Head north from San Francisco on Hwy. 1, and three hours of rugged scenery later, you'll find yourself in the laid-back enclave of Mendocino. Most people escape here on weekends for the topside pleasures of art galleries, bistros and B&Bs, but savvy divers know it's also home to some beautiful diving.
The city shares a knobby peninsula with the Mendocino Headlands State Park, and there are 15 great shore dives clustered around the area, some literally right off Main Street. If you have trouble finding a site, just ask a local. Many are divers and will quickly put you on track.
One of the most popular sites, The Blow Hole, is a wave-carved tunnel that cuts through the seaside cliffs. The tunnel is 30 feet wide, 60 feet deep on the outside, and 100 feet long. A "sunroof" at the end of the tube allows enough natural light for easy navigation.
To get there, head west on Main Street and park at the intersection with Hesser Drive. A stairway of about 100 steps descends the cliff to a beach and a relatively calm entry point. The tunnel entrance is found directly off the beach, about a 90-foot swim away.
Once inside the straight passageway, you'll find a cathedral-like vaulted ceiling and calm conditions that are a sanctuary for dazzling sea life, including nudibranchs by the hundreds--more than 30 different species in all. Standing sentry at the far end of the tunnel is a curtain of kelp. Ambitious photographers will want two cameras: one for macro shots in the tunnel and a second for the wide-angle beauty of the kelp forest. Save some energy for the return trip--remember, now you have to ascend those 100 steps.
An advanced site, also off Hesser Drive, is The Arch. True to its name, a large, rocky archway forms an interesting trail leading to the entry point at a series of large, jagged rocks. Seas are generally four to six feet here, so time the wave sets, and descend as quickly as you can. The sloping bottom reaches a maximum depth of about 70 feet and is littered with encrusted rocks and boulders. Some of the larger formations are pinnacles that break the water surface. For added adventure, the bottom occasionally plunges even deeper into canyons.
The rocky labyrinth also houses a maze of life. Kelp holdfasts cling to the bumpy substrate, and some of the rocks glow under carpets of strawberry anemones. Ling cod hunker under the flat, smooth table-rocks, seeking safety during daylight.
The après-dive formula is as follows: Return to your car, get dry, turn on your heater, break open a thermos of hot beverage and watch the spectacular Pacific sunset as you swap lies with your buddy about the day's underwater adventures.
Dive In: Mendocino
LOCATION: Mendocino is located north of San Francisco on coast-hugging Hwy. 1, and the road trip itself qualifies as an experience. Another scenic route is to follow Hwy. 128 through Boonville and the wine country.
WATER CONDITIONS: Expect four- to six-foot waves and visibility from 10 to 15 feet on a good day. Temperatures in the mid- to low 50Fs mean you'll need a dry suit, or a full 7mm wetsuit with hood and gloves.
FEES: None! Parking along the roadside is gratis in Mendocino.
DIVE OPERATOR: The closest dive shop is Subsurface Progression in Fort Bragg, (707) 964-3793.
FOR MORE INFO: Visit www.gomendo.com.