It was one of those days when you could not help feeling lucky. The sun was out, seas were flat, and there was barely enough wind to make a ripple on the water. This was one of those rare days at San Miguel where we could dive anywhere we wished. Captain Don of the Truth wisely choose to take us to Point Bennett.
San Miguel is one of the Northern Channel Islands. Although it is not the largest, it has the notoriety of being the furthest west, and is one of the most remote. Point Bennett is the most westerly spot on the island, and is one of the least dived spots in Southern California, mainly due to the exposure of the reef to wind and swell. Sometimes you get lucky and conditions are just right for a pleasant dive here.
From the moment we neared the Point and dropped the anchor we knew that we were stepping back in time. On the beach of adjoining Adams Cove was an enormous colony of California sea lions, which were next to a smaller colony of gigantic elephant seals. This area has the highest concentration of pinnipeds in the state.
Underwater you can expect to find a rock bottom, with jumbles of large boulders. There are numerous rock walls that jut up from the bottom to near the surface. Some have their bases near 70 feet and others begin in the range or 30 to 40 feet. Either way the rocks are covered with colorful macro life. There are a great many Spanish shawls and clown nudibranchs. Walls are dotted with orange cup corals, and there are many big abalone hiding in the recesses between the boulders.
The big attraction here is not the macro life, but the abundance of large game fish. There are enormous lingcod, often looking more like logs on the bottom than fish. There are big cabezon with their gaping mouths and huge heads. Larger-than average rockfish mill around the bottom, or school in open water. Big schools of sheephead cruised the reef, lead by males that were nearly three feet long.
I often use the condition of the sheephead to define the health of a Southern Californian reef. You see, all sheephead (like many members of the wrasse family) are born female. The dominant female of the group (usually the largest) changes to male after the death of the lead male. In the absence of fishing, this female-to-male change normally occurs only after the female reaches a length of two feet or more. Fish of this size were once common throughout the Channel Islands, but overfishing has steadily depleted the large fish, and now 14 inch males are common. These days, large males are only found at remote places like Point Bennett.
Occasionally, our group was visited by playful sea lions. Agile and swift, these marine mammals are always entertaining. Elephant seals rarely visit divers while they are underwater, happily since they often have an attitude to match their 5000-pound bulk.
Point Bennett is the Jurassic Park of California diving; animals are found here in abundance and are big, sometimes very big. Thankfully, it is destined to stay that way since the area south of the point and extending past Adams cove is now a California Marine Life Protection Act Reserve. This designation prohibits the commercial and sport taking of game, and assures that the area will continue to be unspoiled.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: At the extreme western tip of San Miguel Island.
Access: Boat only, this spot is dived by SoCal’s charter boats when conditions permit.
Skill Level: Intermediate or better.
Depths: 20 to 70 feet.
Visibility: Good, 30-70 feet.
Water temperature: Colder than the other Channel Islands, expect temperatures of 55° F or lower.
Photography: Great opportunities to photograph large game fish and marine mammals. Also a great place to shoot nudibranchs, and other colorful little critters.
Hunting: The south side of Point Bennett is now a fishing reserve and no marine life may be harvested. See California Department of Fish and Game Regulations for more information.
Hazards: Watch for currents. Care should b taken anchoring here since there are many submerged rocks around the dive site. Great white sharks have been seen here.