Last summer a clerk at one of my local dive shops engaged me in conservation. After exchanging a few pleasantries she asked, “What is your favorite beach dive?” This made me think a bit, since there are so many great beach dives in North/Central California. I really wanted to say, “Depends on conditions,” but held my tongue. After a bit more thought I responded, “North Monastery Beach.”
Monastery Beach is located right along Highway 1, and just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. This beach is officially the southern end of the Carmel River State Beach, but divers have called it Monastery for decades because a working monastery overlooks the beach. In 1602 the Spanish explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, mapped the Californian coastline around Monterey and Carmel Bays. Onboard with him were three priests, whose patroness was Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and descendants of these priests later founded a monastery at Carmel. Monastery Beach is notable for its easy access, short swim to deep water of the Monterey Trench, and a cornucopia of interesting marine critters.
While there are many ways to enjoy North Monastery, here is my favorite. I like to enter the water at the extreme north side of the beach to avoid the largest break nearer the center, and to allow the offshore kelp bed to dampen the swell. I then swim around the kelp bed on the south side towards the prominent offshore rock. If you submerge before you get to the wash rock and head down into the “trench” you will find boulders sticking out of a mostly sand bottom. Some of the rocks are home to some interesting invertebrates and fish, but better diving is found around the wash rock.
West of wash rock the bottom drops off in a nearly vertical wall. The rock wall descends in a series of giant steps, punctuated with enormous boulders. It is easy to reach many hundreds of feet here. There are large numbers of fish-eating and rose-spotted anemones.
This area has the healthiest bed of kelp in Carmel Bay, and it was refreshing to find a reef with very few purple urchins. The kelp supports a great variety and quantity of fish life, including the largest school of blue rockfish that I have ever seen. There were also large numbers of black-and-yellow and gopher rockfish, either hiding in the cracks of the reef or resting on the bottom. I was completely ecstatic to see so many fish in one place.
The boulders along the south side of the reef were covered with abalone jingles, and I don’t recall these being so abundant in past years. These are distant relatives of scallops and oysters, but are more closely related to clams, or more specifically are akin to windowpane shells from the tropical Pacific. They get their name because they are often found on abalone shells, and “jingle” when used in wind chimes.
There were also a large number of abalone shells scattered about. In fact, I have never seen so many abalone shells in one place. It looked like a raft of otters had a feeding frenzy. However, we also found a fair number of large, healthy abalone back in cracks between the boulders.
After enjoying the depths of the trench, you should check out the prettiest shallow water reef in all of Central California. Inshore of the wash rock may be found an abundance of colorful invertebrates. On a recent dive there were a dozen species of nudibranch, mostly dorids, and some were bigger than my fist. There were also a number of white dendronotids. Some were feeding, some were mating, but all were quite beautiful. The reef was covered with many colorful tunicates, sea cucumbers and sponges to photograph. This is a perfect place to loose some nitrogen at the end of your dive. Remember, all of these critters are under a thick bed of kelp, so you should leave plenty of air to navigate beneath, rather than through, the kelp.
Monastery Beach is notable not only for its superb diving, but also for the challenging entries and exits. It is best to only dive here on the calmest of days, and first timers should dive with someone experienced with this site. That said, North Monastery is still what I consider the very best beach dive in North/Central California.
Skill Level: Advanced only, see hazards.
Location: Just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea on Hwy.1.
Access: Park along Highway 1. On weekends with good weather the available parking fills up fast so get there before 9 a.m.
Facilities: There is a toilet on the south end of the beach.
Entry and Exit: There is a level walk across 100 feet or so of coarse sand (and San Jose Creek during the rainy season) to get to the entry. Enter and exit only at the extreme North end of the beach.
Depth Range: 10 feet to 130+.
Conditions: Highly variable, dive this site only on calm days.
Visibility: 10 to 70 feet
Photography: Great macro, fish portraiture and wide-angle reef scenes.
Hunting: This site is within the Point Lobos State Marine Reserve. All hunting is prohibited.
Cautions: Watch for thick kelp, surge and surf. It is easy to access extreme depths. This is a particularly dangerous entry and exit due to the steep beach with coarse sand that produces large, plunging breakers and unstable footing. Divers need to have the skill and comfort level to get through the surf zone quickly.