As far as culture, population and transportation go, San Francisco Bay is the heart and hub of northern California. It has much to offer for those coming to sightsee including Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island and of course the Golden Gate Bridge.
Unfortunately for divers wanting to explore the waters right in San Francisco Bay, these are not suitable for recreational diving. There is a deep canyon beneath the waters of the Golden Gate Bridge that creates strong currents due to a bottleneck effect as the water heads to the larger bay. Within the bay lies the notorious island of Alcatraz which was a federal prison for 30 years for some of America’s most infamous prisoners. Alcatraz Island had its own natural security system as it is surrounded by freezing, shark-infested waters with very strong and unpredictable currents. These waters alone were mostly enough to deter any prisoner looking to escape the island, although there are rumors that a few did make the attempt.
For divers looking to see the underwater sights of northern California, it is best to travel south towards Santa Cruz, Monterey and Big Sur.
In Santa Cruz you’ll find a chic, hippy town with a number of dive operators willing to arrange dive trips into the frigid Pacific Ocean.
If you’re looking for choice and a wide selection of dive sites it is best to travel to Monterey, also known as the diving capital of California, which is only a 2 hour drive from San Francisco. Monterey as a whole is passionate about marine conservation, marine research and scuba diving, and even those who are not scuba divers will be impressed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Beneath Monterey Bay is a great and rugged coastline with foggy beaches, huge pine trees and stunning views everywhere you look.
Heading south from Monterey on US Highway 1 is a world-famous drive that twists and turns all the way to Big Sur, a wild and remote area that has much to offer for hikers, campers and very brave and experienced divers. Scuba diving in Big Sur is cold and extreme yet beautiful and certainly worth it for those who want to try it out. Although in general the waters off northern California are very cold and not hugely popular with visiting recreational divers, it is the passion for marine conservation and research that is the most impressive in this area, and for those looking for the thrill of diving in kelp forests in freezing waters it is definitely an experience you won’t soon forget. It is important to have a dry suit in the winter months, as the many surfers will tell you.
Marine Environment & Dive Sites
Diving off the coast of northern California presents divers with cold waters ranging between 45 and 58 degrees F. Scuba diving here is best suited for those familiar with heavy surges as there is the constant challenge of handling the strong pushes and pulls from the surge. Giant kelp beds are ever-present when diving in northern California, and this makes for an eerie and interesting diving experience.
Located an hour north of San Francisco Bay, Bodega Bay is a good location for dive research, classes and dive training. The UC David Bodega Marine Laboratory is located at Bodega Bay and focuses on underwater and onshore conservation, offering divers and visitors the chance to take classes or visit their laboratories. Shore dives are popular around Bodega Bay, especially for those looking for abalone. These stunning iridescent shells can be found right off the beach at locations such as Windmill Cove. For experienced divers able to push through the surge at Windmill Cove, there is an abundance of marine life to be seen at just 20 feet.
The Red Triangle
Northern California has what is known as the “Red Triangle”, an area considered to be Great White shark territory due to the fact that 40% of Great White attacks in the US have occurred in this zone. The Red Triangle is said to account for 10% of the world’s Great White shark attacks on humans, although it is far more likely to see harbor seals, sea otters, elephant seals and sea lions in the Red Triangle as Great White sightings are very rare. This obtuse triangular territory has points at Bodega Bay, Pidgeon Point and the Farralon Islands which lie 20 miles off the San Francisco coast. Almost half of the world’s 2463 recorded shark attacks have occurred in the US, which includes the Hawaiian Islands, yet only 44 of these have been fatal compared to the 471 fatal attacks worldwide.
For divers and swimmers in this area, it is far more likely to encounter the Great White shark’s prey rather than the predator itself. As you dive amongst the swaying kelp, you’re likely to encounter seals and sea lions that dark into your field of vision, which is a thrill in itself and something not to be missed.
For some of the most popular and easily accessible scuba diving, head to Monterey Bay. A site known simply as Breakwater, but formally called Coast Guard Pier is an easily accessible dive just off the shore. The depth ranges from 10 to 65 feet and is ideal for beginners or novices looking to gain experience diving in kelp forests without the hassle of dealing with strong surges at the same time. Lover’s Point is a great shore dive in the area where divers would meet and mingle with harbor seals and kayakers.
To the south of Monterey lies the vast wilderness of Big Sur, with many extreme diving opportunities for experienced divers. Divers wishing to explore this area should definitely have a dry suit and enough courage to embrace the pounding surge. Once you’ve travelled beyond the rocks there is a chance for some peace to explore the underwater world of Big Sur. If you’re looking for even more diving in this area, try Garrapata State Park in the north and Jade Cove off Gorda. Jade Cove is aptly named for the brave divers who brave the surge to hunt for jade stones along the bottom of the cove.
For those hiking to the beaches, it’s important to know about the presence of Poison Oak in these areas, especially in the wild coastal brush. Poison Oak is prominent along the Big Sur coast as well as along the majority of northern California’s coast. Hikers should wear long pants and ensure their ankles are covered to avoid coming into contact with Poison Oak.
Big Sur offers steep marine terraces to explore and a host of interesting marine creatures, yet the waters have been known to challenge divers with strong surge even at 70 feet. This affects both the diver and the visibility and impact the diver’s ability to maneuver around rock pinnacles and seamounts. It is best to avoid contact with any jellyfish you encounter as there is the Lion’s mane jellyfish and the Fried egg jellyfish which can cause serious discomfort for divers.
Once in calmer waters around Big Sur divers should be on the lookout for strawberry anemones which usually carpet the bottom. There’s also the chance to see the wolf eel, which is not at all an eel and looks more like a ray-finned fish. A relatively shallow and easy dive in Big Sur is Partington Point, where divers can encounter rock walls covered with sharpnose crabs.
How to get there
Most divers interested in diving in northern California will choose to arrive at San Francisco International Airport. Although there are not many (if any) commercial diving spots within the actual Bay Area of San Francisco, there are a number of dive shops that offer retail services as well as diving instruction and training. These dive shops will also offer diving excursions that head to both the north and south of the Bay Area.
Dive operators can be found in Santa Cruz, Marin, Carmel, Monterey Bay and of course San Francisco. These operators offer trips out of the Bay area to the surrounding dive sites, and some even to very remote and beautiful areas such as Big Sur. For those wanting to skip the city and travel directly to Big Sur, the few commercial flights operating out of Monterey Regional Airport are your best bet.