Santa Catalina Island, Calif. | Scuba Diving

Santa Catalina Island, Calif.

Text by Gil Griffin

Photography by Joe Belanger

Sure it's gorgeous to look at from 35 feet below, golden brown at its apex high above you and purple-red at its base below, in all its sun ray-glistened glory. But seriously, this diving in the kelp beds business can get a little tricky--and sticky.

Using each of my outstretched, gloved hands to part errant, thick and unruly kelp strands, I'm traveling east to west at Torqua Springs--a spectacular Southern California dive site--as if I'm back in my 1970s childhood home, separating beaded curtains to go from one room to another. I'm thinking about the Kelp Diving 101 briefing Capt. George Staehling, skipper of the live-aboard vessel Sand Dollar, gave us earlier: When the kelp snarls around your ankles, don't fight it, and if the sinewy tentacles coil around and tug on your mask or reg, don't panic. Just slowly crawl your way out.

But his talk doesn't cover what happens next: A blue shark suddenly materializing out of nowhere and buzzing past me, into the edge of the kelp bed, like an F/A-18 Hornet fighter in an aerial dogfight. With my heart now practically beating out of my 7mm wetsuit, I slow way down and head toward a pile of boulders. I assess what I've just witnessed. I've just seen Mr. Blue (a rarity in these parts, as I'm later told by a fellow diver who says he's yet to see one in seven years of diving here), plus a sand-submerged bat ray that, after liftoff, looked like the size of a Volkswagen bus, spiny lobsters hiding out in cracks between stacked boulders and a thick school of jackmackerels shape-shifting into silvery funnel clouds. And I'm only 20 minutes into the dive.

It's an action-packed welcome to the southeastern waters of Santa Catalina Island, which first earned its diving fame as the location for the TV show Sea Hunt and was once the posh, exclusive weekend playground of Hollywood's rich and famous. Recreational divers now know it for its magnificent kelp forests, creating a magical Jack and the Beanstalk atmosphere with plentiful populations of lobster and garibaldi, the bright orange state fish, which enjoys protected status. When the waters are coolest, in the high 50s and low 60s as they are in late spring and early summer, a host of invertebrates like nudibranchs, cowries, sea cucumbers, urchins and sea stars hangs out in relatively shallow waters before retreating to colder and deeper climes in late summer. On its eastern shores alone, off its ports of Avalon and Two Harbors, this pear-shaped island with a pointy tip on its western end offers endless excitement at splendid sites in the San Pedro Channel.

Pinnacle Rock (Little Farnsworth)

This spot is slightly southeast of the landing at Avalon, and as the name implies, there are two sets of pinnacles here, at 60 feet, reached by descending down an anchor line. Deeper down at 95 feet, the rocks reveal purple whips and colonies of ochre sea stars tightly fastened to them. While the adult garibaldi are in great numbers here, juveniles sporting electric blue spots on orange bodies are even nicer finds. The presence of black urchins provides a deterrent should you get the idea of using your fingers to clutch a ledge on a rock, and between the rocks there's a lush carpet of color--egg-yolk yellow zoanthid anemones and pale crimson sand rose anemones. A Spanish shawl nudibranch on a kelp leaf isn't an uncommon sight.

Pirates Cove

A myriad of sites are clustered here, off the coast of Buttonshell Beach on Long Point, with this one dropping down to 120 feet. But you'll only need to descend a little over half that distance to check out these seriously lush kelp beds, where at the roots there's a thick bed of green eel grass and purple algae growth. As I'm carefully peering under rocks, I see an octopus quickly scurrying underneath one. Later, a squid scoots past me, hastily seeking refuge. When I spot another swarming mass of jackmackerel, I find a crevice in a sandy spot to pause and watch their synchronized ballet, contracting and expanding under the glinting sunlight. I look down and discover a camouflaged, horned brown California scorpionfish against a rock is also watching the action.

Eagle Reef

Here's a site so nice, you'll want to dive it twice. That's the scheme of our captain, who earlier this morning dropped us at Sea Fan Grotto, where we did some tight squeezing through swim-through caves and eyeballed stately white sea fans adorning a wall. When we roll up to Eagle Reef, he slyly smiles, saying he wants to end the trip on a high note before the two-hour steam back to San Pedro. He's dead on. It's another spot with big pinnacles in 60 feet of water, with a sand canyon in between. Again we descend an anchor line, and this time alight above a cave crawling with lobsters and guarded by tiny purple-and-orange Catalina gobies and blue-and-white knobby stars. There's also a wealth of small life clinging onto the rocks' bottoms--giant keyhole impets, rock scallops and blackeye gobies wedged in crevices. But the real prized sights are bunches of thick-horned aeolid nudibranchs--two-inch, ivory-colored sea slugs with violet piping and a tangerine-and-snow-tipped coat.

Meanwhile, the boulder tops are patrolled by showers of aggressive, schooling blacksmith, sheephead and the ubiquitous garibaldi. Look carefully, and you might be rewarded, as I am, by the sight of a sleeping horn shark.

Ascending means navigating once again through the kelp jungle, where purple hydroids sprout wildly and stray, hungry torpedo rays cruise by for snacks. Speaking of which, I'm thinking of the treats awaiting me in the galley--a cup of hot cocoa and slices of Chef Donna Lia-Nott's delicious homemade garlic bread to warm me up. That's easily worth untangling ropes of kelp and braving cold waters, as are these dive sites and others off this California jewel I'd return to in a second.

And next time, when Mr. Blue comes calling, I'll be ready.

InDepth

Getting There: The Sand Dollar live-aboard departs from Ports O' Call Village at the San Pedro Cruise Terminal, Berth 77C. From Los Angeles, take Interstate 405 South to Interstate 110 South, to California Route 47 North toward Vincent Thomas Bridge. Exit on Harbor Boulevard and go right, then make a left on 6th Street, a right on Sampson Way and a right on Nagoya Way. Land-based diving on Santa Catalina Island requires a catamaran ride from the Southern California mainland cities of San Pedro, Long Beach or Dana Point, on Catalina Express, or from Newport Beach, on the Catalina Flyer. Both offer daily service to the ports of Avalon and Two Harbors from early morning until evening.

Dive Conditions: Water temps average in the mid-60s, with lows in the high 50s in winter and topping out in the high 60s in the summer. Visibility is generally 40 to 60 feet in winter and 60 to 90 feet in summer.

Dive Outfitters & Charters: For more on the Sand Dollar, visit divingcharters.com, and for a complete listing of land-based dive operators and live-aboards, log on to catalina.com or catalinainfo.com.

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