Best Diving in South California

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For many people considering a trip to Los Angeles, their main focus will be on the bright lights of Hollywood and the draw of Beverly Hills.

For scuba divers, however, the focus is sure to be set on the exquisite Pacific Ocean nearby, specifically the Channel Islands that lie just off the southern Californian coast and are far from the hustle and bustle of the city of Los Angeles. Scuba diving in LA is also popular further south in San Diego where divers can explore the many wrecks on Ship Wreck Alley amongst the kelp forests. The Los Coronados Islands, not far from the border town of Tijuana, is also a diving hotspot.

Southern California is the preferred destination for scuba diving over northern California, mainly because the water is warmer in southern California and the visibility is better. Shore dives are not common in southern California due to the powerful surf disturbing the ocean floor and decreasing visibility, but further afield the diving is fantastic. Diving in southern California requires a long sleeved wet or dry suit and perhaps a knife for cutting your way through the kelp forests, but other than that it is an easy area to dive and somewhere that is unlikely to disappoint.

Marine Environment

The most common and well-known aspect of diving in southern California is the kelp forests. Although the masses of kelp forests are certainly a unique aspect to this area, there is more to see than simply kelp. That being said, kelp is a fairly prominent feature and there are a number of kelp species present. Giant Kelp, the largest of all algae, is the most prominent in the area and can sometimes stretch as far as 120 feet to reach the surface of the water.

Many divers will expect to see large and deadly sharks ominously cruising through the kelp beds, but the reality is that there are more sea lions and smaller, docile horn sharks that frequent these kelp beds. Blue sharks can sometimes be seen but these skittish creatures are likely to shy away from humans at first sight. It is also possible to see blue rockfish, red abalone, sea urchins and California sheephead.

Something to bear in mind for inexperienced divers is the fact that diving in the floating kelp can be dangerous if ill-prepared – divers can quickly get tangled in kelp blades leading to panic. For those wanting to learn more about diving in kelp forests there are specific dive certifications to prepare yourself, and safety precautions that need to be taken.

Dive Sites

Channel Islands

One of the most popular areas for diving in southern California is around the Channel Islands, a remote ecosystem that hosts a number of unique species both in and out of the water. Around the Channel Islands divers are met with giant kelp forests, harbor seals and sea lions to name just a few. Divers are also likely to encounter California moray eels, bat rays and blue sharks.

Santa Barabara Channel

The nearby Santa Barabara Channel is a famous spot for migratory whales, visitors can be lucky enough to see blue whales, fin whales, humpbacks and others.

Wilson Rock

A dive site well-worth visiting is that of Wilson Rock, an underwater mountain that lies just over 2 miles from the most northern island of San Miguel. Wilson Rock is an almost fully submerged rock that offers fantastic diving, however its tip can be seen from the surface as it juts 20 feet up and out of the water. Rock pinnacles and ledges covered in blue sponges are ideal places to see an abundance of marine life, specifically invertebrates. The area is also well-known for massive anemones which can sometimes grow up to a meter in size like the tentacle Metridium.
Diving depths vary between 35 and 65 feet and there is so much to explore on Wilson Rock that divers will likely want to visit again and again. The dive is best suited for experienced divers only though – strong surge and swift currents can make things difficult for a beginner diver, not to mention the steep drop offs and sudden changes in visibility which might throw an inexperienced diver off.

Channel Islands

The water temperature varies greatly around the Channel Islands, and the southern spots can often be at least 10 to 15 degrees F warmer than the northern islands. Divers can generally expect the Pacific Ocean’s waters to be in the range of 50-60F in winter and 60-70F in summer. This is of course much colder than the nearby Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys or even the Atlantic. Divers are encouraged to wear a dry suit or wet suit that allows for maximum coverage for warmth.

Visibility in the Pacific Ocean also varies greatly and can sometimes be as good as 150 feet. On average though, divers can expect visibility between 40-90 feet.

Anacapa Island

There is a warmer current that can be felt around Anacapa Island, one of the smaller Channel Islands towards the southern part of the Channel Islands in the north. The warmer temperature can make this dive far more pleasant than the diving around the Channel Islands located in the far north. Anacapa is a dive training hub, with many first-time divers getting certified and taking advantage of the warmer waters to do their qualifying dives. Anacapa Island is famous for leopard sharks and California’s state fish, the Garibaldi, which looks like a massive goldfish swimming amongst the swaying kelp.

San Clemente Island

San Clemente Island, the most southern of the Channel Islands, has sheer cliffs covered in sponges, anemones and coral. The water is warm here too and visibility is excellent, however it is best suited for experienced divers due to swift currents and difficult to maneuver tight spots.

Santa Cruz

The largest of the Channel Islands is Santa Cruz, where there is a fantastic wreck diving opportunity in the form of the USS Peacock. This 100 foot vessel has a wooden hull and was a minesweeper back in WWII. It lies upright on the sandy bottom at a manageable depth of 60 feet. Another nearby wreck is the Scorpion Anchorage, however it is only accessible by boat and it is highly recommended that divers make use of an experienced dive operator to visit this site.

Los Coronados Islands

Technically a part of Mexico, the Los Coronados Islands are just 20 miles to the south of San Diego and offer warmer waters and exceptional visibility. Here divers can experience sites such as Keyhole and Lobster Shack which are suited for both beginners and advanced divers and lie at depths of between 15 and 80 feet. It is possible to take a day trip from San Diego Harbor and be at the Los Coronados Islands in 2 hours.

Wreck Alley

Wreck Alley is another fantastic diving spot for those near San Diego as it is just a mile from San Diego’s coast. In the area known as Mission Bay lies Wreck Alley, where multiple artificial reefs have been sunk in order to create training sites for underwater military and technical divers. There are six major ships in total, the biggest of which is the HMCS Yukon, a Canadian Destroyer that measures 366 feet. There is also the Coast Guard Cutter, the NOSC Tower and the Ruby E. The NOSC Tower (Naval Ocean Systems Center) lies in more than 60 feet of water and was not actually intentionally sunk.

How to get there

The Channel Islands are not located far from Los Angeles and it is possible to simply fly into LAX Airport to access them. Many divers will take this route, renting a car from LAX and traveling south to Santa Barbara or Ventura where it is possible to boat across to the islands by ferry or private boat. Others choose to fly into the smaller Santa Barbara Municipal Airport and make their way to the Channel Islands from there. It is also possible to fly into the Santa Cruz Island Airport.

The Channel Islands extend 160 miles along the coast and make up parts of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the Channel Islands National Park, both highly protected areas. To explore the sites far off California’s shores, it is best to fly into San Diego International Airport.

Dive Centers and Liveaboards

There is no shortage of dive operators in southern California, so arranging a dive should be a relatively simple affair. A number of dive operators offer day boat trips and also 2 or 3 day excursions to the surrounding islands, giving divers a chance to get the most out of their time in southern California. There is the possibility of traveling by liveaboard too.

There are a number of reputable dive shops that offer scuba training classes and certifications from beginner to technical diver. These dive shops will also sell and rent scuba gear and even underwater photography gear for those photography enthusiasts.

Some dive operators in southern California specialize in certain areas or experiences such as the wreck dives, Channel Islands, caves or the Los Coronados Islands which lie within Mexican territory.

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