Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California, is where I first took to the water in scuba gear over ten years ago. It’s also where last weekend, I had the pleasure of revisiting Casino Point, a small marine preserve off the north shore of Avalon…
For the nondiver, a “kelp bed” may not sound like the most inviting place. Kelp is known for tangling swimmers and props, the word itself is about as euphonious as “seaweed” or “krill.” But under the surface, kelp forests are some of the most magical environments available to human exploration.
The fairy tale visuals there are like nowhere else I’ve dived. These are the kind of descents during which you have to frequently check yourself to make sure you’re not getting “narked” (nitrogen narcosis is the euphoric state divers sometimes enter when breathing nitrogen at pressure.) In this case, that dreamlike sensation is pure wonderment, to be expected and enjoyed.
Thursday—my friend Phil and I land at LAX around 10am and immediately set to renting a car and making the 30-40 minute drive down to San Pedro, an industrial town on the LA Harbor and one of three ports with regular departures to Catalina. Because we’ve missed the last ferry, we take a small helicopter over to the island; a wonderful—if short—15-minute flight.
QT_WritePoster_XHTML(‘Click to Play’, ‘/vids/helicopter-poster.jpg’,
‘240’, ‘192’, ”,
Thankfully, although it is cool and overcast on the mainland, Catalina is as clear and warm as a spring day in the Caribbean.
While Phil explores the island on a rented bike, I hook up with the ScubaLuv dive shop. There I’m partnered with Tim Mitchell, a Master Diver Trainer and Instructor, as well as photographer and videographer. Tim is originally from New Zealand, but the last several years in California are quickly wearing away at his Kiwi accent. He will guide me on two shore dives at opposite ends of Casino Point—the first to just deeper than 80 feet and the second just over 40. The visibility is 30-40 feet and the surface temps hover around 69 F.
To me that’s cold water. True, I learned to dive in that water and I pursued my advanced training in the much colder, darker, damnable waters of Virginia quarries. But following that, I spent years diving the tropical Indian Ocean off eastern Africa, and every two weeks now I dive the National Aquarium, where the water is at least mid-70s. Admittedly, I am spoiled. Not used to wearing a 7mm wetsuit. Damn sure not used to wearing a hood. I’m glad I brought one though.
Tim makes for a great dive buddy—laid back, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable of the area. It’s clear that he does this out of a genuine love for the marine world and you get the feeling he’d go back ten more times in a day if given the opportunity.
On both dives, I am treated to a sheep crab—the largest of the California spider crabs—that look to be about a foot and a half in diameter. Garibaldi abound, as well as thick schools of silvery jack mackerel, perch, sea stars, urchins, and vivid nudibranchs in purple and orange. I keep an eager eye out for barracuda and leopard sharks, but unfortunately none of those cross our path.
The most striking attraction in those waters, though, is the aforementioned kelp. This is the kind of environment that I can hardly wait to show my 22-month old daughter—once she’s old enough to dive, but not too old to appreciate swimming through magical, underwater forests.
The kelp grows vertically, at up to two feet per day. In places it’s as thick as an oak, and it varies in density and visible color depending on depth.
In fact, the shallows (within 30 feet) might provide the most magnificent view at Casino Point, where the light is least diffused and the colors of the kelp trees are most vivid. It’s also where the currents are most dynamic and the rhythmic, unified swaying of the animal life and vegetation is nothing short of musical.
I feel like the child hero in a Jim Henson film, wide-eyed and brave, pushing the bizarre orange and green branches aside to explore each next opening in the seabed. Strange marine creatures—for years now accustomed to divers—approach me confidently, putting on their little circus for another alien in bulky, black, bubbly dive gear.
In the shallows, the sun cuts through the water in distinct shafts of light, broken up only by the dancing orange treetops and undulating surface of the water. All of this is so naturally, perfectly choreographed to result in a dazzling show that I won’t soon forget.
Sadly, I have to call the second dive a little short. I’m too cold. I signal to Tim, we ascend and throw our gear into his truck—me shivering and hating myself for being so spoiled. My hands and feet don’t return to normal warmth until hours after the dive, when Phil and I are already on the boat headed back to mainland California (me still hating myself for being spoiled.)
QT_WritePoster_XHTML(‘Click to Play’, ‘/vids/boat-poster.jpg’,
‘240’, ‘192’, ”,
Diving Catalina is more than just a fun way to kick off a weekend trip to L.A. It is every bit worth the chilly water. Wear a hood. And I’d suggest wearing gloves if you’ve got them, though Tim might tell you I’m a prima donna.
This is a prime dive destination in my book; the kind of experience that sticks with you long after you’ve left the water.