For those of you planning on visiting California to dive, please recognize that the number of dive sites here far exceeds what we can cover in a few pages. The variety and abundance of dive sites is mind-boggling, from the opportunity to see giant black sea bass, exceptionally lush kelp, a great wreck, or an abundance of lobsters.
Our first installment in this series started in San Diego. Our next stops up the coast will be in Orange and Los Angeles counties, and the number of dive sites here alone is just staggering. Everyone has their favorites, and I’ll share some that I think are among the best.
There are numerous small beach towns that dot the California coast, and Orange County’s Laguna Beach is one of the best. Laguna has lots of things going for it that make it a great place to dive and take your family. It’s not just one beach, but a series of beaches that make up the town of Laguna Beach.
Laguna has scenic beauty, great restaurants, art galleries, beautiful beaches, and excellent diving. Some of my favorite places to dive in Laguna include Aliso Beach, Moss Street, Shaw’s Cove, and Diver’s Cove. Due to the popularity of diving in Laguna, it’s important to get there early, especially on the weekends or any time the weather is good, because parking spots are not plentiful.
The entire coastline of the town of Laguna Beach is a State Marine Reserve (SMR), which means that you cannot take any marine species, for any purpose. This is a “look but don’t take” area. As a diver in Laguna Beach, it’s important to not only follow the marine life regulations, but also to be courteous to the local residents. At many locations, you’ll be parking along residential streets and diving in the “backyard” of homeowners whose homes line the beach.
Dive sites at Laguna Beach generally have good visibility and moderate surf. All of the commonly seen marine creatures found in Southern California are here, including lobsters, garibaldi, octopus, calico bass, and more. Remember, if you haven’t trained for beach entries through surf, be sure to get an orientation from a local divemaster. Check with any of the local dive shops and they’ll be able to help you out.
Orange County hosts some of the most popular attractions in Southern California, including Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the Irvine Spectrum Center (shopping), performing arts, golf, tennis, or just about any indoor or outdoor activity you can imagine.
Los Angeles County
Los Angeles County is enormous, covering 4,084 square miles with a population of over 10 million people. Yet despite its size, it has many areas that are sufficiently remote to qualify as a true wilderness adventure, both topside and underwater.
Los Angeles can come as quite a shock for the unprepared, as the county extends for miles across the Southern California landscape. Within the county, you have every imaginable type of entertainment, restaurant, culture, and shopping that you could possibly desire. In Los Angeles, at the right time of year, it’s possible to go snow skiing and scuba diving in the same weekend.
Los Angeles is home to Universal Studios, Staples Center, the Nokia Theater, numerous art museums, 19 county owned golf courses, and every type of theater, architecture, and fashion you might name. You can find anything in Los Angeles, from the most exotic food to the most sophisticated electronic equipment. Think of something exotic, rare, or difficult to find, and it exists in L.A. County.
Some of the more popular diving areas in Los Angeles County include Palos Verdes, Malibu, and of course, Catalina Island. In these three areas alone, there are dozens of named, and un-named dive sites.
The rugged cliffs of Palos Verdes provide a spectacular high vantage point from which to view the ocean as you wind your way along this stretch of the coast between San Pedro and Redondo Beach. If you’re like most people, you’ll probably want to pull over every couple of hundred feet just to appreciate each new vista.
Back in the 1950s there was a great “oceanarium” located in Palos Verdes, known as Marineland of the Pacific. This was one of the first aquariums to have killer whales on display, with enormous tanks filled with every conceivable form of local marine life. Today, there is ocean access for diving Palos Verdes through the Terranea Resort, an upscale hotel complex perched on the cliffs here. Public access requires parking at a remote lot and a short hike to the beach.
Like most coastal spots near shore, you will find scattered boulders that provide good habitat for a variety of fish, kelp, and invertebrates. The visibility here usually varies from 10 to 20 feet, but can be upwards of 40 feet on a good day.
Palos Verdes is considered a good area for lobsters and has two shipwrecks, the Dominator and the Avalon. To access most of the dive spots at Palos Verdes you will need to secure space on a private charter vessel.
When most people think of Malibu, they think of movie stars, expensive homes, and the Pacific Coast Highway. In reality, Malibu has some great places to dive and in most cases, very easy access. It’s close to Los Angeles, and I have several friends who can sneak away from work, go diving, and be back home in less than three hours. While your family is checking out Universal Studios, you can be out catching lobsters.
Almost anywhere you can pull over where there is beach access there is diving in Malibu. Sites such as Deer Creek, Coral Beach, and Point Dume are all easily accessible with diving just a short distance from the shore, although these sites have a minimum of facilities. Look for the kelp growing offshore and that’s where you’ll find most of the rocky habitat, although not all rocks will have kelp growing on them.
State run beaches in Malibu usually have more complete facilities, such as restrooms and showers. While most of the beaches in Malibu don’t have concession stands for food, a short drive of 15 minutes either north or south will put you in proximity to a variety of meal choices.
Catalina Island is only 26 miles from the mainland, yet the pace and feel of this island sets it apart from everything that is Los Angeles. It’s a two to three hour ride on most of the dive boats that service the island, an excursion that offers the opportunity to frequently see dolphins, sea lions, and even whales as you cross the channel. Most of the dive boat operators offer trips that last from one to three days, and have onboard meals and air fills for your cylinder.
Besides the lush kelp forests of Catalina, probably the main attraction here is the consistently good underwater visibility. Even on a “bad” day, the visibility at Catalina is usually at least 20 feet underwater. On a more typical day, the visibility will be 30-50 feet, and on good days the visibility may range from 75-100 feet. There is nothing quite like standing on the bottom in the middle of a kelp forest and looking up at the bottom of the dive boat in 100 feet of water!
Another way to experience Catalina is to travel over on one of the ferries and stay in one of the hotels at the charming city of Avalon near the eastern end of the island. There are plenty of things to do for the family at this beautiful island, including tours of the island, zip line rides, kayaking, parasailing, wildlife viewing, sailing, golf, shopping, and more.
Diving at the underwater park on the border of the town of Avalon is a lot of fun and very convenient for those divers that are enjoying a land based stay. At the underwater park, you can simply walk down the stairs to enter the ocean. This is one of the most popular sites on Catalina.
Even if you stay in a hotel in Avalon, there are local charter boats that can take you on day trips to sites all around the island. Diving from these boats is a great way to maximize your island experience, allowing you to spend time on the island without spending your whole day on a boat.
Italian Gardens is one of the most popular dive sites at Catalina, probably because this spot is known for having an abundance of Giant Black Sea Bass. The bottom slopes sharply away here and there are jumbled rocks covering the bottom. It’s not uncommon to be swimming along wondering where the Black Sea Bass are, only to turn around and find one directly behind you. It’s also not uncommon to see multiple animals during one dive. Swimming with a 300+ pound giant black sea bass is a very special experience.
Ship Rock is located towards the western end of the island and sits about a mile offshore from the isthmus (narrowest part of the island). It’s a tall rock that drops off rapidly on all sides, with depths as deep as 135 feet. This location normally has excellent visibility and it’s not unusual to see some of the more “exotic” species here, like yellowtail and Pacific barracuda. Watch the kelp here carefully and if you see it starting to stream out horizontally that’s a reliable indicator that a strong current has started to pick up here, which is not uncommon.
On the open ocean side of Catalina is the challenging dive site known as Farnsworth Banks. Here, a deep pinnacle or “seamount” rises from depths of 200 feet to within 65 feet of the surface. The visibility here is usually superb, but this is an advanced dive and not for the novice.
There are more than 30 well-known dive sites located around Catalina, and whole books have been devoted to this single island. If you’ve never been diving in California, Catalina Island is probably the single most popular destination for divers in the entire state.
By now you should be getting the picture that California diving offers something for every diver, at every level of experience. In our next article, we’ll be exploring the Northern Channel Islands along with Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.