me most about this location is the underwater terrain, which features multiple massive pinnacles. Johnson Rock itself is the exposed peak of a pinnacle.
Some of the pinnacles have rock faces that shoot up vertically 40 feet from a 70-foot bottom. Some are close enough together to create a jungle gym of jumbled boulders, deep crevices and small caves.
Closer to shore, in depths ranging from 30 to 50 feet, are smaller pinnacles dotted with large kelp stalks. Good kelp diving skills are a must, as it can be quite thick in this area.
While it is an exciting location to explore terrain, what impresses me most are the huge stands of colorful gorgonian coral and large swirls of fish life — an excellent wide-angle photo opportunity with gorgonian in the foreground, kelp and blue water in the back, and a fish or fishes for the main subject. Gorgonians include red gorgonian and golden gorgonian. Especially vibrant are the gold gorgonian stalks adorned with colonies of colorful zoanthids.
You’ll find the usual Catalina kelp forest fish here but because this area gets fewer visits by charter and fishing boats, you’ll notice them in greater size and numbers. On our recent dive we saw an exceptionally large horn shark, gatherings of big rubberlip perch, black and yellow-stripped treefish and opaleye.
As I cruised around the pinnacles and then into the shallower kelp forest, I had a feeling I was being watched. Eventually the bashful creature came out of hiding — a harbor seal, the biggest I’d ever seen. And just as cute as any I‚ve encountered in the past.
The Johnson Rock reefs have always been a good lobster hunting area. Searching the crevices around the pinnacles and skimming across the shallow reef will definitely reveal at least some “bugs” but most seen in the daytime are too small, unreachable or both. At night you’ll likely find legal-size lobsters congregating on the seafloor at depths of 90 to 130 feet. However, hunting at night at these depths is an advanced activity that should be attempted only by very experienced divers. There is no lobster dinner worth risking your life over.
Rock scallops are small and in short supply here, but you might find some fair-sized calico bass.
There’s a lot for us to love about Catalina Island dive sites. If you haven’t “gone west” I encourage you to do so when sea conditions allow. It’s edgy, wild, and worth it!
Location: Mainland side of the west end of Catalina Island. N33°28.613’‚ W118°35.354′ (GPS coordinates for reference only. Do not use as your sole source of navigation.)
Skill level: Novice to experienced
Diving Depths: 30 to 50 feet main kelp forest; to 90 feet at the base of pinnacles.
Visibility: Averages 40 to 60 feet.
Access: Boat only.
Conditions: Exposed location, open to wind and waves. Best in the mornings. Sometimes strong currents.
Hunting: Lobster. Fair to good spearfishing for calico bass.
Photography: Macro and wide-angle.