Diving along the Northern Californian coast is no small feat. Access can be challenging, with many great sites guarded by steep cliffs. There are no dive boat charters, and what small boat launching there is can be difficult and few and far between. This is hearty diver country, you need to be in pretty good shape just to reach the water, and healthy enough to dive the conditions you’ll face when you get there. Sometimes it can be down right horrendous when the old Pacific Ocean acts up. But when it’s good, it’s really good! On those days when the viz hits 30 to 40 feet, it is, I believe, one of the best areas to dive on earth.
About an hour north of San Francisco beginning in Sonoma County, this area is also rich in history, starting with the native Indians who settled here to reap the bounty of this coastline. The Russians came in search of otters, which used to be plentiful here but now are all gone. An old Russian fort, Fort Ross, has been restored and is now a State Park, making for an interesting topside diversion between dives. This site has some great diving, with a large, well-protected cove below it that has good abalone diving and spear fishing as well as the remains of an old paddle-wheel ship that wrecked here in the early 1900’s. The access is good but can be tough, with a long trail leading down to the cove, making gear packing difficult. A smaller cove just to the south has a beach where small inflatable boats and kayaks can be launched.
Abalone diving is what Northern California is famous for, a seafood delicacy only available here for sport divers only. This area about 2 hours north of San Francisco is the beginning of a stretch of coastline that harbors a healthy stock of abalone. While they are plentiful, they’re not all that easy to obtain. The rules and regulations are strict, free diving only, no scuba, only 3 a day, 24 for the season, expensive license, on and on and on. And the diving is extreme! Some spots require good climbing skills to reach, the water is cold and very often has poor visibility. This coast is also quite rough at times, and has claimed the lives of several unsuspecting divers. But a delicious reward awaits those who attempt it.
Spear fishing is also quite good here as many species are plentiful. Large lingcod and cabezon frequent this neighborhood, as well as many varied species of rock cod. Again the regulations can be strict, bag and size limits and emergency closures need to be adhered to. Scallops, another tasty shellfish, are also big and numerous at certain sites. The diving along this coast, whether free diving or scuba is exceptional due to long rock reefs and abundant life. Pinnacles jut up from the seafloor creating homes for thousands of animals. Kelp forests are thick providing food and refuge for many more.
Just a couple miles further north you’ll find more good diving, Stillwater Cove and Ocean cove, both with campgrounds and good access. One of the few places on the coast to get air fills is Ocean cove and there’s a small boat launch here. Another great dive site is Salt Point State Park where you’ll find Gerstle Cove, a nice protected bay, which is also a marine preserve. The abundant life in this shallow cove makes it a must see for the scuba diver. This site is where the majority of scuba training is conducted; you’ll often see several classes’ going on at once. It is a beautiful place with bluffs overlooking the water and a good trail system for exploring. Another shipwreck lies in these waters in the cove just south of Gerstle, the bow can be seen protruding out among the rocks at low tides. I came across the boiler of this ship once, it rolled off into deeper water away from the body of the wreck, and it remains one of the coolest dives I’ve done in this area. Large tube fans and mitridium anemones were growing off it and the surrounding house-sized boulders making for an awesome spectacle.
If you’re willing to brave a little rougher surf, 50-degree average temperatures, and visibility that is usually 10 feet at best, than this is a place to check out. The northern California coast is the wild Pacific Ocean at its best, spectacular but harsh, unforgettable yet unforgiving. Leave your shorts and flip-flops at home and bring your 7 mm suit, there’s an abalone waiting for you to pluck and a kelp Forrest to explore.