Dropping down through the thick kelp the numerous black rockfish in the water column parted. The first thing that caught my eye on the bottom was a red abalone. It was fat and sassy, just sitting there out in the open. After snapping off a few photos I demonstrated to my buddy a trick I learned a number of years ago where you actually get an abalone to dance. Breaking off a kelp frond I wiggled it in front of the abalone’s face (if you can call it that) and watched it reach out to grab the kelp.

Teasing the abalone a bit, I pulled the kelp away and up. The abalone reached up to chomp on one of its favorites treats. Moving the kelp from side to side, we soon had a dancing abalone! I gave the abalone the kelp treat, I patted him (or her) on the head and moved on, happy to see that they still exist somewhere off Southern California. A bit further on I spotted its brother, sister, cousin and aunt. One uncle was particularly large, spanning over and estimated nine inches!

San Miguel Island is the last refuge of a substantial population of abalone brought close to elimination by overfishing and disease. They have been protected throughout Central and Southern California since 1997. Seeing the population here gave me hope that the red abalone will once again repopulate much of the Channel Islands. This will only happen if they are left alone to breed and spread, but this will take many, many decades.

This island is what I would call pure underwater wilderness. Very few people get to dive here, probably less than a few hundred a year. San Miguel Island is virgin diving and California diving at its best. What keeps most people away is it inaccessibility. It is the furthest west of the Channel Islands and outside the protection of Point Conception on the mainland. Strong wind and waves from the northwest regularly hammer it. The island is usually unapproachable and anchorage is difficult. It takes an experienced skipper to visit this island; a professional dive charter operation is highly recommended. Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara with its three boats — the Truth, Conception and Vision — are an excellent choice as is the dive boat Peace out of Ventura.

Tyler Bight is on the south side of the island and is especially wonderful due to its protection from prevailing northwest weather. Ashore is the only elephant seal rookery in the southern section of the state. Sea lions breed and give birth here as well. Underwater sea lion encounters are almost guaranteed. Offshore from the breeding grounds are a number of beautiful kelp forests and spectacular reefs. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these reefs is Wycoff Ledge where an underwater ledge drops off from as little as 20 feet vertically to over 70 feet. The wall is pierced by deep canyons that are exciting to explore and filled with stunning anemones and numerous rockfish. The ledge is located on the eastern perimeter of the semi-bay.

Scattered through the area are numerous reefs with excellent structure and thick kelp. There are rock piles with huge boulders, more ledges with mini-walls and deep crevices and overhangs. All of this provides an excellent habitat for marine life.

Attached to the rocks are numerous anemones including patches of pink and lavender corynactis anemones. A favorite of mine is the white-spotted rose anemone. Open they have a delightfully soft red and crimson appearance, closed a bright red with white dots giving the look of a large strawberry. At four inches across, anemones can make great macro photo material for the beginner.

This spot is covered with excellent macro imaging possibilities. There are the ubiquitous Spanish shawl nudibranchs, along with a variety of other nudibranchs, including dorids in their many forms, Heremissenda, and Hilton’s aeloid. On my most recent dive I came across a small group of Chromodorids, my personal favorites. Small colorful fish also dot the reef including numerous island kelpfish, painted greenlings as well as blennies, fringeheads and more.

Wide-angle photo opportunities are abundant in the kelp forest dotted with numerous fish. The many ledges, several blanketed by brightly hued sponges and anemones, present interesting angles.

Surprisingly, this is not a very good seafood hunting area. Lobsters are rare as are rock scallops. Lingcod are present but most are small. About the only thing worth mentioning is the numerous rockfish. But even these are on the small side.

For me underwater wilderness diving is what truly excites me in California. And San Miguel Island has some of the best there is to offer. Tyler Bight gives you a place to experience this in a usually calm protected area.