It’s all about animal action. Some places have it and others don’t. The west end of Eagle Reef has it—big time.
Eagle reef is a large rocky structure, one-half mile long, 600 yards from shore. It is a series of pinnacles that come as little as three feet of the surface. Most of the shallow points, however, are in the 15 to 20 foot range.
The west end of the reef tops out at 12 feet down and then rambles down steeply to as much as 100 feet, depending on location. Much of the rock is vertical with deep crevices that hold a whole host of animals. It seems as if all of them are taking advantage of the current-borne food—or taking advantage of those taking advantage. The food chain in motion.
Usually bathed in the leading edge of the current, this is the best place on this large reef for animal action. Fish jockey for the best position, which seems to cause constant motion.
When currents are slack or slight, this can be a dive site for all skill levels, with a variety of depths and pockets across the top of the reef to explore. If currents are up, and they usually run from west to east, they are sometimes quite strong. And they can come up very quickly. Look for the lay of the kelp. If no kelp is evident, then it is likely laying down on the bottom, stretched out by an extremely strong current. Obviously, you do not want to dive under these conditions.
But most often the currents over Eagle Reef are moderate. There are plenty of pockets and holes, as well as pinnacles to hide behind to get out of the powerful moving water. Always dive upcurrent and use a floating line behind the boat should you need help getting back.
The best reef faces are the open ocean side and the west end that leads into the prevailing current. Kelp is thick. Among the fronds are a number of mollusks, including the Norris top shell that feeds on the algae. Look for large wavy turbans and giant keyhole limpets on the rocks. I even spotted a pink abalone on my last dive. But do not touch! Abalone are fully protected south of San Francisco. Unfortunately, this site is heavily dived so scallops are a bit sparse but can be seen back in the crevices.
Those looking for seafood underwater are best off to stick with lobster. This is a fair lobster spot early in the season. The best area is, surprisingly, the inside of the reef. It probably does not get the attention the outer edges of the reef get because it is simply not as attractive a dive. Spearfishing here is poor unless you are an experienced hunter. Schools of yellowtail pass across this reef often, and white seabass are sometimes seen, but only if you are the first one on the reef in the morning and only if you are experienced and ultra-quiet freediver.
Eagle Reef is perhaps best for the underwater photographer, or for those divers who just want to take in the beauty with their eyes. There are a lot of great camera angles with walls, pinnacles, and wide crevices. The kelp is thick and healthy. Nice stands of gorgonian soft coral seafans add color. Light is abundant because water clarity is good and depths shallow.
Fun fish for observation and pictures include bat rays, horn and swell sharks, rockfish, including the yellow and black barred treefish, and the bright orange garibaldi. Some of the largest garibaldi nests I have ever seen were built on this reef. Smaller fish include hoards of tiny blue-banded gobies, blackeyed gobies (also known as ghost gobies), and red Irish lords.
Macro photography options beyond the fish include a fair amount of nudibranchs (best on the west end of the reef), clumps here and there of corynactis anemones, and under ledges, aggregating coral.
Eagle Reef is a popular stop for the charter and private boats alike, operating from the mainland, Avalon, and Two Harbors. About the only thing that might stop you from diving here is a strong current or if the wind comes up from the northwest. Being away from the island, Eagle Reef is a bit more unprotected than other sites and can get choppy in the afternoon. It’s best to dive here in the morning.
Near the west end of the reef was the most recent attempt of the Catalina Mooring project to install a mooring buoy (to lessen anchor damage on the reef). Unfortunately, the drill bit became lodged in the rock 30 feet down and is stuck to this day, earning this section of the reef the nickname “Excalibur Reef.”
The Catalina Conservancy Divers also have research projects ongoing in the area. Do not touch or disturb any projects as valuable data may be lost.
Go to where the action is—the west end of Eagle Reef!
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: West of Isthmus Cove, mainland side of Catalina Island, 600 yards offshore. GPS N33°27.678′, W118°30.687′ (GPS for reference only, not for use as primary source of navigation).
Access: Boat only.
Skill Level: All, if current is down, but it can come up sudden and strong!
Depths: 10 to 100 feet. 30 to 70 feet common dive depths.
Visibility: Very good, averaging 50 feet.
Snorkeling: Fair. Some shallow pinnacles, but beware of boat traffic in this open location.
Hunting: Lobster fair in season. Spearfishing fair for experienced hunters.
Hazards: Boat traffic. Strong currents.