White Rocks, also known as Sea Fan Grotto, is one of the classic “must-do” dive sites at Catalina Island. Just east of Blue Cavern Point, massive slabs of rock sheared away from the cliff centuries ago and stacked themselves in such away underwater as to create a wonderful cavern that is suitable for all levels of divers.
The rock pile can be clearly seen protruding from the surface, making this site easy to find. Some of the rocks are white with bird droppings, hence the name. Anchorage is a moderate challenge with most skippers dropping their anchor on the deep water sand bottom, then backing down near the rocks. Some also choose to put a stern line on the rocks to hold the boat steady, but the current can sometimes make this tricky. Current is prevalent here but only occasionally so strong as to make the site undivable.
Dropping down adjacent to the rock pile, the bottom drops quickly to 20 feet, then another quick drop to 25. It is along this ledge that the entrance to the cavern can be found. There are actually three entrances—the first, cruising from left to right as you face the reef is a tight squeeze for a single diver. The second, three divers can enter at once. Pause first and look to the rear of the cavern without your light. You will notice light coming from the roof of the cavern. There is a chimney at the back of the cavern wide enough for a diver to pass upward and out of the cavern nearly all the way to the surface.
Unless you are comfortable in an overhead environment, do not enter this cavern. Bring a light as there are many fascinating animals in the nooks and crannies. The wide entrance leads to a moderately large room about 5 feet high and as much as 20 feet across. There is a smaller sideroom to the west accessed by a short but narrower passage (large enough for one diver). The water in the cavern is always reasonably clear (I have never seen the visibility here less than 30 feet). There is no silt, and a good amount of light penetrates with many sources.
The main event here are the gorgonian sea fans. They are beautiful and are everywhere — at the entrance, along the walls outside, and hanging from the ceiling. Colors vary from a warm purple, orange, yellow, and red. A good dive light is a must to appreciate the rainbow of colors.
An excellent photo opportunity lies in the framing effect the large cavern opening presents. As a photographer, enter the cave and meter your exposure on the blue water and kelp outside. Then adjust your strobes to illuminate warm colored sea fans hanging from the cavern ceiling. If you can get your dive buddy to hang out at the entrance looking in, you’ll have the perfect shot.
Inside the cavern, fish add to the mix of color and interest. Garibaldi like it in here as do small rockfish and sheephead. Sometimes you’ll see the fish living an inverted life where the ceiling of the cave, a gigantic flat slab of rock, becomes the bottom for them and they swim around up-side-down!
Beginning divers should content themselves with just hanging around the entrance to the cavern. Intermediate divers can stick their head in. Divers with a bit more courage may want to swim through, visit the side chamber, and then head to the back of the main hole and exit up through the chimney. Use discretion in the chimney as surge can become a profound factor. The top of the chimney opens up in 5-10 feet of water and if it is rough, you can get knocked around a bit.
Along the outside of the cavern are mini-walls and overhangs overrun by sea fans. Farther to the west is yet another small cave entrance, but this is too small to pass. Stay out, but it is interesting to look into.
The reef that makes up the cavern and surrounding rocks support a moderate growth of healthy kelp and a nice variety of creatures that go along with this plant. The bottom drops off moderately steep, and it easy to find yourself in 80 to 100 feet of water pretty quick. But the main interest of this dive is the cavern at 25 feet and surrounding rocks at no more than 40. It is a shallow, easy dive.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: Between Blue Cavern Point and the Rock Quarry on the frontside of Catalina. GPS: N33°26.623′, W118°28.396′. GPS for reference only, do not use as your sole source for navigation.
Access: Boat only
Skill Level: All to entrance, Intermediate or better inside.
Depths: 25 feet. Surrounding reef goes deeper but not much reason to go below 40.
Visibility: Consistently very good, averaging 40 feet with much higher not unusual.
Snorkeling: Okay, near the cliff face but bottom drops off quickly.
Hunting: A few lobster. Sometimes yellowtail pass this way.
Photography: Excellent wide-angle, fair macro.