Many of us in Northern California look forward to the opening of abalone season with child-like anticipation. The arrival of spring denotes longer and warmer days and fresh shellfish for the table. However, opening day also comes with a bit of hesitation since the early-season weather is not always optimum for water sports. What divers often look for in early season are protected sites with a lot of abalone, and Little River Cove at Van Damme State Park fills the bill nicely.

Little River Cove is quite picturesque with a wide gravel beach that is framed by huge redwood trees. The pair of offshore rocks named Key Hole and Top Hat, along with the surrounding reef, provides protection from all but the worst of winter storms. When most spots on the north coast is “blown out,” Van Damme will often be diveable.

The southern part of the cove has areas of rock separated by patches of sand. The predominant beds of bull kelp mark the rocky areas, and offer ample opportunities for critter watching. Colorful nudibranchs, sea cucumbers, and small fish make diving here worthwhile. There are a few seven-inch abalone beneath the layer of palm kelp. This area is often the calmest in the cove and may be the only place beginners will find abalone on rough days.

The northern part of the cove is mostly gravel with little of interest for divers until one reaches the north wall. Here is a small bed of giant kelp with an assortment of rose and giant green anemones. Swim along the north face of the cove and find the entrance to the Cave of the Trolls. It is about 20 feet tall, 10 feet wide, and 100 feet long and is half filled with water. The tunnel is great fun to swim through on calm days.

Upon exiting the tunnel, swim 100 yards to the right to the next small cove. Numerous, but small lingcod and cabezon may be seen here in shallow water. This is a pretty area with deep channels and caves to explore, with a thick growth of red coralline algae covering the shallow rocks. You will have to dive to 15-20 feet to find abalone here, but they are in plain sight. More and bigger abalone are found in deeper water.

On calm days the best diving at Van Damme is on the outside of Key Hole and Top Hat Rocks. It is a long swim to these rocks, and all but the most athletic divers will prefer to ride a boat or kayak there. Outside the wash rocks are a series of depressions in 20 feet of water that are definitely worth diving on calm days. These are full of eight-to nine-inch abalone, giant green anemones, with a few fish thrown in for fun. Once you swim past the wash rocks the bottom drops off rapidly to over 80 feet and the rock walls are covered with fluffy white Metridium anemones. This is the spot to spear lingcod and rockfish.

Divers with boats or kayaks should take the time to explore the small coves to the south. The area is a maze of offshore rocks with tunnels, caves, and huge arches. The numerous rocks creates an inland passage all the way south to Buckhorn Cove. But, that’s another story.

Dive Spot At A Glance
: Two miles south of the town of Mendocino at mile marker MEN 48.30
Access and Entry: Park in the large, free lot next to the beach. Good diving may bee found a hundred yard swim off the beach. Small boats and kayaks may be easily launched from the beach. Restrooms and cold showers are available on the beach. There is a state-run campground across the road. Call (800) 444-PARK for reservations.
Depth: 15-80 feet
Skill: Novice to advanced
Photography: Good macro throughout the area, good wide-angle outside the cove when the visibility is good.
Hunting: Good abalone diving north and south of the cove and around the offshore wash rocks. Poor to fair spearfishing off of the rocks and outside the cove to the north.
Hazards: Watch for thick kelp and boat traffic. Conditions are normally calm inside the cove; but outside conditions are highly variable, and can change rapidly.