California Coastal Diving - Southern

This page is really intended more for people
that are not that familiar with California Diving

CopyRight @ 1997

California has near 1000 miles of shoreline, eight large islands, abundant sea life and lush beautiful diving. And that is not even to mention the incredible scenery along the shore.
Some people think that its cool water is a drawback. I say, far from it. In warm tropical seas, the water can not hold large amounts of the nutrients needed for sea life. While coral reefs have amazing variety and beauty, they are a thin layer of life on the rocks and old coral. The water is pleasantly clear, but that is due to the lack of life. On the other hand, cold water is often cloudy, but it is caused by an over abundance of life. The cold water algae forest is so thick on the rocks that it can become dark and almost impassable. There is far more habitat for life than in the nutrient poor warmer waters. Of course, there sure is a lot to be said for warm water diving, but I'll let you figure that out.
Sometimes the diving in California can be just about as easy and only a bit cooler than tropical diving. Say Catalina in summer. Sometimes it is frigid and extremely challenging. Try Santa Cruz anytime. There are interesting reasons to dive at night in California as well.

This will try to describe California diving from the southern end of the state around San Diego, to the Channel Islands and on up to the Abalone hunting in Northern California. I will also try to describe some of the shoreline and other features of California that make it a very special place.
This tries to tell the stories of what were excellent diving, hunting and scenic journeys. It is both to amuse with interesting tales and to inform with specific information about dive sites.
Realize, most places that I describe are about diving on the rocky reefs. This is for a few reasons, but consider that for every rocky reef, there are nearby sandy ecologies that are teaming with curious life.

The cold water kelp forest is generally not as fragile as the coral reefs. If you touch coral, you have likely killed it and it grows back slowly. The cold water reefs are mostly covered with algae. Generally, touching them does not kill anything. Also, kelp is the fastest growing plant that there is. I often pull my way along the bottom, holding on to rocks or kelp holdfasts. True, there are things like hydrocorals that are as fragile as warm water coral, but these are far more uncommon. Anyway, if you do get careless about banging around, there is always Mr. Urchin to remind you. It is fun riding the surge through narrow channels and cracks. In warm water it would leave a path of destruction. In cold water, it leaves no footprints behind.

Along the shores of California, it usually isn't a question of where is the diving. It is a question of how to get to the shore to go diving. Most of the California shoreline has good diving, plus what is farther off shore. It can just be hard to get access to the shore due to either development, remoteness or cliffs, so references to dive spots in this guide, are often actually references of how to get to them... or the best of them.

For those of you reading from out of state, consider that in California and more so as you go south, place names are in Spanish. The Mexicans were the first to widely explore the area and most of the names remain. They seem to make good enough names, though some meanings are a bit mundane. El Segundo, where most American satellites used to be made, means The Swamp......

I am writing all of this page from memory. More than once I have made a bet that if you show me a picture of any part of the California coast, I can tell you where it is. I have not lost the bet yet. I love the California coast.

San Diego To La Jolla

Really, I guess that this should start in Mexico, but it won't. South of the border is lots of good diving much like California, but I will cover it in another place.

The charts show major areas of rocky reef off of the sandy beaches just north of the border. There tends to be pollution problems there and I have not dove on it. Actually, they are probably good reefs that do not see many divers.
Where the diving probably really starts is Point Loma. Go by boat. It is the headland between San Diego Harbor and Mission Bay. This is basically a mountain about 4 miles long that sticks out enough to make San Diego Bay. All along this shore is an enormous kelp beds that extend miles off shore. The bottom is rocky and slopes gently to about 100 feet, then drops off to about 200+ at what is called the Seacliff. It is a huge area, but has been heavily dove. Also, while much of the terrain is good, also much of it is flat. There is an underwater sewer pipe that is good diving as well as New Hope Rock. These both have there own stories elsewhere in here. Diving here is fun for a few reasons. This is an enormous kelp bed. Relaxing in the kelp in my boat, Huntress, I have seen Gray Whales, Porpoises and California Sea Lions, all just passing by within 30 feet or closer. There are lots of different birds as well. On a local fishing boat, I have seen the deckhands try to free gaff big Yellowtail that were swimming next to the boat. Vis here is not always great, but 20 or 30 feet is common enough.
In the San Diego area, the best local boat is undoubtedly the Lois Ann. They are set up to handle travelers really well and make it extremely convenient to make your dive with NITROX. One Eyed Jack is also good. The best longer range boats are probably the Horizon and her sister, Ocean Odyssey. They go South to Mexico and north to San Clemente Island or even the Cortez Banks.
The waters of San Diego do warm up to perhaps 70 f. in summer, but there is much influence from the cold California Current that hits most of Northern Baja. This both limits the vis and provides for abundant life. I doubt that the water would get much below 54 f. very often. This relatively warm water regularly attracts Yellowtail and sometimes Tuna.
Off of Mission Bay, there are some fascinating reefs out in the sand and this is the location of Wreck Alley. In about 50 to 70 feet of water, are 8 wrecks of varying sizes that were sunk primarily for divers. These include the 165 foot Coast Guard cutter Ruby E and a kelp harvester, the Del Rey. Recently, the 350+ foot destroyer Yukon was sunk (or sank, depending on how you look at it) in about 100 feet there as well, though it will be many years before it has the beautiful growth of some of the older wrecks. These are neat dives and the wrecks are covered with beautiful filter feeders, prettiest of which is the small colorful Corynactis anemone. This is a great night dive. The critters come out and large fish just sit out the night.

Some good stories about the diving of Wreck Alley and San Diego Area are at

  • The Sewer Pipe - San Diego
  • Wreck Alley - The Ruby E On The Lois Ann
  • Night Fall With One Eyed Jack - San Diego
  • Yukon Morning
  • Beautiful Dive On The NOS Tower In San Diego
  • San Diego is very dry. while it is just a bit south of Los Angeles, it is dryer. This is desert. If you come to San Diego, think about the zoo and its partner, the Wild Animal Park. Nearby are a number of wineries. There is lots more to do on land as well. If you can't dive and you really have a need, there is always SeaWorld, which is great for kids.

    North of Mission Bay is La Jolla, The Jewel. OK. It has some neat diving. Much of it is a bit hard to get to from land, because of the houses lining the beach, but there is access. Going by boat is a better option if you can. This area is about 4 miles of rocky shoreline that fans out into the water. It slopes slowly such that it may be about 100 feet deep perhaps 3 miles from shore. It is a huge healthy kelp bed, that is full of a variety of life. The reefs can go on forever. You never know when you will find some rock pile where anything could be in the next hole.
    At the north end of La Jolla Underwater Park are some sandy beaches where scuba classes often go. It is a great place to check out small stingrays. It is also a good place to step carefully. Swim off shore a ways and you can get into the Scripps Marine Canyon. It is a bit fascinating in the day. It has steep sides of shale and sand, so watch your depth. The real dive there though, is at night when smaller pelagics come up the canyon. Diving during the squid spawning season is quite an experience.

    North of La Jolla the diving is similar for perhaps 70 miles. There are beaches with occasional offshore reefs. These are only lightly dove and are home to fish, lobster, abalone, scallops and whatever rocky reef dweller you can imagine and are lucky enough to see.

    In Laguna, the reefs are more extensive and the lobster hunting is the big thing in the season. This is where the competition between the commercial lobster trappers and the sportdivers gets the hottest...
    By Laguna the diving is quite different than in San Diego. The water tends to be much clearer and is a bit warmer. This warm spot represents a zone with similar diving, that includes from San Clemente Beach to Palos Verdes as well as San Clemente, Catalina, Santa Barbara and sometimes Anacapa Islands. The water tends to be clearer and a bit warmer. The sea life is lush and greens can be the commonest colors, especially shallow. I refer to this as Catalina conditions. It represents good diving and vis, pretty much all year.
    In Laguna and the other southern beaches of Orange County, there is lots of easy beach access to excellent clear water diving. To dive at Dana Point, north of Laguna, a boat is the easiest way to go.

    Long Beach Harbor To Palos Verdes

    North of that area, is Long Beach Harbor, LA Harbor and the Palos Verdes Peninsula. These are lumped together, because they make a region of similar diving. Long ago, Palos Verdes may have been the finest California diving. Heavy fishing and pollution has changed this, though there is still excellent diving there. Old pictures of where the harbors are now, show offshore rocks that look like there was some good diving. The harbor is not now what you would call good diving, but there is some great exploring on a number of reefs outside the breakwater. The largest of these reefs is called the Horseshoe Kelp, but there are many other divable spots around the area. A chart, GPS and a depth recorder are real useful for finding these and you may still spend an entire dive swimming over sand, but if you get on the reefs, they can be really something. Vis is a luxury. Lobster hunting can be good, but exploring is what this wide open area is a natural for. Much of it is at around 90 feet and it is completely in the open, so care must be taken. You never know what you will find.
    Numerous charter dive boats are based out of Long Beach and San Pedro harbors. You can hook up with them through dive shops and the California Links Page includes links to most of the California Dive Boats.
    Try The Great Escape, Mr. C, The Bottom Scratcher, The Sand Dollar, The Encore, The Westerly and others.

    Off of Palos Verdes itself, are extensive reefs and kelp beds. Many years ago, a diver was coming into the surf across rocks at night and came upon a 17 pound lobster. Yah! There is some beach access, but it can be hard. Next to where Marineland was, is one path commonly used by divers, that was the first place that I heard called "Cardiac Hill". It is a very big area of reef and there is some very pretty diving out there.
    I had a memorable night of diving there once when I went without ever seeing the spot in the day. We could not dive our primary site, so we ended up there. Good dive. We headed towards shore, then Johnny said he didn't remember the way out...

    Now the Palos Verdes Peninsula is a mountain, about 8 miles across, in the middle of the Los Angeles shoreline. It sticks out quite a bit and is a point where the coast turns north pretty sharply. North of the Peninsula is Santa Monica Bay. This huge sandy bay extends along perhaps 60 miles of shoreline, up to Malibu. This is LA. There is going to be wear and pollution problems. It has gotten much better than it was, because of aggressive anti-pollution policy development and enforcement. Actually, a fair number of divers, mostly locals, do some real respectable diving all through the area. A lot of halibut are taken along the sandy shores. Local divers also widely participate in underwater cleanups near piers and harbors as well as off the beaches. There are artificial and some natural rock piles in the bay, but they don't get too many divers. I never did make a night dive on the Santa Monica Breakwater. I meant to.


    Where Santa Monica Bay finishes curving to the west is the start of Malibu. Call it at Big Rock Canyon or maybe at the end of Sunset Blvd., where kelp is starting to come back with the cleaning of the bay. In any case, this is the start of another large diving area that potentially extends to Point Magu up the coast.
    The Malibu area is its own region of diving. It has great variety. It's really where I learned to dive.
    There is an extensive description of this area in Free Diving - Malibu Area.
    Suffice to say that as you progress out of LA, going up the coast, the hiway goes along the beaches and through brush covered coastal hills. There is great diving all along there, though reefs become uncommon as you get nearer to Point Magu. Sand diving at Zuma Beach is terrific.
    I must put in a tale about climbing Point Magu at night in warm Santana winds and looking at the patterns of waves reflecting in the dawn light.

    Ventura To Santa Barbara

    The coast turns sharply north again along the beaches of Oxnard and Ventura. It is mostly sandy beaches and I have usually only gone in the water there to surf, but there is a popular dive site just south of Port Hueneme Harbor at La Janelle State Park. This is a breakwater made partly with the hull of the ship La Janelle, that went aground there. Apparently, the superstructure of the ship is in deeper water and is diveable as well.
    In the harbors there, are numerous dive boats that make trips to the Channel Islands. The dive boats that dock here include the Liberty, Aqua Ventures, Spectre and my favorite boat on the coast, the Peace out of Ventura. The other pages of this site, say much about the Peace.

    For those that might not know, on the Pacific Coast of the United States and I think it is so on the Atlantic Coast as well, the coast hiway is officially Hiway 1. Hiway 101 is the hiway that follows this route, but is really made for interstate travel more than for beach access. They are often the same, as in Ventura, but they may be more than 50 miles apart, as at Big Sur or in Marin County. It can be a challenge to follow Hiway 1 at times. Hiway 1 is also known as Pacific Coast Hiway, especially where it goes through LA, where it is also the street name. Some of this hiway follows El Camino Real, "The Road of the Kings", which was the Spanish hiway up the coast, that was serviced by the California Missions. Most of Hiway 1 is beautifully scenic.

    The further you get from LA, the more pristine the diving. In southern Malibu, a dive may be like going through a well used urban park. You see lots of signs of divers that have been there before. By the time you get to County Line there are far fewer divers. At Point Conception there are almost none.

    Past Ventura is just Hiway 101 up the coast. Next marker is Santa Barbara. There is a fair amount of diving along there, like the oil islands, but it is most accessible to the locals. Off of Carpenteria beach is one of the largest reef areas off of California. These days it is rarely visited.

    Santa Barbara is basically a tourist town and has the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California. It is a really pleasant town between the coast and the Santa Ynez Mountains. Right off the beach from the City College is a large excellent reef area where people do quite good on lobsters. It is a large fascinating kelp bed with big rocky reefs extending along the shore for over a mile. This reef is about as full as cracks, ledges and crevices as you are going to find this side of Yellow Banks. And you never know what is going to be in the next one.
    In Santa Barbara is Truth Aquatics with the dive boats Truth, Conception and Vision. These are large luxurious boats (around 85 feet) that can easily spend up to a week going to dive sites from near Mexico, all the way up to Monterey. They do make a yearly trip up to Monterey and a trip back, to allow diving on the almost inaccessible big Sur Coast. These are the finest boats in California. They make open day trips about 3 days a week. I personally prefer the smaller Truth... These folks are good for adventures.

    As you go north from Santa Barbara, there are rocky reefs all along the shore in various depths and places. Some are accessible from shore, but most of it is across private property and would need a boat. This area and the Channel Islands was the site of an enormous Abalone industry. They used to get them by the tons. When I was quite young, I remember at Refugio Beach, I saw these divers come out from the shallow near shore reefs with literally bags of big Red Abalone. I dove there years later and they were gone, but I have found them in the area still.
    Off of the Santa Barbara coastal area are many kelp beds about a quarter mile out. Wheeler J. North, considered to be the dean of California kelp bed researchers, says that this is the only area where kelp grows in the mud instead of on rock. As such there is very little cover for fish and fish populations are very thin. It is a long swim and a dive worth missing. If you do find a rocky reef there though, it may be a very special dive.

    Gaviota To Point Sal

    At Gaviota, the hiway turns inland around Point Conception and Point Arguello. This whole area is generally called Point Conception and is a mountainous region of rocky shores and beaches that end at the sand dunes of Pismo Beach. The area is storm central. While there is incredible diving, it is rather pristine, because it is so hard to get to. There is pretty much no place to launch a boat and most of the shore is inaccessible. Vandenburg Air Force Base takes up much of the area and is the U.S. Pacific launch site. They were going to launch the space shuttle from there. That I want to see.
    There is diving in the Point Conception area. Other pages on this site, like: Shark Party - Jalama and Land Of Mountain Waves - Point Sal tell about some of the fun, but challenging diving in this area. Also, near Point Conception is Hondo, where 7 destroyers ran aground in the fog. Truth Aquatics boats go there occasionally.

    Amongst those that know the area, Point Arguello is usually known for its monster open ocean sharks.

    More of the Coastal Guide

  • California Coastal Diving - Central
  • California Coastal Diving - North

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