When you mention shipwrecks and diving in California, most divers immediately think Yukon. But long before the Yukon was intentionally put down beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, there have been many ships taken below against their will. One such ship, I am embarrassed to say, I recently dived for the first time. The Star of Scotland, originally commissioned in 1918 as the HMS Mistletoe, lies in the middle of the Santa Monica Bay, just under two miles from shore. On a tepid Southern California morning I slipped into the cool green waters of the Bay. Not sure what to expect, I descended the anchor line and began scanning the depth for some kind of structures.
As we reached 40 feet, the darkness of a structure began to stand out from the lighter sandy bottom. The water is green, but surprisingly clear. This is a good day in the Santa Monica Bay. The anchor was perfectly placed across the stern of this sunken ship. Rising 15 to 20 feet from the bottom, there is still plenty of hull left after 60 years on the bottom. We slowly cruised along the surface of the Star moving toward the bow. Several areas of decking with gaping holes sit home to a multitude of fish, including several black sea bass, one over four feet in length.
This twisted metal wreckage is from a warship built for a war before they numbered wars. The ship was originally used to ambush World War I German submarines by disguising itself as a merchant ship. When the sub would feel safe and surface for the kill, facades were dropped exposing
guns that were set ablaze often sending the sub to the bottom.
But now this deceptor of war is a garden of sea life, decorated by mother nature. Nearly every square inch of hard surface is covered by corynactis anemones in hues of lavender, pink, and orange. What is not overrun by anemones has rock scallops. They are big and there is a lot of them.
One area of the deck is completely fallen in on itself and has created a maze of overhangs and small room-like structures. I moved through these areas with ease and posed for several photographs. During the surface interval I was told that was not a good idea. The Star of Scotland is not stable and penetrations of any kinds are unwise. What appears to be solid metal structure can indeed come down fairly easy. To be safe, do not enter any areas of the ship.
This particular day in the Bay was so exceptional, it was decided to not move and make this the only location for the day. I could have stayed here all week and still felt like I had not visited all there was to see on the Star. Pre-sinking she was 35 feet in width and over 262 feet long. Though much of the hull has broken away and fallen in on itself, her overall structure is still there. That is a lot of ship to dive.
As you move toward the bow you will encounter a relatively new topography of the wreck. What used to be an intact section of the bow only weeks before is gone. Just gone. Speculating that it was broken apart by an anchor, it is unclear what really happened. The decking just disappears and drops to sand for about 10 feet and then you come upon the bow. Still upright in the sand. It gave me an eery feeling as I swam around it. For some reason seeing the bow of a ship makes it very real that this was once plowing through the surface of the ocean. The bow creates a large cave that is home to many different fish. Do not swim into the structure.
I would imagine that the freestanding bow is very vulnerable now that it is no longer attached to the rest of the ship.
On the short ride to the dive site from Redondo Beach, I had the great fortune to have Pat Smith onboard to enlighten me on the history and stories of the Star of Scotland. Pat Smith is co-author of the book, Shipwrecks of Southern California. The Star of Scotland went through many names including the Mistletoe as a Royal Navy warship. The Chiapas served as a cargo carrier from Panama to San Francisco. The La Playa de Ensenada hauled fruit from Mexico to the U.S. West Coast. Once she made it to the Santa Monica Bay she had four other names before becoming the Star of Scotland. Her simple job in the Bay was first as a speakeasy and gambling ship, later adding prostitution to her list. In 1940 with the new name Star of Scotland she became a party boat and fishing barge.
On a particularly stormy few days in January 1942, the ship began taking on water that the crew could not handle. According to eyewitness account, something seemed to give way and the ship went down in seconds. Sadly, one crewmember lost his life that night.
The Star of Scotland is a great dive, especially if you are lucky enough to hit it on a good viz day. It is important to make sure you hook your anchor on the wreck. You do not want to be close and spend your time swimming over sand looking for her. Be wary of fishing line and other hazards. Make sure you wear gloves as the sharp rusty metal of the hull can be a hazard, too.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: About two miles from shore off Santa Monica in the northern section of the Santa Monica Bay. Marked on most charts. GPS N 33°59.88’‚ W 118°31.20′ (GPS for reference only. Do not use as
your sole source of navigation).
Access: Boat only. Launch ramp at nearby Marina del Rey for private boats. Charter boats out of Redondo Beach for a short run to the north.
Skill Level: Intermediate.
Depths: 85 feet to bottom.
Visibility: Variable but generally fair to poor averaging 15 feet.
Photography: Good for wide angle among the colorful twisted wreckage but visibility often limits wide angle photos. Macro excellent with a multitude of subjects.
Hunting: Great for scallops. Spearfishing fair, mostly for barred sand bass and a few calicos. Occasional lobster in wreckage.
Hazards: Fishing line and hooks. Wreckage is fragile and may collapse. Penetration is not recommended.