Like a lot of San Diego divers, I used to think that there were no dive sites worth diving north of Scripps Canyon. After all, Point Loma and the La Jolla peninsula offered all the diving I could handle. I was a regular at the Cove, Casa Pool, Sunset Cliffs, etc. These are all fantastic dive spots. Why sit in traffic past the 8-805 split when I could spend more time diving? I didn’t realize the answer until I moved to Solana Beach in North County.
I lived right on the ocean about two blocks away from Pillbox. One day, I felt like doing a dive but not driving through the traffic mess on the 5. I decided to check out the local diving to see what it was all about. Prior to diving Pillbox, I thought it would be a sandy oasis similar to La Jolla Shores, only without the submarine canyon. What I found was a pleasant surprise. It has an abnormal amount of marine life and is relatively untouched compared to dive sites down south. It is a very fun dive and offers a dive similar to the Marine Room kelp beds in La Jolla.
Pillbox is officially known as Solana Beach County Park but the local surfers dubbed it Pillbox. (I like the name Pillbox better. It sounds more like a dive site!) To get there, take Interstate 5 to the Solana Beach exits. Take Lomas Santa Fe all the way west until you cross the railroad tracks. Keep going west two more blocks until you come to the beach. There is free parking and a bathroom at the top of the parking lot. There are showers at the bottom of the paved road and the Solana Beach Lifeguards have their headquarters on site.
Park your car and gear up in the parking lot. Walk down the paved ramp and enter the water. It is a western facing beach and waves are generally small. Once you enter, you will find a small sandy area in about 15 to 25 feet of water. Descending to the bottom, you will first notice a variety of sand creatures living here. I usually find a lot of sand dollars, sea pens, and various flatfish lying on the bottom depending on the season. Not only have I seen a variety of skates, but I have also seen some sizeable halibut in the area. Most of the larger halibut do not seemed spooked by divers, probably due to the infrequent divers visiting the sites. On one dive, I saw a halibut’s eyes sticking out of the sand and didn’t realize how large it was until I nudged him and the fish swam off. It was at least a four-foot halibut. It is pretty uncommon to find halibut this large on a beach dive unless it is a marine life reserve. I normally don’t see any this big unless diving off San Clemente Island.
If you take a right turn directly north in 25 feet of water, you will swim up and find some rocky outcroppings. This is the main reef structure and there are some really neat finger reefs among the rocks. Marine life abounds in the finger reefs; treefish, garibaldi, rockfish, anemones, small snails, and nudibranch’s cover the reefs. I have even seen a moray in the rocks.
I usually extend my dive and swim out to the kelp bed. While the kelp bed is small, if offers quite a bit to see. Some of the deeper portions of the reef at the kelp bed can hit 45 feet. You can usually see the small kelp bed from the beach and shoot a compass bearing to swim out to. I usually try to naturally navigate it from the small finger reefs to see how good I can navigate. Once in the kelpbed, you can see various open water pelagic fish swim by and dolphins can often be seen to the south swimming in the waves. I usually plan my air turnaround point and navigate back to the beach underwater using my compass and the natural features of the beach.
Every time I dive Pillbox, I always find something new. It is an excellent dive for beginners and a fantastic one to try to navigate by using natural references only. The reefs are not as impacted as La Jolla, and I never have to wait for parking. I always wonder why more people don’t dive it.
While off-gassing, there are several great restaurants to grab something to eat prior to driving home. Pacific Coast Grill offers up some of the best food in the area and is located right around the corner from Pillbox on the PCH. Also, Chief’s burgers across the railroad tracks right near the train station offers up some of the tastiest burgers in the area.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: Solana Beach County Park (a.k.a. Pillbox, a.k.a. Fletcher Cove) Take Interstate 5 to Lomas Santa Fe exit. Drive west until you come to the beach. The dive site is directly down the paved road.
Access: Public parking lot.
Depths: 15-45 feet.
Skill Level: Beginner and above depending on conditions. Great for natural navigation practice.
Visibility: Average to good, averaging 10-15 feet.
Photography: Very good for macro and average for wide angle. Lots of rockfish, halibut, and sand bass depending on the season. Abundant sand creatures and some colorful small creatures, too. Wide-angle opportunities are better in the small kelp bed.
Hunting: Good for halibut and rockfish.
Hazards: Waves, surfers, and currents.