S.S. Avalon – Good Ship, Good Wreck, Good Fun.
Though most divers don’t consider Santa Monica Bay to be the nexus of the diving world, in the reach between Point Dume on the north and Palos Verdes Point (Rocky Point) on the south, there are some spectacular dives to be found. However, as my buddy and I descend through the gray-green water off Rocky Point, it didn’t look like this was going be one of the good ones. The water is a comfortable 61 degrees, but the visibility is poor, allowing us to see only about 8-10 feet of the down-line we’re following.
I can read my buddy’s face through his mask, “Yah’, sure. This is really going to be a neat dive.”
Then, at 40 feet we hit a thermocline, and with the drop in temperature, we experience a dramatic improvement in visibility. Despite the murky water above us that dims the light, the visibility has opened up to more than 40 feet. The weight on our down-line has landed perfectly; spread below us like the bones of some immense Jurassic creature are the remains of the steamer Avalon.
The SS Avalon began her career in May 1891 as the Virginia flagship for the Chicago-based Goodrich Transit Company serving the Great Lakes. Her appointments were ornate and luxurious. In 1918, the Navy requisitioned her to support the war effort. Renamed USS Blue Ridge, she was to be converted to a troop transport. Deemed excess by the government in 1919, she was sold to representatives of the Wrigley family and brought to the West Coast. In April 1920, after a major refit, and a name change to Avalon, she made the first of thousands of channel crossings to Catalina. Fast, plush and comfortable and a capacity of 1,500 passengers, the Avalon was the way to visit Catalina.
After 31 years of operations between the mainland and Catalina, the old steamer was retired, cut down and converted into a salvage barge. In 1964, while employed in the salvage of the Dominator, which had run aground on Palos Verdes Point in 1961, the Avalon was swamped in bad weather and foundered in 80 feet of water just north of the point.
She rests there today, now a vibrant reef that seems to have denser populations of fish and invertebrates than the natural rocky reefs that are the typical bottom structure in the area. After 114 years, the last 40 of which she’s been marinating in saltwater, the ship is still magnificent.
As we descend on the stern of the Avalon, great clouds of blacksmith and sargo greet us. They hover around the remains of the tracked, self-propelled crane that was being used in the Dominator salvage, and is now the most prominent structure on the wreck. Calico bass cluster in squadrons of up to a dozen and keep a careful eye on the two new kids coming down on their reef. Hovering around the limits of visibility like tricolored ROVs, are several large male sheephead. In this diversity of sea life, we pause for a moment to examine the geometric shapes of the old crane, now fully encrusted with Corynactis of various delicate shades of red and pinks. Moving forward along the hull, the Avalon’s keel is plainly seen.
The heavy steel frames again bring to mind the ribs of some huge prehistoric creature. Hull plates show the heavy riveted construction that kept the vessel so substantial throughout her many years of service. Moving further forward, we flush out the occasional gold-hued Garibaldi, and then the old steamer’s bow comes into view. Surprisingly intact, it lies on its starboard side and offers the trained and well-prepared diver the opportunity of penetration. Like all such sites though, spur of the moment excursions to the interior of any wreck should always be avoided.
Moving back toward the stern we slow down and take in the tremendous invertebrate diversity that is found on the wreck. Myriad species find good living amid the scattered and broken remains of the old channel steamer, and so the Avalon is a popular destination for photographers. Lobster season finds the wreck the center of attention for bug divers as the nooks and crannies of her hull often provide the skilled (or lucky) hunter with a good take of the succulent crustaceans.
With our bottom time gone, I signal my buddy that it is time to go. He turns back to the Avalon and sweeps his arm across the entire panorama of the wreck, looks at me, grins—semi-flooding his mask—and gives me an emphatic “OK” sign.
It was a neat dive after all.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: On the North side of Palos Verdes Point (Rocky Point) Palos Verdes.
Access: Boat only.
Skill Level: Intermediate or better.
Depths: 75-80 feet.
Visibility: Variable, 8-70 feet.
Photography: Interesting possibilities on the wreck along with great macro opportunities; a great place to shoot nudibranchs and other colorful small invertebrates.
Hunting: Average. Calico bass and lingcod are commonly seen but most divers; if they must hunt, usually move to the nearby reefs and kelp areas keeping the Avalon as an unofficial no-kill zone. Lobster, in season.
Hazards: Watch for surge, at time even at considerable depth. Currents can be substantial and northwest winds can come up quickly at any time.