If there is a Mount Everest of California shore diving it’s Jade Cove. Located along an isolated portion of the Big Sur coast, the cove can only be reached after crossing a wide grassy meadow, then descending a rugged trail switch backing down a 100-foot cliff before reaching the small, isolated beach. Not an easy task wearing a dive suit and carrying a tank and weight belt.
April is considered the best time to dive, though conditions can vary from day to day. One day conditions can be ideal and the next, a nightmare of crashing waves and treacherous currents. But those bad days can sweep the bottom and reveal an undersea treasure found nowhere else in the world, Monterey jade.
A semi-precious nephrite, divers have been harvesting this treasure of the central coast for over three decades. In August 1971, diver Don Wobber of Pacific Grove and two companions, lifted a 9000-pound boulder off the bottom worth $180,000. The stone christened “Nephipod,” was pulled from the water by rope, chain and griphoist. A wooden ramp was constructed and Nephripod was loaded onto a trailer. Since then, the State of California has prohibited divers removing jade by mechanical means. You may take only what you can carry.
It was a cool Saturday morning when my two dive partners, David, Roger, and I descended the last painful feet of the cliff and down to the cove. After a short rest we entered the churning water, climbing over a submerged field of boulders and swimming slaloms around the giant floating bladders of bull kelp before entering deeper water.
Moving over the rolling surface, we passed between two great rocks guarding the entrance to the cove. Not wanting to cover the same territory as other divers, we leave the protection of surrounding cliffs and head out to sea in order to maximize our chances of finding jade.
Placing as much distance from shore as safety would allow, we deflate our BC’s and submerge under the surface. In spite of the heavy current, visibility was unusually good, about 20 feet. We reached the bottom at 30 feet and separated, each diver had to discover his own treasure.
The rocky bottom was heavy with kelp palms, cutting down the sunlight from above. Jade is where you find it, as in all treasure hunts. Monterey jade is spinach green in color. The natural color filtration of the water can hide the precious stone from even the most skillful observer. Even with my dive light I couldn’t always tell a stone’s true color. I meticulously searched the bottom, looking under rocks, searching under the sand and clearing endless stones away. Part of the technique is to feel each suspected stone. In spite of the cold water I did not wear gloves. Jade has a touch all its own. Smooth and polished as if by a jeweler. I rubbed each suspected stone between my fingers trying to perceive its true identity and scratched the surface with my knife. Jade is one of the hardest of stones and the metal point of a knife blade will not leave its mark on its surface. Each stone I found that looked good, I placed in my diver’s bag.
I moved along the bottom, slowly making my way to shore. My bag got heavier with each foot of ground I covered. Stopping at the mouth of a small cave along the side of a boulder, I turned on my dive light and peered into the narrow opening. Inside, the beam of my light reflected off green colored walls reaching back for several feet. The entire cave was composed of thick walls of Monterey jade. So close, yet unobtainable.
Once on the beach I shifted through my dive bag. Throwing stone after stone away until all were gone. No jade. That was the way of it sometimes. A few moments later, Roger came out of the surf. He, too, came out of the water empty handed.
We waited on the beach for the next half hour until David popped up just past the surf line, dragging something behind him. Once on shore, David opened his dive bag and pulled out a football size piece of Monterey jade. Deep green, with iridescent white striations, the rock was at least 25 pounds and took David half an hour of digging to dislodge it from the sand bottom.
Though my dive yielded only a pile of worthless stones, I felt richer for the experience. It was a great dive on a warm, spring day, with good friends, along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: Off Highway 1, 60 miles south of the Monterey Peninsula, about 2 miles north of Gorda. Look for a sign along the side of the road, “Jade Cove.” A dirt shoulder on the opposite side of the road provides parking.
Access and entry: You must climb a wooden stairway over a barbed wire fence and walk a well defined pathway across an open meadow leading to cliffs overlooking the cove. A trail switchbacks down the steep cliffs. You’ll need your hands to climb down the last few feet of the cliff. Finish by crossing over a slippery, algae-covered boulder field to the sheltered beach of the cove.
Skill level: Intermediate to advanced.
Depth: 30 feet.
Visibility: 0 to 20 or 30 feet, depending on season and conditions, which can vary from day to day.
Photography: Take something small and inexpensive. Something you don’t mind breaking.
Hunting: Too far to come just to hunt.
Facilities: Go behind a boulder on shore. Not much privacy, though.
Conditions: Best in April, but that’s no guarantee. Diving here is strictly hit or miss.