Along the backside of the east end of Santa Cruz Island, crumbling sandstone cliffs drop to the sea. The shoreline is a broken pattern of thin sand beaches and rock faces. Offshore, much of the bottom is sand flats. But here and there are rock piles, reefs and patches of bedrock that make for interesting diving. Most of these sites can be easily found by the kelp that grows attached to them. Others are hidden, requiring a depth finder to locate. Flame Reef is one such hump of boulders that is interesting to explore.
The rocks rise from a sand bottom 60 feet deep on the inside, 70 on the outside. It is more or less much like a ridge, extending out to sea, but does not cover a particularly large area, probably a half acre. It can be completely explored in one dive. The top of the ridge is 38 feet down. Sloping from the top down to the sand are jumbled rock and boulders, cracks and crevices, and an occasional mini-wall.
Water visibility here is not particularly good, averaging only around 25 feet. But given the terrain, that’s enough for an enjoyable dive. Currents are common on the backside of Santa Cruz Island but rarely such as to prevent diving.
With the summer gone, the south swell will be diminishing and northwest weather rising. This location is a good winter dive provided the rains are not hard and long.
Expectations are a funny thing. If someone builds yours too high, and the dive does not meet those inflated expectations, the dive is said to be a “disappointment.” Flame Reef was named for the colorful invertebrate life present in abundance on the reef. I expected the top of the reef to gleam like a bright orange flame through crystal clear waters. I admit I was at first disappointed. But half way through the dive I quit grumbling to myself and realized that there was a lot here, maybe not as much as expected, but as I approached the end of my dive I had completely gone through a roll of film in my macro camera.
And, yes, the “flames” were there. Orange cup coral and patches of corynactis, bright red bat stars, and the orange smiles of rock scallops. Nudibranchs also provided material for my camera, the most common being Spanish shawls and hermissenda.
To be fair I also took pictures of the many reef fish. Gobys, small rockfish, and garibaldi were all present. Larger fish seemed absent so I can’t recommend this site to the spearfishers, although I have been told the sand flats near the reef are good for halibut hunting.
If you dive here for seafood you may want to look in the crevices for scallops and lobster. Neither are particularly abundant, but with the lobster you stand a fighting chance of a main course for a meal.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: On the backside of the east end of Santa Cruz Island, west of Sandstone Point. GPS coordinates N33°59.155′, W119°35.144′. (Use GPS coordinates for reference only and not as your sole source of navigation.)
Access: Boat only.
Skill Level: All.
Depths: 38 to 70 feet
Visibility: Fair, averages 25 feet.
Photography: Good macro with a variety of material. Poor wide angle.
Hunting: Poor, a few lobster and scallops. Possible halibut in surrounding sand.