As a child one of my earliest memories was begging my Uncle Lloyd to buy me a fish tank so that I could “see underwater.” He relented, acquiring for me a handful for goldfish in a big jar with I proceeded to stare at for hours on end.
Give me a bunch of fish in front of my face and I am still satisfied for hours. And easy-to-get-to Catalina Island is one of the best places to do just that. When I am ready to soak my head and commune with my finned friends, here are a few of my favorites places to submerge:
AVALON UNDERWATER PARK (a.k.a. CASINO POINT):
If you ever had any doubt on whether marine preserves work, this small underwater refuge will convince you to their validity. The small plot of underwater real estate at Casino Point in Avalon was roped off in 1962 and has been protected as a marine life refuge ever since. Considering that the underwater area is not much larger than two football fields, it is a remarkable success in marine conservation.
What makes this a special place is not just the quantity and variety of the fish life, of which there is much, but the attitude of the fish. They are totally passive, even to the point of aggressive friendliness. The reason is simple: tens of thousands of divers visit this site annually, sometimes over a thousand over a weekend. Hey, the divers are friendly, why shouldn’t the fish be?
I have two favorites here. The first is calico bass, also known as kelp bass. They seem to be most abundant in the central part of the park, hovering in the kelp fronds and they are huge by any standards. At any other dive site, big calico bass would flee on approach. These guys just hang around. Flip your hand around like a distressed fish and they will come in close to say hello.
My second finned buddy here is a big male sheephead. Unfortunately, these fish, desired by game hunters, are becoming much less common at other dive sites and where they are present they keep their distance. While they are not huge, here they are for the most part unafraid of divers. The east end of the park is your best bet. Settle to the bottom and rub or bang some rocks together and they will come running.
WEST END OF EAGLE REEF
Eagle Reef is located to the west of Isthmus Cove and about 600 yards offshore. It frequently experiences currents, often quite strong. Whenever you want the most fish action, head to the leading edge of a reef bathed in a strong current. For Eagle Reef, this is usually the western edge.
An experienced skipper will be able to judge the direction and power of the current by observing the lay of the kelp. Prevailing direction of the current here is from west to east. This dive will take some skill both in anchoring and diving. The anchor will have to be dropped ahead of the reef and played out so they boat and trail behind over the reef. The anchor chain and line will need to drape over reef’s high point across the leading edge. Descend down the anchor line to this area.
The rocky reef drops off stair-step from about 30 feet to 90. In a strong current the water movement hits the reef face and the upwelling can be powerful. All this swirling brings food and the fish feed like crazy. Blizzards of baitfish move through feeding on tiny bits borne on the current and their predators are right behind them. It is an action-packed environment. This is a good spot to see top end predators like barracuda and yellowtail. Hang on in the current and enjoy the ballet.
A towering giant of a pinnacle, Ship Rock is always a good bet as a fish dive. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. At the base of the rock, 100 to 125 feet down, look for angel sharks in the sand. This spot is one of the most consistent places to see these unusual fish. The jumbled boulders and cracks and crevices a bit further up hold moray eels. Up into the kelp forest you will find large schools of blacksmith fish, abundant señoritas, and, a personal favorite of mine, rock wrasse. The rock wrasse here are numerous and large, and the males seem to be particularly colorful here.
There are two main areas I recommend. The first is the steep drop-off on the northwest side of the rock. Currents can be strong here but that just increases the fish action. The second is the pocket on the southwest corner known as “The Aquarium.” This location has moderate depths, a gentler drop-off but still an insane abundance of colorful fish.
While Italian Gardens is not a remarkable dive site in terms of the quantity of fish, in terms of poundage, it probably has more than any. The fish it has are big—really big. This is Catalina’s summertime home of the giant black sea bass.
While giant black sea bass are frequently seen at other places around the island, an encounter here is almost guaranteed from summer through early fall. In particular they like a spot known as “Shark Bite Rock.” They can be found in depths ranging from 30 to 80 feet and sometimes follow the thermocline. In general, they will be shallower in August and September, deeper before and after.
It is likely you will see several at one time, sometimes as many as a half a dozen. During your encounter, do not pursue them, as they will flee. Watch your buoyancy and hover nearby moving ever so slowly toward them. Often you can approach them within just a foot or two, but you must be patient.