Divers have a natural affinity to walls. Perhaps it is due to the falling sensation we get when we peer over the edge? Perhaps it is the flying sensation we get while cruising along a deep wall? But I bet it’s mostly the interesting and abundant marine critters that call the wall home. One of the most spectacular walls in Southern California is known as Wycoff Ledge.
Wycoff Ledge is located on the south side of San Miguel Island. While San Miguel is one of the more exposed islands, this site is well protected from the dominant northwest wind and swell. Wycoff has a cornucopia of photogenic marine life to please the most discriminating diver.
The ledge runs roughly east west, and water depth on the north side of the ledge runs 30 to 40 feet. Here the bottom consists of large rocks sprinkled on a rock and sand patch reef. Much of the rock is covered with palm kelp and coralline algae. A few and small abalone are found way back in the cracks of the reef. The tops of the rocks are covered with massive holdfasts of a bed of giant kelp. In summer this bed can be quite thick, so divers should leave plenty of air to navigate back to their boat.
There are plenty of fish to photograph in this area. Look for small kelpfish, gobys, and skulpins hiding among the coralline algae. There are also numerous cabezons and lingcod resting on large rocks. Schools of señoritas and blue rockfish meander through the kelp bed.
As one heads south from the shallows, the bottom rolls over and plunges into the depths. The top of the wall is around 40 feet and in some places it drops 30 feet, and in others it drops vertically for 50 feet to a gently sloping sand bottom. The wall is adorned with a tapestry of colorful sponges and gorgonians. Stands of pink gorgonians appear like so many Christmas trees. If you have a little imagination the nudibranchs or cowries that are often found on the gorgonians can look like ornaments.
The rock wall is carved with both vertically and horizontally running cracks. The horizontal cracks are good places to look for small fish, chestnut cowries, and nudibranchs. Some of the vertical cracks are quite large and wander back into the reef for 20 feet or more. The walls are covered with colorful sponges and cup corals, and numerous rockfish are found hiding at the back of the crack.
One of the world’s most colorful fish and our state fish, the garibaldi, is also found here in abundance. Garibaldi are members of the damselfish family and are, pound-for-pound, one of the most aggressive fish in California. If Garibaldi were the size of sharks, none of us would ever get into the water. These bright orange fish aggressively defend their nests, which makes great photo ops. Sometimes it is only necessary to position yourself next to the nest and the gold fish will try to chase you away. Another trick is to place a blood star on the nest, and the unhappy fish will quickly evict the unwelcome intruder. If you can position your camera properly, this behavior makes for great photographs.
If you are looking for a protected wall with lots of marine life, you will find fewer more interesting than Wycoff Ledge. Boat captains are frequently susceptible to suggestions; so let your requests be known. Ask ’em to head for Wycoff.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: South side of San Miguel Island, about the middle of the island
Access: Boat only. This site is frequented my SoCal’s charter dive boats.
Depths: 30 to 100 feet
Water temperature: Cooler than the other Channel Islands, 50-55°F
Visibility: Good, 40 to 70 feet
Skill Level: Intermediate or better.
Photography: Wide-angle photography of caves and arches, macro shots of nudibranchs and other invertebrates, fish portraiture.
Hunting: Spearfishing allowed, but there are not many worth the effort. It is illegal to take abalone in Southern California.
Hazards: Watch for thick kelp and boat traffic.