Catalina Island, in particular the town of Avalon, is a haven for residents and tourists alike, because it offers great weather and a wide range of leisure activities, including scuba diving — and golf. Ironically, the dive site known as “golf balls” isn’t located near a golf course. It’s below a bluff that local golfers use as a makeshift driving range.
Before entering the water here the charter boat captain offered a challenge: the buddy team that surfaced with the most golf balls would win a prize. While my main goal for the dive was to get great photos, I kept the golf ball challenge in mind.
It is a large lush kelp forest to explore. One section has a steep drop-off while portions of the slope are gentler. Scattered deeper away from shore are smaller reefs, rocks and a few small pinnacles. It’s an interesting terrain and, on a quick survey, was abundant in marine life typical to most lush California kelp forests. My buddy and I set off on our photo expedition, but before long we were sidetracked. With golf balls everywhere, we just couldn’t help ourselves. We stuffed our BC pockets full in minutes.
Now, back to the reef and our photo quest. First we headed to the steeper drop-off. At 45 feet there was a thermocline and almost instantly a giant black sea bass (Stereolepis gigas) appeared. Then another showed up. Cool. The one was just short of five feet long and the other about four. The massive creatures passed before my eyes just a couple feet away. Amazing. I never cease to be thrilled by these awesome yet passive creatures that were nearly hunted into oblivion in the ’60s and ’70s by both spear and hook-and-line fishers. Complete protection began in the 1980s and slowly but surely their population rebounded. While this dive site is not the best Catalina site for sea bass, an encounter here is almost guaranteed in the late spring and summer months. Search along the thermocline, usually at about 45 feet, for your best chance of meeting these animals.
Moving deeper we found a smattering of lobster, some legal sized. This area is not a marine protected area, so hunting is permitted. Calico bass tend to be plentiful here.
Depending on the exact location, the rocks meet the sand at about 60 feet. Look seaward you’ll see a small reef in the distance, covered with colorful gorgonian. Halibut are often spotted in the sand flats.
Moving back to shallower waters we enjoyed some of the better kelp forests surrounding Catalina. While in deeper water the kelp is sparse and it’s easy to traverse the reef, but in the shallows it’s quite thick. Be sure to use proper kelp techniques exploring this area.
Here you’ll find the usual kelp forest fish in abundance. Bright neon blue-banded gobies are scattered across the reefs, offering bright pops of color. Stunning orange garibaldi are very friendly and photogenic. And you’ll enjoy watching schools of blacksmith weave their way through the forest of kelp. Filling out the cast of characters you’ll likely find rockfish, sheephead, halfmoons, and opaleye and the occasional soupfin shark, too.
Invertebrates feature a large variety of mollusks including large sea hares, kellet’s welk, Norris top snails feeding on the kelp stalks, and wavy turbans. Also present are the shiny rich brown chestnut cowries. Although common, these are the only cowries found on the West Coast of North America.
So how did we do in the golf ball contest? We won! Twelve total was our haul. The prize? A double helping of homemade brownies. Of the 15 divers aboard we collected more than 40 golf balls. So I suppose the name golf balls reef is fitting, indeed.
Location: East end of Catalina Island near the old rock quarry and the old trash dump.
Skill level: Novice to advanced.
Diving Depths: 20 to 70 feet.
Visibility: Average 30 to 40 feet.
Access: Boat only.
Conditions: The area is well protected, with only mild to moderate current.
Hunting: Some lobster. Fair to good spearfishing for calico bass.
Photography: Good wide-angle and macro.