Oh, how I love gorgonians! Kim—wife, buddy and underwater model—knows that if I see a large stand of beautiful gorgonian sea fan, I just have to take a photo with her in the background. Red and gold are common and make fantastic images against a blue or green water background. Add kelp and you have the makings of an award winning image. Lots of dive sites around the Channel Islands and along the coast have nice stands of this California type of soft coral, but the site that stands out most in my mind is Sea Fan Grotto on Catalina Island.
The unique and stunning feature of this dive site is the hanging gardens of sea fans in a wide-mouth and easily penetrated cavern. Lying in just 25 feet of water, it is a beginner dive to the entrance of the gaping hole. Be sure to bring a powerful dive light. This is a cavern, as opposed to a cave; natural light can always be seen at the entrance. There is no risk of silting. Intermediate divers can penetrate the cavern as long as you are comfortable with an overhead environment and possess good buoyancy skills.
Buoyancy skills are a must in the cavern so as to not bang around inside, damaging the delicate gorgonians inside. There are three holes along this wall but only one can be penetrated comfortably. On the inside of the largest cavern, take time to look back out toward the entrance. The framing of the cavern with the hanging gorgonians and the blue green and amber kelp forest behind is a spectacular and photogenic sight. Add a garibaldi or two and a diver, and you have the perfect photo. Sometimes the fish will swim upside down along the roof of the cavern!
The cavern varies from 10 to 5 feet tall and extends about 20 feet back. At the back of the cavern is an interesting chimney that goes straight up to 10 feet of water. The passage is tight but can be attempted by the more adventurous and experienced diver.
As beautiful as the cavern is, this is by no means the only feature of interest at this dive site. Along the wall outside the cavern are additional stands of gorgonians varying in color from yellow, to orange, to red. Down the steep slope of gravel, rocks and boulders, outside the cavern there is an interesting kelp forest with a good amount of fish life. Pelagic species have been known to cruise by including, a few years ago, a juvenile great white shark!
The site is fairly easy to find. It lies between the Rock Quarry and Blue Cavern. The tops of very large boulders can be seen at the waterline at the base of the cliff (see photo). This marks the site. With the moderately steep drop-off, anchorage can be difficult, so some experienced boaters will drop their bow anchor deep then tie off a stern line to the rocks. This diver, however, prefers the services of a professional dive charter boat.
Now matter how you get there, the Sea Fan Grotto is must-do dive. Go explore this wonderful cavern soon and experience the hanging gorgonian gardens of Catalina Island.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: Front side of Catalina Island east of the Isthmus between the Rock Quarry and Blue Cavern. GPS N33°26.64’, W118°28.457 (GPS for reference only. Do not use as your sole source of navigation.)
Depths: 25 feet to the cavern, deeper into kelp and down the slope.
Skill Level: All to entrance of the cavern. Intermediate or better inside but only if comfortable in an overhead environment.
Visibility: Very good averaging 30 to 40 feet but 60 feet or better is not unusual.
Photography: Excellent wide angle from inside the cavern looking out or along the gorgonian encrusted wall.
Hunting: Poor. Occasionally small yellowtail school will cruise past.