Central California's Big Sur region is a place of rugged beauty, a coastline dominated by the tree-covered peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains. So it's no suprise that underwater, Big Sur is a wild paradise of steep marine terraces and hidden coves. Only a short drive south from Monterey, Big Sur is just remote enough to remain unspoiled.
Jade Cove is actually not one but a series of coves at the edge of Los Padres National Forest, 65 miles south of Monterey. At the base of a deliriously steep 180-foot marine terrace, beneath 10 to 40 feet of cold green water, lies the only underwater concentration of jade in the world.
From the beach, a shallow shelf slopes gradually out through thick kelp beds that clog the coves in summer and fall. Big Sur jade is found in the frequently turbid shallows from the intertidal zone to just beyond the outer edge of the kelp beds.
Fifty yards offshore in Jade Cove is a large wash rock named Cave Rock. At the inshore base of the rock is a cave that runs straight through the rock parallel to shore. The inside of the cave is pure, naturally polished green jade. It's an easy, absolutely unforgettable dive.
One perfect day early last spring, Jeff Wildermuth and I were photographing the gleaming jade walls of the cave when a giant lingcod swam up to us lazily like a dog about to sniff us. It was Jeff's first time diving the cove, and he was overwhelmed by the sight of the precious stone. On our way back to the rocky beach, Jeff found a gorgeous palm-sized piece of sea-worn jade in about 15 feet of water. Back on shore it shone in his hands like the very heart of Big Sur, and he began rubbing it. After you find your first good piece of Big Sur jade, you're hooked.
The turnoff for the Jade Cove day-use area, roughly 10 miles south of Lucia on Highway One, marks the trailhead to the south cove, which is the most accessible of the park's three coves and also provides the easiest beach entry for divers. When the site was originally discovered, treasure-seekers came from all over the state to dynamite ledges and hammer large rocks to pieces on the beaches. They backed trucks and heavy winches right up to the edge of the cliffs, then dragged the boulders out, doing serious damage to the beach, cliff and meadow in the process.
As a result, there are a number of regulations regarding the removal of jade that are strictly enforced. You cannot collect jade above the mean high-tide mark. No vehicles are allowed in the removal of jade. You are allowed to take only what one person can carry. If you are using a pry bar or any other tool, it cannot be longer than 36 inches in length nor have any moving parts. And if you are using a lift bag, it cannot be capable of lifting more than 200 pounds.
Other Big Sur Dive Spots
There are countless places to dive in Big Sur, but many require a boat. Limekiln State Park, two miles south of Lucia, is a great place to launch a small inflatable. The kelp beds one mile to the north off Lopez Point are spectacular, although the water can be milky due to the talc in the rock. Added bonus: Orcas, porpoises, seals, dolphins and eagles frequent these shorelines during the spring and summer months.
Along the northern edge of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, at the west end of Partington Creek Bridge, is the trailhead down to Partington Cove. The cove is absolutely amazing but dangerous even by Big Sur standards. Everyone, including experienced divers, should dive this site with a guide. You stand a good chance of encountering serals, sea lions and sea ottes. All but the most expert of divers should avoid the hourglass-shaped cave at the surface.
Soberanes Point (in Garrapata State Park) is perhaps the best dive in Big Sur. Located eight miles south of Carmel's Rio Road, Soberanes boasts unparalleled flora and fauna in 20- to 70-foot depths. You can make this dive from shore, but be cautious as there can be strong rip currents. You'll also have to make a strenuous hike with gear to get to the very rocky entry point at the southern end of Moby Ling Cove.
There's very little protected diving from San Simeon to Carmel. But when the swell is down, the diving is unparalleled, and visibility can range from 25 to 75 feet.
For divers, Big Sur is generally defined as the stretch of coast between Yankee Point and Jade Cove in Monterey County. The state parks are accessible from coastal Highway One.
www.montereyscubadiving.com). If you're a photographer, stop in next door at Backscatter Underwater Photography (www.backscatter.com). You'll need a special-use permit to explore Partington Cove. Contact California State Parks at (831) 667-2315. For details on diving at Soberanes Point, call (831) 649-2866.Big Sur's unpredictable conditions restrict its treasures to only experienced divers, and the long steep trails require some physical conditioning. To dive Jade Cove, find a guide at Monterey Bay Dive Company on Cannery Row (