Fall is an interesting time of year for Southern California divers. The water remains warm despite increasingly cooler—and shorter—days. Offshore breezes locally referred to as “Santa Ana’s” turn ho-hum sunsets into kaleidoscopic extravaganzas that not even Steven Spielberg could duplicate. Lobster hunters salivate at the thought of the season opening night. It’s during this special time that scuba diving along the Palos Verdes Peninsula really gets good.
You see, for the majority of the year this stretch of coast line is buffeted by waves of various size and direction, making it a joy to surfers but a bane to divers. The Santa Ana winds blow out to sea, however. As a result the water flattens out, clears up, and makes inaccessible areas available. Cases in point are the reefs just offshore of the Point Vicente lighthouse. Here, there are a couple of rocks some 250 yards from the shore that break the surface in all but the highest tides. Generally, the swell around them makes it impossible to anchor safely in the area. But when those offshore breezes blow, it’s time to dive!
It’s a glorious day—the water being flatter than roadkill on the San Diego Freeway. A slight cloud cover provides welcome relief from the heat of the sun while the calm water makes putting on the heavy gear almost pleasurable. Stepping off the swim-step, I slowly make my way to the anchor line to begin the descent. Diving at a new site is always exciting. The unknown of what lies on the bottom and what lurks within the cracks and crevices of the reef lends a special thrill to the initial decent. Diving just off shore of Point Vicente my imagination conjures up visions of shipwrecks (1918 Phyllis, 1933 Alma and Lahina, 1940 West Maco, 1941 Cleopatra, 1942 Amazon, 1946 Anaconda).
Fifty feet below the surface, ghostly images of the reef flicker like an eerie apparition. Shapeless boulders speckled with purple or black sea urchins loom out of the green water in the 20-foot visibility. Caverns of infinite darkness form beneath corynactis-covered precipices whose mass shades the inhabitants from the green glow of the sun streaming through the water. Drifting above the reef, I am greeted by schools of blacksmith darting in and about the rocks.
A garibaldi snaps a warning, “Hey, you with the bubbles there. Don’t be pokin’ ’round my eggs!” (Garibaldi guard their eggs, which they attach to the reef in large patches with ferocity not unlike a vicious guard dog.) Ever-present señoritas peck at a spot on the reef that I accidentally bump with my fin sending a flurry of food into the water column. They’re happy. I’m glad there is minimal surge so that my clumsiness doesn’t destroy what nature spent years creating. Although this is mainly a discovery dive I am not opposed to bringing home something for the dinner table. Out of the corner of my eye I spy something winking at me. Ah-ha, a scallop snaps shut—a clear invitation for seafood fettuccini. During the remainder of the dive I manage to find several other candidates for dinner, though not enough for a meal, yet it’s a start.
Swimming slowly from boulder to boulder the health and diversity of the tremendous invertebrate population is obvious. Half a dozen varieties of nudibranchs are represented and starfish graze in places not covered with sea urchins (plenty of those!). Tunicates attached to seafans filter a meal from this planktonic delicatessen. Surveying their world, a school of barracuda cruises slowly in perfectly synchronized motion over the top of the reef. Amazing!
Gliding back toward my starting point I smile to myself at the health of the reef and for the opportunity to enjoy it. I wonder if the sea has reclaimed all those wrecks or have others taken home trophies of the past, leaving no trace of the wreck’s place in history. Then, there before me, I see it. It’s definitely from some long lost ship. An old anchor rope stained green with algae waves slowly in the surge. Will it lead me to treasure? Following it my heart beats a little faster. Yes, there it is—a chain! My treasure is close. Oh rats, just an anchor—with the price sticker still on it. The thrill of the find is somewhat diminished, but a thrill nonetheless. The exuberance of “success” is now rapidly replaced by the foreboding “beep” of my pressure gauge signaling 500 PSI remaining. I check the compass and make a course for the boat.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: 250-400 yards off shore from the Point Vicente lighthouse at Palos Verdes.
Access and Entry: the only sensible way to dive this area is by boat. It’s too far offshore to swim and the trek up and down the cliffs is too strenuous for the hardiest (or foolhardiest) of divers. Although only rarely, charter boats do visit the site.
Visibility: Generally not great due to the swell against the reef. Expect 10-15 on the average, but may exceed 30 feet during Santa Ana conditions.
Depth: 0-100 feet. The reef usually breaks the surface and would most likely break your boat if you get too close.
Photography: Excellent macro stuff
Hunting: Lots of small to medium fish
Hazards: Strong current possible, lots of boat traffic on calm days, treacherous swell over the reef.
Experience level recommended: Advanced to Expert