Why are divers so fascinated by diving on “walls”? There are multiple answers. First, it is the ready access to deep water which is both mysterious and compelling. Some venture forth, others just gaze into the darkness wondering what may come up from the depths. Also, as you descend along the face of a drop-off you witness, in a short span, the various marine life that is distinctive to that particular depth. But whatever the reason, divers like drop-offs. They are fun and exciting to explore underwater.
Although not a true vertical wall, the drop-off at Howland’s Landing holds a lot of the above mentioned pluses. In addition are fascinating inshore reefs to explore. The upper edge of the drop-off starts in about 25 feet of water, although depths vary along the saw-toothed upper ridge. Some of the top rocky pinnacles are as little as 15 feet down. The steep drop-off begins immediately and does not taper off until it hits about 80 feet at scattered rock and sand.
Giant kelp (macrocystis) creates a forest along the shallower portions. It is healthy, but never so thick as to prevent easy passage. In the upper regions, schools of blacksmith, opaleye and halfmoons divide the sunlight along with the kelp. The upper forest is not to be ignored. On your safety stop take the time to look into the kelp “leaves” and you will find a whole different community of animals, including bright orange Norris top snails, kelp fish, well nearly invisible nudibranchs and crusty bryozoa. But for now, let’s head down the steep slope.
Blue-banded gobies are very abundant. These tiny hyper-colorful fish are quite difficult to photograph, but if you catch them in a position where they feel protected, such as inside a crevice or behind urchin spines, you can approach close enough to fill your frame. If you are not taking pictures, blue-banded gobies are still fascinating to observe. They flit about, picking bits of food from the water column and sometimes fighting with one another. They actually have quite large sharp teeth, proportionally speaking, that is. Although odd, many fish are hermaphrodites, changing their sex from female to male over their lifetime. Blue-banded gobies are even more special. Not only do they change from female to male, can go back the other way, if needed.
Farther down the rock face the plant growth changes to large blade kelp. This kind of kelp forms huge single blades, 10 to 12 inches wide and 8 to 18 feet long. Sometimes you can’t see the bottom for this growth.
In the shelter of these blades a considerable amount of marine life find a place to hide. Kelpfish weave in and out. Lobster, normally preferring the shelter of crevice and caves will sometimes move about under this odd bottom canopy. Additional invertebrates here include nudibranches, chestnut cowries, orange cup coral, and a patch here and there of corynactis anemones. You’d think that a wall like this would have a lot of gorgonian growth but it is only light. This could be due to the mild current at the site.
Still deeper, the plant life changes again. As the rock slope gives away to the jumble of rock and sand, the water becomes darker at 80 feet. The plants adapted for here form a single strong strand anchored to the bottom and buoyed by a solitary large gas bladder the size of your fist. From this, stretch out 4-8 huge blades, waving in the gentle current. Rising from the bottom 10 to 20 feet, the arraignment captures the maximum light in this world of muted sun. The deep forest of elk horn kelp is a fascinating place of dark greens. It is tough to photograph but well worth the effort.
Along the sand are bat rays and an occasional giant black sea bass. This is also good halibut territory, but few divers reach here because of the extreme depths (80+). Halibut hunting is just as good inside the bay in shallower water.
Inshore from the wall are some great reefs that are also good but more suited for the beginner. Just over the crest of the wall the rock drops vertically 10-12 feet to a sand channel at 35 feet. Along this mini-wall are nice stands of gorgonian. Small rockfish make their home in the crevices. You’ll also find painted greenling and ghost gobies.
It is only about 40 feet across the sand channel to the next reef and another mini-wall. Here the reef rises from 30 feet to within 10 feet of the surface. This is a good territory for observing and photographing garibaldi, black perch, and larger starfish that prefer the shallower reef, probably because the greater amount of food for them.
For whatever reason, walls will always be an attraction to divers. For a beginner wanting to make his or her first descent down a steep slope, the drop-off at Howland’s Landing would be a good choice.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: Frontside of Catalina toward the west between the Isthmus and Emerald Bay. The wall is on the west side of the cove. GPS: N33°27.9′, W118°31.273′. GPS for reference only, do not use as your sole source for navigation.
Access: Boat only.
Depths: 10 to 90 feet.
Skill level: Beginner in shallows, intermediate down the drop-off.
Visibility: Fair to good, averaging 30 to 40 feet.
Snorkeling: Good shallow reefs nearshore.
Hunting: Some halibut but other nearby spots better. Part of the invertebrate preserve, so don’t take any lobster, scallops or any other invertebrate.
Photography: Good macro with a wide variety of subjects. Wide-angle good in healthy kelp with lots of fish. Try also fun shots along the inshore mini-walls.