I had died and gone to nudibranch heaven. I love chromodorids. Their beautiful violet bodies are accented with bright yellow stripes. They are, unfortunately, not common. On this dive At Johnson’s Rocks I eventually saw six! Three of them were an inch and a half long, large specimens by any standard, all on the same rock! On that same dive I saw countless Spanish shawls and a Hermissenda the size of my thumb, the biggest I have ever seen! Needless to say, my camera was pretty busy on that trip.

I had entered the water at Johnson’s Rocks with frankly not a huge expectation of great photo material. I had dived this site many times before but primarily as a hunter of seafood, not images. In season, I had always done well here looking for lobster. I have also taken fair size calico bass here as well. As with many other dive sites, I am now looking more for undersea photographic beauty than the occasional seafood morsel.

Johnson’s Rocks is a large shallow reef and kelp area near the west end of Catalina on the front side. Several huge boulders that make up the reef are only a few feet down and the largest, 250 yards from shore, is a wash rock just peaking above the surface. Boaters need to use caution. Surrounding the reef, however, is a large expanse of sand that makes for easy anchoring.

Most of the reef under the kelp is 40 to 60 feet down. These will be your typical diving depths. There are rocks deeper out from the main wash rock to about 90 feet. In shallower depths, dive areas go right up to shore, but these tend to be very surgy.

For the most satisfying dive, spend half your time around the reef edge near the sand. Here you are likely to see big bat rays and perhaps even an angel shark. The second half of your dive, plunge into the kelp for unprecedented kelp rooms and fish, invertebrate life, rockfish, and boulders the size of houses with small caves, overhangs and crevices to explore. Stars, keyhole limpets and sea cucumbers dot the reef. It is one of the most life-filled reefs and kelp forests you will find on the frontside of Catalina. And because this a large reef area, several dives are needed to explore it all.

Conditions here are variable but generally good. The west end of Catalina often gets the brunt of the prevailing winds and northwest weather and swell that is prominent in the winter. The site is not always diveable, but when it is you can expect 30 to 50 feet of visibility. Surge can be a problem in shallow and currents are common outward from the large wash rock. The kelp is thick so knowledge of kelp diving techniques is a must.

You can bet I will be back to this site again for more photography. But I will also be back during lobster season to grab a bug or two.

Dive Spot At A Glance

Location: Frontside of the west end of Catalina Island. Marked on most charts. GPS N33°28.613’, W118°35.314’ (GPS coordinates for reference only. Do not use as your sole source of navigation.)
Access: Boat only.
Skill Level: All.
Depths: 20 to 90 feet but typical diving depths 40 to 60 feet
Photography: Excellent macro with nudibranchs, invertebrates and small reef fish in kelp forest. Good for wide-angle with kelp vistas, bat rays on sand.
Hunting: Fair for lobster (try in shallow for best bet), spearfishing fair for calico bass. Outer fringes for yellowtail.
Hazards: Boaters beware of shallow rock and wash rocks. Surgy in shallow. Currents can be strong on outer edge.