WEST COAST: USA - Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson

Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)


by Lawson Wood


CATALINA ISLAND, A SHORT, HIGH-SPEED FERRY ride from Long Beach in southern California, was once owned by the Wrigley family (of chewing gum fame). Rugged and remote, the island is an outpost for a herd of wild buffalo and the small rocky islets around the island are home to Californian Sea Lions. Almost split in two, but connected by an isthmus, the northern village is called Two Harbors and has no paved roads. Principle access is by boat. The main settlement is Avalon at the southeastern end of the island. Very laidback, the island certainly works at a more leisurely pace. Situated around a sheltered bay, the small, rather quaint village is dominated by the old casino which, built in the 1930s, was never actually used as a casino. The underwater scenes in the tile work at the entrance are exquisite, undoubtedly inspired by the wealth of marine life to be found in the surrounding seas.


The dive sites are varied and, while the predominant feature is kelp, the underwater topography includes archways, gullies, canyons, wrecks and vertical walls. North of Two Harbors there are several sites around offshore rocks. Ship Rock 1 is popular, particularly the northern face as it drops 36m (118ft) to a sandy sea floor where angel sharks are common. On the inward side, there is a confusing mass of rocks, gullies and canyons - superb for photography, but making it easy to lose your sense of direction. The walls have gorgonias, and octopuses as well as large sea bass can be found here. Time on the surface requires vigilance, since there is a lot of boat traffic in the area during the summer months.

Rather smelly, guano-covered Bird Rock 2 has an excellent wall and a spur of rock that juts out to the south. Topped with kelp, the cliff rapidly gives way to large colourful Gorgonian Sea Fans, nudibranchs and the amazing Bluebanded (Catalina) Goby, which has a brilliant blue coloration to the head and a red body.

Nearby Isthmus Reef 3 barely reaches the surface and is best dived in calm water when the kelp-covered top is more visible. This open-water site has sea lions, sheephead, lobsters, rockfish and, on the lower slopes, cat sharks and large rays. While divers wait in the water for the dive boat to pick them up, they will be able to see some superb jellyfish and pelagic tunicates near the surface.

The Farnsworth Bank 4 to the west of the island is well known among Californian divers for the diversity of life amid these offshore pinnacles. Current should be expected and the site gets deep very quickly in every direction, making it difficult to plot during rough weather.

At the southernmost point is Church Rock 5. Exposed to surge, the rock is at the confluence of the strong currents which flow between the San Pedro Channel and the Santa Barbara Passage. Large boulders offer protection against the worst of the swell and it is here that you can find lobsters, sheephead and the ubiquitous Garibaldi.

The Casino Point Underwater Park 6 to the north of Avalon has a lush kelp forest, encounters with big rays and small sharks, (the perfect order) occasional sea lions, tons of brilliantly coloured fish (Garibaldi) and nudibranchs by the dozen. There is easy shore access and even lockers where personal items can be stored. The local dive shop supplies small carts in which you can convey your air tanks around the promenade to the marine park or arranges transport for you in the back of the shop’s pickup truck. The local hotels also arrange transportation of equipment.

Looking down at the marine park from the shore, the kelp forms a thick blanket that covers the water surface and in calm weather it appears thick enough to walk across. Around February and March the forest is still quite open and new, with curved shoots and air bladders forming at the ends of the stalks. Small schools of fish move lazily through the leafy glades and the occasional large stingray or electric ray may cross this protected area. The marine park has a few small wrecks and assorted engine bits, overgrown with purple encrusting algae, but the kelp forest is the main attraction. This type of kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) has large multi limbed holdfasts, thin stalks topped with large leafy blades and air bladders that keep the algae buoyant. In the right conditions, this can extend over 60m (200ft), with a growth rate of over 60cm (24in) per day at the height of the growing season. Swimming through it gives the diver the same sensation as being in a terrestrial forest.

Looking closely at the kelp you can find snails, nudibranchs, sea urchins, cucumbers, kelp fish and the ubiquitous bright orange member of the damselfish family, the Garibaldi. These highly inquisitive fish are always in your face and, whenever you stop to take a closer look at the marine life, the garibaldi show up in their dozens.

Catalina Island and the Casino Point Marine Park are considered high-yield underwater photographic sites, with maximum footage for minimum effort.


In the spring, jellyfish are commonly found in the kelp forest as the bi-annual plankton bloom brings new life to the underwater domain.


The kelp forest at Church Rock in the south forms glades, not unlike a terrestrial forest, which are home to the inquisitive Garibaldi.


Cabo San Lucas is where the Pacific meets the Gulf of California. The waters are particularly rich in marine life.


Los Islotes to the north of La Paz is home to the largest population of sea lions in Mexico. Once joined to the mainland, it is now a designated conservation area.