California Coastal Diving - Central

CopyRight @ 1997

Pismo Beach To Ragged Point

Pismo beach has legalized insanity. They make money off of it. This is a huge area of beach and sand dunes that are open to off-road and recreational vehicles. There are lots of tourists. Here is a page about the amazing onshore events there, but for now, I must stick with the water side... Though people have been known to take RV's diving there...
Realize, at Pismo beach, you are getting into Central California. It is still brush and chaparral covered hills, but it is cooler. This is not Southern California. From here on north, the coast has a windswept beauty. There are towns, but nothing of size until you get up to Monterey Bay. There are lots of wineries though and it gets quite warm just a bit inland from shore, but the water is getting a bit crisper up here. Say, from Pismo Beach to Ragged Point at the south end of Big Sur, should be called another diving area. Weather here is bad more often than it is good.
Pismo Beach can be like Zuma Beach, described in Malibu Diving. It tends to be a bit rougher though. If you go on a calm enough day, the beach slopes out slowly. Past the breakers are Sand Dollar beds and Pismo Clams. Sometimes, the clams disappear for years. Then one year, there will be millions of juveniles. These clams show up few places, but there are beaches on the west end of Santa Cruz Island that have them as well. As said elsewhere, sand diving can be fun because it is so different and you do not know what you might find. I have found large crabs off of both Zuma and Pismo. Juvenile Halibut and other flat fish are common. Big ones are there too. Access is easy, to say the least. The trouble starts after you are in the water.
North of Pismo Beach is Shell Beach. Rocky reefs start here again and extend a few miles to Alviso Harbor. This can be fun diving, but tends towards boat access and poor vis. As you get into Alviso Harbor there are small, well protected kelp beds that classes frequent. Alviso Harbor is interesting. It is well protected from all swell, but some from the south. You can catch a charter fishing boat from here. There is no ramp, but there is a convenient hoist for boats up to at least 24 feet in length. Just don't come back too late as we tended. It is a nice place to wander around and have a snack.

From Alviso Harbor north to Ragged Point is what I consider another diving zone. This is described in more detail in: Storm Central - Point Buchon and Central Coast Adventures With Dale. Basically this area is the mountains of Point Buchon, Montagne De Oro State Park, Morro Bay, Cayucus and San Simeon.

The mountains of Point Buchon go west from Alviso Harbor for about 10 miles. Along the whole area are extensive, luxuriant kelp beds. The whole area is rocky reefs and if that is not enough, it is not too hard to find offshore seamounts that are quite divable. Remoteness has kept the fish fairly plentiful. There are few abalone, scallop or urchins due to the large population of Sea Otters. You often see rafts of 30 to 50 of these critters. The kelp beds can be so dense that they are dark and almost impenetrable. Where the kelp is thin on the surface, the bottom growth may be so thick that you cannot find the bottom. In the rocks are stars, filter feeders, hydro-corals and whatever you can discover. It is rough and cold, but this is awesome diving.
Around the corner of Point Buchon, where the coast again heads north into Morro Bay, is Montagne de Oro State Park, so named because the yellow flowers growing on the hills. This is a quite accessible area, though it can be a challenge to get in the water most places. The rocks can be extremely sharp. There is a cove with good diving, close to the entrance of the park as well. Remember, this place gets weather.
Due to the commonly nasty nature of the ocean up there, many people actually dive inside of Morro Bay. There are old pilings, small kelp beds and Halibut in the sand. I have heard of diving in front of the rock itself, but that is just proof that no matter how rough a place may be, there will be a calm enough day to dive it... eventually. The surfers swim across the harbor channel to the beaches on the other side. It is fun to cross in a boat with a picnic lunch. There are miles of empty wild beaches to wander. This whole coastal area is beautifully scenic.
There is a good boat ramp at Morro Bay and some pretty aggressive sea gulls. The back waters of Morro Bay are serenely calm. Sea Otters are commonly found diving in the back parts of the bay. At the landing are the usual shops, restaurants and fish companies. Sometimes, the Princess takes dive charters up and down the coast from here. The weather is too inconsistent to really support a dive business though. Morro Rock itself is a huge granite plug left from ancient volcanic action. It is now a Peregrine Falcon Refuge. It is fun to drive out there and walk over the break wall to the water... especially on a rough day.

On the other side of Morro Bay is Cayucus. Rocky reefs start there and pretty much continue north. As you continue along the coast, diving may be in a narrow strip of kelp beds along the shore, like at Cayucus Point. It may be small offshore reefs with kelp that are spotted all over the place out there. It may also be like the areas above Cayucus Point where kelp beds extend so far off shore that they are difficult to navigate around and way too thick to want to go through them.
Most of this is only boat accessible except near San Simeon and near Cayucus. In Cayucus is a boat ramp suitable for inflatables or very small light boats. Just off shore from the hotel row there, are extensive excellent rocky reefs. They are swimmable from shore. In good conditions this can be incredible diving and very good fishing for the imaginative. North of Cayucus, if you want to cross private land on the surfer trails, is a huge kelp bed that extends out hundreds of yards from shore. It's weird to be looking for a spot out there from a boat and seeing the surfers a bit farther in. It is a huge area, diving varies, but I have never been thrilled in this kelp bed. I didn't find the rock piles the fish need to take cover in. The bottom was rock, but wavy, not boulders and cracks. Of course the area is so huge that I have dove only a small part of it. These kelp beds continue up around the corner of Cayucus Point and extend about 20 miles up to San Simeon. These are the ones that are so extensive that they are hard to navigate around them in a boat. Above Cayucus Point, I always found rock piles. Around here, I am always looking for my favorite fish, Lingcod. I think it is the tastiest of the California cold water fish. Bluefish...
San Simeon is incredible. Hiway 1 goes along the coast almost to San Simeon Point. Right off the hiway are coves leading out to shallow rocky reefs. It tends to be protected, though vis is rarely very good. Looking out at this area just draws a diver.

Just a little further on, where the coast turns north again to the start of Big Sur, is Pedras Blancas, described in Hitchen A Ride To Pedros Blancas

Diving here is limited by weather. Dive area is unlimited.

Ragged Point To Carmel

A few miles further is Ragged point and Hiway 1 climbs into the Big Sur coast. This winding road continues through forests along the beautiful coast line for about 140 miles, until it comes out at Carmel and Monterey. This area is very hard to access. It is so remote, that the last population of California Sea Otters were able to survive here. Now protected, they have spread rapidly. Near the town of Gorda is Jade Cove with the only know submarine deposits of jade. After each storm, the supply is renewed. Large jade boulders have been found and removed from here. Realize, this cove is at the bottom of a cliff like the rest of the area. Local divers here are intrepid. The area is granite though and that makes for clear water. If the kelp is not in bloom, vis is likely to be good. Driving along, looking at mile after mile of sea stacks, kelp beds and offshore rocks, a diver just wants to explore.

Towards the north end of the Big Sur Coast, before Carmel, the cliffs become more manageable and there is shore access to good diving. I didn't say that it is easy, but it can be fun. This is an area with the potential to be rough... on a calm day.

Carmel and Monterey

Next stop is Carmel, just south of Monterey Bay. There is lots of accessible diving and lots of divers in both Carmel and Monterey. Carmel has some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world and much of it can be accessed by driving the "17 Mile Drive". Here is Point Lobos underwater park and reserve. Only a few divers are allowed to dive the park daily. Just past Point Lobos is Monastery Beach. This is a well known dive spot, named after a building on the shore. Many divers go there. It is beautiful diving, but it is still a very dangerous place. See "Monastery Beach - Watch It". I think that it has the most vicious shore break in California, matched only by Greyhound Rock.

Just beyond Carmel is Monterey. This is an awesomely beautiful area. Pacific Grove is the beach area just south of Monterey Bay. At sunset, cars just seem to appear as people come to watch the sunset over the rocky shore. It is a bit rough for diving, but if the day is calm and you are up to it, it is a special dive in clear aquamarine water. The rock entry can be tough even for the experienced though. Boat diving is more practical on this side of the bay.
Around the corner, in Monterey Bay, is the area called Lover's Point and Cannery Row. There are many dive sites in this area, because of the many divers that frequent these calm, clear luxuriant waters. It can get weird though. There are far more divers concentrated in this small area, than any other dive spot on the coast. They are all competing with the land tourists for parking and beach access. On weekends, literally hundreds of divers hit the water in each cove along the shore. Kayakers and paddle boarders are passing everywhere. The divers up there are taught a crawl entry. While I think that it is an appropriate technique to use up there due to the rocks and rough water, I think that it may be over used. You literally see dozens of divers crawling in and out of the water at any moment.
The diving along here is excellent. If you get there before the crowds, the Sea Otters will completely ignore you as they hunt and feed. They are tactile hunters and reach in every hole and crack looking for food. The kelp beds are healthy and there are a zillion different critters making a living in the rocks. There are a lot of fish as well, but they have been hunted. This area is miles of calm rocky, kelp lined shore. It is one of the most scenic areas in California, both above and below water.
Monterey has some of the best of California diving. There are a few charter boats in the area, such as the Silver Prince. Another boat that was in Monterey for a while is the SeaBee. That is the first boat I ever dove on, when it was in Ventura. Art is not there, but divers are still enjoying the trips.

Perhaps diving goes down hill a bit for a while from here, as you go north. Perhaps not. It just depends on what you consider fun. For the next 200 miles, vis rarely gets over about 6 feet, but it can be good diving for the intrepid. The inside of Monterey Bay is sand beaches along a windswept shore. Most of it is difficult to access, because it is beyond artichoke fields and other crops. really, it is cold and hostile and I have never heard of people diving there. I'm sure that some hardy soul has and I would like to talk to them. There are a number of ocean research labs in this area and the bay is well studied, so it had to have been dove some. I expect that it is typical sandy bottom, but thinking about it, I am curious...

Santa Cruz To San Francisco

As you get to the town of Santa Cruz, on the north side of Monterey Bay... you have done the right thing... I mean, there is the start of substantial reefs that continue about 120 miles to perhaps, San Francisco. This is described here as the Santa Cruz diving region. It is probably the worst diving in California. Or you could call it the most challenging. I love it for the pristine windswept shoreline and the harsh cold water that fosters a teeming community of life. This is a place of seaweeds, tide pools, elephant seals, invertebrates and vigor. It is a place of mudstone, low vis, white sharks, giant waves, cold and wind. It is a place for strong swimmers. It is a place of challenging diving.
This is where I got my schooling in intertidal biology at University of California at Santa Cruz.... and where I developed some understanding of the processes of life.
While there is a lot of great diving in this area, it is not your typical sport diver destination. Conditions are just too bad, but it is great if you are a local as I was for years. So here is a description of the diving in this region.
Oh, I guess that I should note that this is just a bit south of the so called "white triangle". Yes the landlord is out there and is not to be forgotten. If you dive here, try to follow procedures to compensate. The danger is relatively low, but like earthquakes, it is there. Watch the seals for panic. They know. Do not hang out on the surface above the outer edges of even shallow reefs. Whitey might be cruising by.
I will not dwell on it, but the geology here is mudstone, not granite like on the other side of the Monterey Bay, or in Big Sur. This is the first factor that limits visibility in this region. The second major factor is algae spores. This is kelp land. During the spring algae bloom on a good day, vis is 3 feet. Before diving, I look at the water and try to judge the color and vis. Visibility on the surface is likely to be about 3 feet in yellow water, 2 feet in brown. Black follows. Many times, the surface looked worth trying. I would try a first dive in about say 8 feet. At 4 feet, you know that there is not going to be diving visibility. At 6 feet vis is about 3 inches. Near the bottom, it is black. There is no light. That's the problem. You get used to it and go surfing on the bad days. OK days have 3 feet of vis on the bottom. Good days have 6 feet. In 8 years of diving there, I think that I saw 2 days of visibility of near 15 feet.
It turns out that because of the type of diving that you are doing in this area, this may not be the limitation that it might appear. Much of the diving is in small cracks and tide pools, so 2 feet of visibility is as far as you can see anyway. Up here, that may be a lot to see. In the shallow pools, the sun makes life grow thick and sparkle.
Oh, dang! Forgot that too. Uh, the water is a bit chill. Say, 60 degrees Fahrenheit is common. It probably gets to 64, but that is not everyday. Minimum 1/4 inch wetsuit please.

Say, from a bit south of Pleasure Point in Capitola, to Natural Bridges State park in the north part of Santa Cruz itself, are almost continuous rocky reefs with a good deal of kelp... that are easily accessible. There are a lot of otters, so don't expect to see abalone, urchins, scallops or much else that they eat. There is a wide variety of nudibranchs, stars, crabs, sponges, some fish and all kinds of things that you didn't expect and have never seen before. You usually do have to look in the holes and cracks to see the interesting stuff. It takes patience and careful movement. Hey, pick a spot where you can get to the water easily and go. You will see beauty.
In this area is Steamers Lane. That is a wild place with its own story.
Continuing up the coast are a number of accessible beaches. They are long walks, but they all have substantial divable reef areas. I can not over emphasize the hazard of this area though. It is not just the waves or sharks, it was primarily the currents that I feared. Watch it and pay attention to conditions. Most of the area is really only accessible by boat. There are large cliffs along the shore and only occasional access. For a more detailed story and nice pictures of this area, see my "coffee table book" about the beautiful San Mateo Coast
18 miles north of Santa Cruz on Hiway 1, is 'Greyhound Rock' Fishing Access. This was my main dive site in this area for a long time. I then started diving mostly at Pidgin Point which is further north.
About 5 miles north of Greyhound is Ano Neuvo Island. It is interesting diving, but it is a large seal rookery and diving there, you are just asking for a hit by a Great White. It is the corner of the so called "White Triangle". This is getting to be an increasing hazard as the Marine Mammals Protection Act causes an increase in the various seal populations and their predator, the great White shark.
A few miles further, at 'Pidgin Point' and for some miles north, if you want to dive, just park your car and walk a short distance to the water. South of Pidgin Point is far calmer and protected. It is not hard to access, though it calls for a short hike. South from the lighthouse on the point, is about a mile of beautiful reefs and tide pools. It actually extends further south, but this is the best part. I have spent hour after hour diving exploring this beautiful, placid area. There is still very little vis.
North of Pidgin Point lighthouse, it had better be a calm day though. The shore points due west there and those waves have come a long ways. If the west is calm and a swell is from the south, it may be calmer and have better vis than the south side of the point, but this is the exception to the rule. As is often the case though, on the rough side there is actually more to see. Scuba is more useful on this side than the south and the life you encounter is likely to be different. The frontage road runs right off the shore, along excellent (rough) diving for about a mile. They used to allow camping here, right on the shore. This is a beautiful place.

I should mention that from Santa Cruz, north for about a hundred miles to Half Moon Bay, Hiway 1 follows the shore through spectacular coastal scenery. It is very lightly developed. This is the ocean side of the San Francisco Peninsula. The area has limited and difficult access due to the mountains that make up the peninsula. Inland past the coastal fields, it is mostly covered by redwood and fir forests. On your left is the windswept beauty of a pristine coast and on your right are beautiful groves and forests. The Big Basin Park trail comes out at the beach at Scotts Creek. This park has numerous ancient, old growth, redwood trees in the 300 foot plus range. On the other side of the Peninsula is the track of the San Andreas fault.

Continue north and there are areas of access and areas of big cliffs. Really, conditions limit diving along here far more than does access. Many people dive in the Half Moon Bay area. The geology of the area is made up of different size rings of rock. These can be easily visible and some rings are huge even by geologic standards. Again, it is cold, dirty, rough and sharky, but it's fun enough and there is a lot of beauty to be seen. Its very harshness makes it exhilarating as well as pristine. There are some abalone, great tide pools, interesting seaweeds and greatly varied invertebrate life.

More of the Coastal Guide
  • California Coastal Diving - South
  • California Coastal Diving - North

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