California diving might not be a place you will think of first when thinking of a dive vacation. It does offer a style of diving that many have come to love. The California coast runs some 1,200 miles giving a range of different conditions. Southern California offers a year round moderate climate that keeps divers in the water. You are going to need a wetsuit or a dry suit as the water temperatures are from the high 50s to low 70s depending on the location and time of the year. However, this temperature range is above requiring extreme cold water diving equipment. The music says it all. California Dreamin by the Mamas and Papas reminds us that “I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day, I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.”. The beach boys always told us of their love for the beaches, surf and of course California Girls. The beaches are also great for shore dives, California has many excellent shore dive sites. While boating diving is popular, shore diving is king in Southern California.

Southern California Marine Protected Areas
Southern California Marine Protected Areas

California MPA

In 1999, California was the first US state to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPA). The law expanded many of the existing ones and created new ones. Also, unique at the time was the drive behind the establishment was not solely by scientist. It was a grassroots effort that balanced the desires of many groups while creating a balance that would still provide protection. The process has worked well with marine populations having tripled and also seeing an 30% increase in growth rate.

The area defined as the southern coast for the network runs from Point Conception Marine Reserve south past Los Angles down to San Diego and continuing to the Mexican border. It would not be practical to try to list all MPA with outstanding diving, so I will just highlight a few of them.

San Diego Area

One of the most diverse section of Southern California to dive in has to be San Diego county. Along the coast is about a dozen Marine Protected Areas and also the area called wreck alley. Between them they offer divers of all skill levels that perfect dive. The dive sites of wreck alley probably has the greater international recognition. HMCS Yukon, a Canadian Mackenzie Class Destroyer, has become the most visited of the wreck alley sites. This warship is 366′ long with a beam of 42 feet and rest on her side in 100 feet of water. She was sunk as an artificial reef with the intention of providing not only a home for marine life but also a new dive site for novice to advanced divers. After a long and costly preparation period she was towed out to her new home to be sunk. On the early morning of 14 July 2000, unusually high waves appeared during a time the ocean is relatively flat. Water started to flood the hull and nature changed the time table of the sinking. Before all the ceremonies that were planned occurred, she sank below the seas. She also rolled onto her side instead of sinking straight up. The HMCS Yukon has earned the reputation as a killer. There have been a number of deaths, at least five, of these two were inside the wreck. It is believed in one case the diver was unable to overcome a current that prevented her from exiting the ship. Advance divers will find much to enjoy about the wreck even without going inside of it.

California wreck alley
Ruby E A Wreck Alley Dive Site Photograph by Vlad Karpinskiy

Another member of the wreck alley dive sites is the Ruby E. She was a US Coast Guard Cutter, was sunk in June 1989 as part of the Artificial Reef Project. Ruby E is 165-foot long and she sits upright in about 85 feet of water. She is a great wreck for all skill levels. Novice divers can visit the superstructure while advanced divers can visit lower areas. Penetration trained wreck divers will find many areas of the wreck can be explored by the recreational diver. The NOSC Tower is another of the dive sites of the alley. Different from the others she was not a ship and was not sunk on purpose. The tower was a hundred foot tall research facility conducting wave and other times of studies for the US Navy. In 1988, a rouge wave toppled the platform sending to the ocean floor below. The heavily battered platform can be visited by novice divers as her depths ranges from 35 to 65 feet. Oil platforms and similar structure attract marine life and this one also does so. The kelp harvester El Ray is also available to dive in 85 feet of water.

The La Jolla Community is a part of the city of San Diego, north of the center of the city and is along the coast. It has a rugged 7 mile long coast line that attracts water lovers including divers. While technically not a part of La Jolla nor San Diego, you will find both the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography here. Both of these institutions are well known for their marine programs. The diving in this area is unique in many ways. The shore diving is outstanding, some of the best shore dives in the United States. Moving just a few miles up or down the coast can give you not only different types of dive sites but also drastically different conditions. The water temperature does not drop below 55ºf in the winter nor above 70ºf in the summer. The entire area is called San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park.

La Jolla Cove now called Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve is one of the most popular diving areas. This shore dive has a dense kelp forest with extensive marine life. The depth of the site is perfect for open water divers as it does not exceed 45 feet. Nearby is the site called La Jolla shores. A good portion of this site is shallow about 25 to 35 feet making it very popular with the local instructors for doing open water dives. Entry is very easy and the waves here are normally calm even if other areas have surf. This area is also used for advance training as well. The site has a wall that starts at 50 feet and extends downward. Dives in the wall area are generally done between 60 and 70 feet.

Scripps Canyon is considered the best deep dive site on the west coast. The fact that the Scripps Institute of Oceanography is located here should give you an indication how diverse the area is. A short distance from shore in 70 feet of water the canyon drops hundreds of feet. There are three different branches of the Canyon; North Branch, Sumner Branch and South Branch. The deep colder water bring nutrients to the surface and well as pelagic species.

Orange County

Moving north along the coast from San Diego we come to Orange County. Laguna Beach is the center of diving in this section of southern California. Fourteen dive sites in Laguna Beach’s three protected areas provide divers a choice in dive conditions. Shaw Cove is often cited as the best dive site in Orange county and as one of the top five shore dives in California. It is also noted to being one of the best night dive spots. The cove is protected from most off shore swells and the sandy beach makes entry and exit easy. Visibility is generally above average for the coast and the water does not get deeper than 50 feet within the cove. More advance divers may want to dive in the slightly deeper water outside of the cove. Caution needs to be observed as the currents can be tricky and surges can happen.

Los Angeles

I do not recall ever hearing anyone telling me they are planning a dive vacation to LA. Surfing maybe, Girl watching along Santa Monica definitely and out to Hollywood of course. The locals know that there are many places to dive in Los Angeles county. Malibu alone has 20 miles of beaches with many outstanding dive sites. Paying attention to the tides are very important in the area, surf conditions can change and create curls that surfers love but are dangerous to divers. There are however a number of protected areas where the large wave do not happen. Leo Carrillo dive site in Malibu, has a good reputation for its variety of marine life and is a popular night dive site. Nicholas Canyon is close by to it but not dived as often because the longer surface swim. Veteran divers of the area suggest bringing a local California Fish card. You will need it to keep track of all the different species you will see. Redondo Beach’s Veteran Park is one of the best Open Water Diver Training sites in the area. Other sites provide a suitable challenge to advanced divers.

If this short sample is not enough to peak your interest, remember that there are also off shore islands such as the Channel islands, Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina and others. It may not be a tropical paradise, but California divers love their local dives, and you can to.

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