The Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara in Southern California do not receive too many international divers yet and maybe that is a blessing for us locals here as we like it exactly the way it is! Althought the water is cold, locals divers flock to the islands as often as they can. It is a truly beautiful area both topside as well as underwater and there are plenty of dive sites to choose from. One of them is Anacapa Island. Anacapa Islands is actually three islands divided by narrow straits of impassible water. Anacapa was one of the two original islands (the other being the Santa Barbara Islands) to make up the Channel Islands National Monument formed in 1938.
Of all the Channel Islands, Anacapa is the second smallest, yet it is the most spectacular above water. Cliffs, caves, spires of volcanic rocks and a 40-foot tall arch rock are some of the breathtaking sights around the island. The tall Arch Rock on the extreme east end has become the “trademark” for the Channel Islands National Park. A tour around the island is worth a trip in itself, but you shouldn’t miss the beautiful dive sites this island has to offer.
Anacapa is also the closest to the mainland of California of the entire chain of islands, 11 miles at the closest point to be precise. Consequentely it is the most frequently visited of the islands chain but still very rugged. The island is rough, rocky and mostly barren and frequented by birds.
Diving from shore is impossible. For that reason all diving activity is done from boats, either private or one of the many dive charter boats that run to the island. Anacapa is an easy and fulfilling dive trip for one day, but the island holds so many excellent diving areas that one could spend an entire summer of underwater exploration.
Dive Sites in Anacapa Island
There are dive boats running every weekend and several, paricularly during the summer, run on weekdays as well. There is also the possibility of doing mini 2 tow 4 day liveaboard trips to the islands.
We went diving with the “Liberty” who makes her home in the Ventura harbour. The Liberty is a comfortable boat with a large dive deck and two hot water showers. More importantly she has s a fresh water hot tub on deck to warm you up after spending time in the chilly waters.
Our dive day started with a 7 am departure for Anacapa Island. You can choose to board the boat the night before and sleep in one of their 40 bunks. Full breakfast is served in the kitchen galley and is quite extensive and harty consisting of eggs, burritos and pancakes. After preparing our gear, the Liberty reached Anacap about an hour after leaving the harbor.
Entry was done by giant stride from the boat deck and off we went to explore the first dive site. The exit out of the water is from two large stern mounted swim-steps. On California dive boats, the dives are usually not accompanied by a divemaster. Divemasters do not take divers on tours. They give briefings, answer questions, and are ready to offer assistance througout the day. Our divemaster was available the moment we got out of the water to help us get your fins off. Most divers’ fingers were so numb after spending an hour in the water that we cannot do it ourselves.
Most dives are next to the island in depths from a few feet to about 60 feet. It is possible to do deeper dives but this is really not required to see more. The boat stay anchored during the dive using both a bow anchor in front and a stern anchor behind. Each dive lasts about an hour or less depending on the divers air consumption and temperature of the water. There are typically three or four dives per day. The Liberty’s cook served a typical Californian lunch of burgers, cheese-melt sandwiches and there is beer and wine for after the dives.
The bottom is rocky reef and sand in most places. Some spots offer kelp forests, walls, and pinnacles. Hundreds of plants and small animals share the reefs with many varieties of fish including kelp bass, sheephead and garibaldi. It is not unusual to spot sea lions, seals, lobster, bat rays, horn sharks, moray eels, and occasionally giant black sea bass as well as blacksmith perch, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and other small schooling fish. The more you look the more you see! For someone who has never dived in a kelp forest, this can be quite spectacular. It gives you the sense of being in an underwater rainforest and the sun rays shining through the kelp combined with curious sea lions darting about can make for some breathtaking moments. Don’t forget your camera!
Anacapa has long been noted for excellent visibility and sea life. One of the better locations the three Parallel Reefs that lie on the backside between the West island and the Middle Island. The reefs are separated by stretches of ivory sand and all reefs are covered with healthy beds of kelp. The sea life in color and in quantity is best on the deeper reefs, although the reefs are colorful everywhere. Gorgonians are common, including the strikingly bright red gorgonia. You can also find starfish, tube worms, feather duster worms, senoritas, opaleye reef fish and gobies
Two more dive sites we visited were Frenchy’s Cave and Indian Water Cave. Both of these large caves that provide interesting exploration when the light is right and the conditions are good. The sea bottom in this area generally consists of rock and boulders close to shore and then a moderatly sloping sand bottom further out. Stay close to the rocks and you will find a variety of small colorful fish as well as invertabrates. For unusual subjects look into the crevices for large octopus or on the sand or for an occasional topedo ray.
When to Visit Anacapa Island
Best time weather wise is generally the end of summer. The sun is still strong and the water has had a chance to warm up throughout the summer months. Dive Global believes September and October is the nicest time of the year as the water is still relatively “warm”. But don’t be fooled, you’ll need a 7mm wetsuit, hood and gloves year-round to be comfortable here. And if you have a dry-suit, bring it!
It is almost impossible to predict exact weather conditions here. Dive trips run all year so here are some very general guidelines. Water temperature is coldest from February to May varying between 52 and 58 degrees Farenheit. From June to September it will range from 60 to as high as 70 then slowly begin to drop. October through January finds the water in the low sixties to high fifties. Air temperature runs 60 to 75 in the summer and fall and in the fifties in the winter and spring. Visibility rarely goes below 10 feet and can be as high as 100 feet. The average is 40 feet and on most days the bottom is visible from the boat.
Getting to Anacapa Island
If you flying into Los Angeles it is probably easiest to rent a car at LAX Airport and drive yourself to Ventura. Ventura is a nice coastal town and has plenty of accommodation to choose from.
The other option is to book a flight into the lovely Santa Barbara and make that your base. Santa Barbara is famous for its beautiful Spanish Architecture and plenty of interesting venues and good restaurants. Ventura Harbour is only 0.5 drive hour North from Santa Barbara on the scenic 101 freeway.
You can book these day trips by directly contacting the Liberty. The Liberty takes care of airfills but will not provide any equipment. If you need tanks and dive equipment it is best to call Ventura Dive ‘N Sport. They are a five star PADI IDC Center located right in Ventura Harbour, just a few minutes walk from the boat. They can provide you with any rental equipment you need and will even put the tanks on board for you the night before.