The Kelp Hiway

It wasn't yesterday, but I remember it like it was. I got up and it was still dark. Not terribly cold, but definitely a crisp, clear nighttime. That's just how divers see the world sometimes. Maybe, but only maybe, cold was what that tingle through my body was. I got my gear together and walked out to Topanga Canyon Blvd and waited on the deserted corner watching the traffic lights blink at no one. It was an easy walk with gear for me back then when I was 15. Besides, that dark morning I was waiting to catch a ride with my instructor to my first boat trip. We were going to Santa Cruz Island. I suspect that tingle was adrenaline.

Ventura highway in the sunshine.
Where the days are longer.
The nights are stronger, than moonshine.
You're gonna go, I know.....

It's a beautiful song and a beautiful place. If you're local to California, you may well have driven it many times. It is a special place for a number of reasons, especially if you're a diver. In the song, they never really said where it was. Without a doubt, aside from its being a state of mind, it is the Coast Highway 101, heading north from L. A. I would say that it starts where you come over the top of the Camarillo Grade, where on a clear day you can see Anacapa and even Santa Cruz Island. As you drive down towards the fields and orchards below, you can see the shoreline all the way to Ventura.

If your destination is not one of the many dive boats in Oxnard and Ventura, you finally come to the ocean just past Ventura Pier. While visibility is poor, the rocky shores here are the start of a very vast diving area. For the next 70 miles, the highway takes you mostly along the shoreline, past large coves with almost endless kelp beds. It is a large enough area and far enough past Los Angeles, that in most places, crowds just do not exist. Instead, you'll mostly see small groups of surfers in their many local misty spots or people camping on the wind swept shore.

For its scenic beauty, exquisite sunsets, surfers, bicyclists, beachcombers, beach houses, mountains, seabirds and rushing California traffic, it is very well called the Ventura Highway, but as a diver it holds a different kind magic. From the highway, you can see more diving out there than you'll ever get to visit. There are plenty enough divers who are intrepid enough to visit this area, but it is such a large area, that you may never see them.

Driving there, just beckons to a diver. Each time the freeway brings you around a new point, you see a new cove. These are not small coves and though at 70 or so miles an hour, you pass them quickly, you can see that each one has its miles of kelp reef just a bit off the shore. Some are easily accessible. Some can only be reached by boat, but all offer good diving and that potential for an adventure. Besides that, the reefs below are many times more extensive then the kelp beds themselves. There are sandy beaches, cobble stone beaches and rocky shores where the reefs start well above the water. When the offshore Santana winds blow out of the canyons, the waves are blown up and over the back as giant plumes of spray that turn the sunlight into rainbows. It makes it even better conditions for diving.

I guess I have mellowed out some with age, but still I'm drawn to wonder. When I was a younger, newer diver, when I was driving along this highway, it was just a question of how could I get out there to find out what was under all that kelp. Then as you get to the oil Island's, there is this one big lush kelp bed right next to the freeway. There are surfers out there, but for divers it is hard to get to.

As you get to Carpenteria, you go inland some, but you quickly come to the shore again just north of town as you pass Santa Claus Lane. It really doesn't look like much, but just about the biggest reef in California is right offshore there. This was one of the most well known of the reefs that the fishermen from Santa Barbara once considered to have a limitless abundance of abalone. It is still vast, remarkable diving and not very well visited because it is a bit hard to get to. A small boat or kayak will do the job though.

North from here the highway goes along the shore close enough to see beaches and reef after reef covered with kelp. On a clear day it looks like you could reach out and touch the Channel Islands. The Islands break a lot of the weather coming from South. The angle of the shore protects the area from all weather coming from the north. Sometimes the water is rough, but most of the time the shore is protected and the water of the kelp beds is flat calm. As you get to Summerland, you can still see the shore some and it looks like great diving, but here's something new to see. This is Santa Barbara. It's a great town. It is well called the American Riviera. It is place of of towering trees, flowers and gardens, growing in the marine dampness and the bright Southern California sunshine. It is place of the brilliant pastels of bouganvillas and the soft pastels of oliander. This is an old Spanish town with many American mansions of every size and description. It has strict growth control so it has real estate prices that are out of sight.

Santa Barbara is a really fun tourist town. There is a long, wide, white sand beach. Inside of the beach is a wide grassy area with Palm trees. All kinds of boats, from very small, to pretty darn big are anchored in the calm, protected water off of the beach. Just a short ways in from the beach you can rent all kinds of strange varietys of bicycles and go for a ride along the bike path between the grass and the sandy beach. Every weekend on the other side of the grass a sidewalk swap meet of arts, crafts and curiosities. You'll see beautiful paintings and some of the strangest wind chimes you can imagine. In the middle of this is Stern's Warf. It is a wooden Pier that you can drive out on. There are shops and restaurants, including the excellent Harbor Restaurant.

If you go north from the pier a short ways, you come to Santa Barbara Boat Harbor. There are some fine restaurants that get seafood from local fishermen. Other small boats are berthed here too. For the diver, here is Truth Aquatics, home of the Truth, Vision and Conception, perhaps the finest fleet of dive boats on the California Coast, with destinations to perhaps the finest diving in California. It is a short trip to Santa Cruz Island and the closest access to the remote Santa Rosa Island and even more remote San Miguel Island. This diving is of such quality that any diver is lucky to visit it. Some of this diving is best described as primeval. It is place people visit, but do not stay.

Santa Barbara has lots of really good shops and restaurants to visit and while away the time in. There is lots to see and do and no finer place to enjoy a cup of coffee. For the diver though, there is even a bit more. Just north of the Harbor is the City College. The diving below this area is famous to those who know. The road north of the Harbor climbs above the shoreline. There is beautiful grassy park all along this area. In the water though is one of the more productive, lush, kelp forests that you can visit. Some of this area can be reached from the shore, but mostly it is only accessible from a boat. The rocks that make up the reef here are about as broken up and full of cracks as any reef, you'll ever see. If you want to look closely at the reef, you barely have to swim anywhere. There are so many holes and cracks, that to take a close look, takes a long time. There are also an awful lot of lobsters in this area. Because this area is a point that sticks out from the shore, not only does the kelp grow very thickly here, you'll also see a lot of fish in the kelp bed that are somewhat more open ocean. You may see Bonita, Mackerel, Barracuda or Anchovies in the kelp and even an occasional blue shark towards the outside of the kelp bed.

North from here are the beaches of Goleta, again with their offshore kelp beds. Here you can see where the rock formations extend from the shore into the water. Here's also where you'd better watch out for natural oil seepage. In winter there are lobster traps all along here.

Heading north along 101 from here, you go through fields bordered by rows of huge eucalyptus trees. The hills are covered with coastal scrub and there are lots of flowers in Spring. The road travels a short distance from the shore and parallels the path of the train which offers an even better view of the coast. While it is all inviting shoreline, every so often you pass a particularly large area of kelp that you have to think would be some great diving.

It's about 20 miles along here. You pass El Capitan State Beach and Refugio State Beach, both known for their diving. It was at Refugio State Beach that I first saw abalone that were taken by some local divers. Soon you come to Gaviota State Beach. Here is a small beach with some diving, but better than that you can launch a small boat from the hoist on the pier and go into the remote diving of Point Conception. This is also a great place to watch sunsets from.

It's beautiful drive and there is great diving all along it, but now you're coming to the end of the Ventura Highway or the Kelp Highway as I like to think of it. At Gaviota is where the highway turns in through the San Ynez Mountains and on to the diving of Point Conception, Pismo and Morro Bay, but that is another dive story.

Enjoy the diving, seahunt

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