“Wall diving” has become popular on coral reefs throughout the world with just reason. Wall diving gives us a humbling look into the abyss. It also allows us to approach reef life in a different posture that is often more comfortable for the diver and the marine life.
A true “wall dive” is a vertical drop of a hundred feet or more. Much of this feature in coral reefs is owed to how the reef grows in a vertical fashion over many thousands of years.
Because we don’t have coral reefs in California, walls are not as common. We have to rely rather on geological features to provide us with the vertical drops that excite us so. We do have walls; they are just not as common.
What we do have are a lot of fantastic “mini-walls.” I have become a lover of California mini-walls. A “mini-wall” is a rocky underwater vertical drop-off of 8 to 20 feet. You’ll find them on beach dives and boat dives. They are at every island and they are always covered with marine life.
The dive boat Peace recently put me on a very delightful mini-wall Captain Eric Bowman calls simply “Drop-Off.” What impressed me most about this wall were the many crevices and undercuts in the reef that are home to a myriad of marine creatures. There was a huge amount of life here in just a few square yards.
With my macro camera in hand I went to work recording photographically nudibranchs, rockfish (in at least five different varieties), lingcod, chestnut cowries, and anemones. I shot a dozen pictures alone on a tiny decorator crab as he (or she) adorned himself with tiny bits of colorful sponge so as to blend into his background. Another 10 photos went to the face of a rockfish, blotched black and yellow, that posed for me ever so carefully. Painted greenlings and gobies also darted before my lens.
This reef actually gets quite shallow in spots, as little as 17 feet. The reef then drops down stair step to about 35 feet. This shallow zone is interesting because you’ll find a different kind of life here, mostly those animals associated with the kelp that grows prolifically across the top of reef. You will find a variety of snails including kellets whelk, the cone shaped wavy turban, and the Norris top snail, easily distinguished by its bright orange flesh and green spot on the underside of its shell. The Norris top snail feeds voraciously on kelp and are often found climbing the kelp stalks. Another mollusk sometimes seen climbing the kelp stalks here is the sea hare. This mollusk without a shell—sometimes incorrectly referred to as a “slug,” is called a sea hare because of its long ear-like rhinophores (looking also like antennae).
After 35 feet the wall drops vertical to 55 feet. Here you can hang mid-water, practicing your buoyancy skills, and peer into the deep horizontal crevices. Bring along a light for maximum enjoyment. Occasionally, turn your attention seaward as it is not unusual to see pelagic life salps or jellyfish floating by or sea lions rocketing by.
The boulders at the base of the wall sometimes hold a lobster or two but don’t plan on getting your limit here. Seafood hunting is only fair at this spot with an occasional halibut in the shallows inside the reef or on the sand flats beyond the reef. Scallops are present of the reef but they are sparse and small.
Getting hooked on California mini-wall diving is a good thing. Diving Drop-Off Reef on the backside of Santa Cruz Island is a good place to start.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: On the backside (south side) of Santa Cruz Island east of the radar dome the bluff. GPS coordinates N 33°59.023′, W119°36.812′ (GPS is for reference only. Do not use as your sole source of navigation.)
Access: Boat only.
Skill Level: All
Depths: 17 to 55 feet
Visibility: Good, averages 30 feet.
Photography: Good, macro best.
Hunting: Poor to fair. A few lobster, scallops, halibut.
Snorkeling: Fair but most of the reef is too deep.