It was a strange sensation. It was like one minute we were diving the far reaches of the Northern Channel Islands, and the next, we were at Catalina Island. Water temperature had changed little but the marine life most certainly had. We were in the transition zone that often typifies diving Santa Cruz Island.
Transition zones are great places to dive. One of the best off California is in the Northern Channel Islands chain, and Santa Cruz Island seems to be ground zero. In this zone colder northern waters mix with more temperate waters from the south. Marine life from each zone coexist, even thrive. Certain places around Santa Cruz Island accentuate this contrasted mixing more than others. The tiny cove at Quail Rock was one of the most pronounced I’d seen in a long time.
Over on the far wall to the east of the rock was a carpet of invertebrate life typical to chillier waters. Hunters were finding rock scallops. Macro photographers kept their cameras busy with tiny fringe head blennies and numerous nudibranchs.
My buddy and I set our compasses, dropped down, and headed for the small wall at the base of the rock that gives the dive site its name. At 45 down the reef was covered in bryozoans. Here and there were bright red rose anemones and a number of fat rockfish. A big lingcod leisurely move aside and we finned along on our compass course. Dotting the reef were big sunstars and an occasional rock scallop. All of this was what I might expect to see at Santa Rosa or San Miguel Islands in colder waters.
Then a garibaldi showed up, then another. Garibaldi are a more temperate water fish. Breaking into the kelp clearing I thought we were at Catalina! Garibaldi and blacksmith swirled about. The water was clearer and we commenced to explore further.
Around Quail Rock were a number of small caves and even a swim-through. Here and there were lobsters cowering in the crevices. The kelp was thick and lush in the shallow waters. Wide-angle photography was delightful in sun streaming through the kelp canopy.
There are a number of similar coves along the frontside of the west end of Santa Cruz Island. Most of them also have delightful sea caves carved into the cliff faces. All of the coves have this delightful mix of marine life from both cold water and temperate water zones. Take the time to explore several, especially Quail Rock.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: East of Painted Cave on the frontside (side facing the mainland) of west end of Santa Cruz Island. GPS coordinates N34°04.066, W119°50.969 GPS coordinates are for reference only and not to be used as sole source of navigation.
Access: Boat only. Charter boats from Santa Barbara and Ventura area frequently visit here (see boat list below).
Skill level: All.
Depths: 15 to 45 feet.
Visibility: Varies (typical to transition zones) but generally good averages 30 feet.
Snorkeling: Fair near rock.
Photography: Very good for both macro for small and medium reef fish and nudibranchs. Wide angle good for larger reef fish, near mini-walls and up in the kelp forest.
Hunting: Fair for rock scallops and a few lobster. Spearfishing fair for lingcod, rockfish and sheephead.