San Nicolas is the most remote, least visited, and most mysterious of the Channel Islands. Once home to Chumash Indians, the island is now owned by the U.S. Navy and is part of the Pacific Missile Range. Unless invited by the Navy, it is strictly prohibited to set foot ashore. But don’t let that stop you from visiting the fertile waters around the island.
The East End of San Nic provides a calm anchorage and some of the best game hunting in the Channel Islands. Offshore of the block house at the end of the white fence is a rocky ridge that extends seaward. This giant rock pile is honeycombed with little passageways that are home to lobsters and fish. The nooks-and-crannies make a perfect place for game animals to hide and ensures a breading population for years to come. Due to the protected environment this is a great palace to hunt for lobsters at night when they leave the shelter of the rocks to forage.
At the far east end of the island, and extending out to the buoy, is a sandy area. The Sand Spit is of little interest to divers, with two exceptions: halibut hunters and lobster divers. Everyone knows that you find halibut on sand, and this is a particularly good place to look. However, normally you hunt for lobsters in rocky areas, but bugs move around quite a bit depending on the season, tides, and weather and often cross between shallow and deeper water. Guess what? They have to cross the Sand Spit. When you happen upon one of these migrations, it’s like catching goldfish in a bowl.
Between the Sand Spit and the block house is a relatively flat area with ledges in the rocky bottom, huge rock piles, and a few sandy areas. The ledges are a great place to look for lobster. Simply pick your ledge and swim until you see antennae. Should you find few antennae or legs, it’s a good sign that another diver got there before you so head perpendicular to the ledge, until you find another. The rock piles are another good place to look for bugs. Some of the piles have deep caves that are just a bit too small for a diver to enter. Some of these are filled with scores of bugs.
East End is not as pretty and photogenic as some other sites, but there is plenty of interest for the photographer/sightseer here too. Look for pink and red gorgonia under thick beds of giant kelp. An assortment of colorful snails and fish live on and near the kelp, while invertebrates hide among the rocks. Look for dorid nudibranchs, snapping shrimp, horn sharks, and bat rays.
The beaches of the East End are home to elephant seals and sea lions. Sea lions are found here year around, but the larger elephant seals are found in large numbers only during the fall and winter. While sea lions are curious and are eager to investigate divers, elephant seals generally keep their distance. That’s okay by me since they often grow to over 2000 pounds— and have big canine teeth.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: On the southeast side of San Nicolas Island.
Access: Boat only, Commercial dive boats frequent this site.
Depths: 10 to 80 feet.
Skill level: Beginner or better.
Hunting: Good lobster and halibut hunting in season; fair hunting for rockfish and sheephead.
Photography: Fair macro photography, for invertebrates and small fish; good spot to photograph game hunters.
Hazards: Watch for thick kelp and boat traffic.
Special Rules: The Navy restricts access to within 100 yards of the island in some places and within several miles in others. Refer to nautical charts for details. Better yet, leave boat operations to professional skippers.