California Coastal Diving - North Coast

CopyRight @ 1997

San Francisco To Bodega Bay

You are approaching San Francisco now. From the beaches of Pacifica, line fishers catch Striped Bass up to around 40 pounds. These are great fighters and really good eating. I bet that there are locals out there taking them free diving and perhaps with scuba. Again, saying that there is diving here just proves that any place gets calm enough to dive... at least one day every year or so. I have seen places that I would love to try, like Lands End, below the Cliff House.

Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, Hiway 1 and Hiway 101 again become quite separate. From here on north, the whole state of California is beautifully scenic. There is about 400 miles of windswept shore, leading into mountains and valleys covered by redwood and fir forests. Hiway 101 travels through these primeval forests and is called the "Redwood Hiway". Parallel to it in many places is the old hiway called "The Avenue of the Giants". A leisurely drive along this two lane road brings one through mature redwood groves and flowering fields. It is the nicest part of California. It is also the fastest route to take to get to the diving. Hiway 1 along the coast is wonderfully scenic, but it is windy and slow, if you need to hurry. The fast way is to go up Hiway 101, until you are inland from your destination and then take a road through the mountains from Hiway 101 to Hiway 1. It is a big area though and there are not a lot of roads that cross though. Best to know where you are going or much better yet, go without a time limit.

A few miles north of the Golden Gate, is where Hiway 1 leaves Hiway 101 and crosses the Marin Headlands to Stinson Beach. You are getting closer. It is hard to write about this area and its diving, because there is so much to say. There is another 400 miles of coast. It is spectacularly beautiful and when divable, almost all of it is excellent. It is for the hardy though. From here on, this is basically a good two lane road. It can get slow in summer, if there are many recreation vehicles.

As you reach the ocean again at Stinson Beach, you are on the edge of Drake's Bay. This is the bay inside of Point Reyes. Here is the town of Bolinas, where the residents remove the town sign so that they will not get hoards of tourists. If you go to the north end of town, there is easy beach entry to lush offshore reefs. Conditions here are often foggy, but you could have a lot of fun.

After Stinson Beach, the road goes inland along Drakes Slough. This is famous bird watching area. This area is The Point Reyes National Seashore and is quite well protected. Geologically speaking, Drakes Slough is the path of the San Andreas fault. To the west is Point Reyes on the Pacific tectonic plate. To the east is the continental plate. So there is this sharp line, that the road is following. At the end of Drakes Slough, where the water drains to the other side, is Tomalas Bay. This land area, above the fault, that goes from Stinson Beach to the mouth of Tomalas Bay is about 50 miles.
At the town of Inverness, at about the middle, is the hiway that goes out to Point Reyes itself. The area is heavily forested and has many hiking trails. As you progress over the hill towards the ocean, you come to the beach that goes from Tomalas Bay, south to the actual Point Reyes. I would not advise diving that beach. I'll bet that it is nice sometimes, but I have not seen it. At the end of this road is Point Reyes itself. To one side is the lighthouse and to the other side, the road takes you down a short distance to the inside lip of Drakes Bay. That probably makes Drakes Bay about 20 miles across, depending on how you look at it. It looks like there are excellent reefs outside the point, though I have only seen divers on them from boats. The inside of the bay probably has diving, but you need to be a local to get much diving in there. I must say that the long narrow beach that runs along the small cliffs on the inside of Drakes Bay, strikes me as the beach that I would most want to walk along, with my love.

It's a long way back to Inverness and still a ways further to the inner end of Tomalas Bay. This bay is about a mile wide and 15 miles long. The upper end has oyster farms and would be generally considered undivable due to visibility or lack there of. At the mouth of the bay is a shoulder of land that sticks into the bay from the north and makes a chokepoint that must produce some really interesting tidal currents. I have talked to some local divers that do dive this area looking for halibut. That is pretty hard core.

From Tomalas Bay, north to Bodega Bay, may as well be called Dillon Beach. It is a bit hard to get to, except near Bodega Bay, but it is divable. Like I say, this whole area has good diving terrain, just limited conditions.

Bodega Bay To Oregon - The North Coast

The coast turns north again at Bodega Bay.

Bodega Bay is considered the northern corner of the White Triangle and is also the start of the north coast abalone diving. There is a neat looking little island off the south side of Bodega Head that would be accessible to boats. I've always wanted to dive it. As described in the Bodega Bay page, this is a nice little fishing town and the diving on Bodega Head can be accessible and excellent, though limited compared to what is farther north. North of Bodega Head is Salmon Creek Beach, which you could dive, but I wouldn't bother. As you continue north, there is much divable area, with a fair amount of access, but it often tends to be murky for the next 15 miles until you get to the Russian River. The current tends to go north to south, so it is fine north of the Russian River, but south is not so good.

It should be mentioned that the Russians were well represented on this part of the coast in the 18th century, creating the outposts at Fort Ross, Fort Bragg and other sites. They were there mostly to hunt the Sea Otters for their fur. Fort Ross has been restored as a historic park. It is pretty neat to see, but one must wonder what the mud must have been like inside the compound back then.

Cross the Russian River and go up the hill. I do not suggest a bicycle like some people do, unless you are as tough a bicyclist as you are a diver. You are now in the area of Salt Point and Fort Ross. Salt Point State Park is probably the single point where the most divers have gone diving on the north coast. The Bay Area divers go there. It is pretty picked out after all these years, but there are still many legal sized Red Abalone and I have even found a few fatties while trying to look into hidden holes. On the south end of the park is a protected cove that is easy diving and quite pretty. Diving is better at the main part of the park, but it must be calm and the entry must be done carefully.
A few miles north is 'Fort Ross', that has a somewhat protected cove. That is probably the reason that the fort was built there in the first place. People launch inflatables there, but most of the diving is done from shore. There are many possibilities for access, but the easier ones are going to have fewer and smaller abalone. There are seemingly few urchins in the shallower waters, though I do know that there is an urchin industry up there. The best way to dive there is to look for cars parked along the road. It may be a hike, but there will be diving. Also, where there are pastures along the shore, the owners have built stiles, stairways over the pasture fences, so that divers can access the area without damaging fences. I have gotten nervous walking across pastures with cows everywhere, but they seem to ignore you. Walking across these windy pastures, I have seen huge turkey vultures flying just 20 feet over my head.

The only way to describe the next 200 miles is to say that if the weather is ok and you can get to it, the diving is excellent. There are exposed spots and protected spots. There are occasional coves where inflatables can be launched. There are offshore rocks and seastacks. The geology changes, so rock formations differ. This is the place of Palmifera californica, the beautiful Sea Palms. In the lower intertidal, these beautiful laminarias grow in groves like 18 inch tall palm trees. The underwater diversity of plants and animals is incredible. The Sonoma Coast has few trees along the shore, but as you get to the Mendocino coast, the redwood trees grow right down to the water. The natural beauty here is spectacular.

Next time that I get to go up there, I want to take a charter boat of some kind, out of Fort Bragg. I want to try some serious scuba on some of the offshore rocks.

While the shark hazard is not excessive here, it is here. A local dive ... nut, after his second hit by a White Shark, said "it comes with the territory".

The road goes along the shore for only about another 20 miles past Fort Bragg. Then the mountains rise along the sea and access is pretty much by boat. This area is so remote, that it is called the Lost Coast. Of course, if you want to go there, there is always Shelter Cove. This is a small fish port that is quite willing to cater to divers in this pristine area. It has a good road to it and a small airport.

North of the Lost Coast, is Humbolt Bay. There is diving there, for the hardy..., but I think that the surfers have more good days than the divers do. Just a bit north from there though is Trinidad Head and Patricks Point. Trinidad Head is this beautiful, protected cove, sheltered by the headlands and offshore rocks. Because it is so sheltered, do not expect much hunting, but the sight seeing here can be excellent.
Patricks Point is a park just a bit further north. The water is accessible there and abalone can be found. Of course, this is the place where the park ranger told me that "yes you can dive there, but to do what you are talking about, would take a damn fool". Obviously not a true sportsman. I guess that maybe it is a bit exposed.

There is more diving from here to the border with Oregon, but this area tends more towards sandy beaches. I have talked to some local divers about diving up at Crescent City area and they said it was good reef and abalone diving. I wouldn't call it a primary dive destination, but I'd try it. That place is wild wind howl, cold water flow, foam does throw, fog does blow and only the hardy go. It's so very beautiful.

Ya know, up in Oregon, there are more beautiful reef areas where there are still 30 pound Ling Cods to be found.......

A Few Tips For Diving Up Here

Let me tell you the other side of the story about North Coast abalone diving. Scuba is not allowed for ab hunting up there. While diving up here can be fairly easy on a calm day as it often is towards late Summer and Fall it's not always that way. This is how it can be.....
If it's much over a real 5 foot break, don't try it. There are likely to be currents way to strong to swim against. In any case, sit out and watch for a while. Try to figure out where the currents might be. You had better watch for long enough to know where the breaks are and what the top of the set is like. Locate an area with minimal breaking waves that you plan to dive in. It may be a 50 foot circle that is a bit deeper, marked by bull kelp and out of the focus of the waves. Map the spot and the surrounding rocks in your mind. Most of all, plan your exit and your escape routes. Realize that the waves tend to go inside one side of a cove and out the other side. Do not risk riding that current in. You may not make the last 50 feet in before the current takes you out again.
When you enter, swim out through a channel in the rocks. Swim fast and head for the spot you saw from shore. It will likely be an easy swim out. It always lets you in. If waves break in front of you, duck the small ones and grab the bottom during the big ones. Stay off the rocks on the way out. Get to your spot and tie off your float to some bull kelp. I use two gallon milk jugs tied together. It's not much, but I may never see it again. Make your dives count. The waves can grow much bigger suddenly. Most importantly, stay relaxed. When your calm spot becomes a maelstrom, watch to make sure it is only the top of the set. Never fight it, you will lose. Be aware that there will be big rips after the set. Stay in your calm spot. If you find yourself moving, grab kelp until things calm or you can bail out. There is a current you didn't notice before.
When it is calm, make careful dives of whatever comfortable length you can. Make a surface dive that puts your feet high in the air and propels you far under the water. The best way to dive is right on the bottom in the cracks and spaces between rocks. These are the protected places where there is the most to see. Relax and lay right on the bottom and look up and in the holes. You will see it all. It will also be calm there. Vis should be plenty enough. To move, push your way along as much as you use your fins. Ride the surge. When you surface, make sure that you are looking out at the waves and that you are clear on where you have moved in your dive spot. Don't spend too much time looking though or you will tire.
At the first sign of fatigue or changing conditions, bail out. At the first sign of anything surprising, bail out. Be prepared to drop your abalone or weight belt if you must. Recognize when this is necessary. Especially if you have decided to leave after a big set, that channel you swam out in, is now probably a swift rip current to swim against. Don't try it. If you find yourself in a current, get to some rocks, any rocks. Don't go where a big wave is going to hit you on shallow rocks, but get to some rocks and wait for some calm while you plan your way out. Usually, you can just stay in the shallows along the channels and let the waves bump you in.
When you climb onto shore, you're going to take a deep breath and say "Wow, that was fun". I have a great capacity. Diving the north coast on a rough day is all the excitement, beauty and challenge I need. It is one of the most stimulating things you will ever do. Then it's time to go up the cliff.

Some Dive Operations - South to North

   Stewarts Point Store - Good place for munchies and some ab gear.

   Timber Cove Landing and Camp Ground  707-847-3278

   Ocean Cove Store and Camp Ground -  707-847-3422
   Good place for munchies and some ab gear.

   Salt Point State Park - 707-847-3221
   707-847-3222 (Salt Point State Park, ocean conditions)
   Camping. More abs have been pulled from here than anywhere, but there are
   still many left.

      Jay Baker True Value Hardware - They have most everything for a diver.
   It's not a true dive shop, but they have a compressor, rentals and a lot of 
   gear. Just don't expect to find a full line of wetsuits, regulators or BC's 
   for sale. Nice knowledgeable people.
   They have a 10 inch abalone club and about 40 - 10 inch plus ab shells are 
   hanging in the store.
   38820 S. Highway One, Gualala  707-884-3534

   Radio Shack - Double 'D' Retail
   They have a fair amount of dive gear and a compressor that works occasionally.
   415 School St., Point Arena     707-882-2746  Tyrone

   Schooners Landing RV Park and Marina
   Albion  707-937-5707

   Van Damme State Park - 707-937-0851

     Sub-Surface Progression - Full service Dive Shop 707-964-3793
     Highway 1 just south of Fort Bragg.
     This place is worth checking out just to see their mounted abs.
     All over 10 inches, they look alive still. Great dive shop.

For more about abalone diving, check out:

  • Sea Ranch 2000 Editors Trip ***
  • How To Get Big Abs - Raider Karl
  • Abalone Diving With Dive Crazys
  • Greyhound Rock - Nasty Dive
  • Got High On A Reef
  • Pidgin Point
  • Bodega Bay - Pristine Beauty
  • 20 Some California Seafood Recipes

  • More of the Coastal Guide
  • California Coastal Diving - South
  • California Coastal Diving - Central

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