Catalina Island: The Jewel of Southern California Diving

If you plan a trip to Catalina Island, bring a thick wetsuit — this isn’t the Caribbean, my friends.

By John Heimann

As Southern California divers, we often hit the beaches hoping for low surf and decent visibility, but no matter which beach or cove we’re diving, we’re reminded by the all-too-familiar shape of Santa Catalina Island just 22 miles offshore that there is definitely something better on the horizon. So one brisk October morning, my buddies and I stopped dreaming and went diving on Catalina. For $70 round trip, we were on our way via the Catalina Flyer to one of the best dive sites on the planet. As if the anticipation of what was to come wasn’t enough, an enormous pod of dolphins escorted us for a good portion of our journey. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it any better.

After a short taxi ride from the dock, we found ourselves on the shore of the Casino Point Dive Park. A little dive shack open on the weekends provides weights and tanks just steps from the water. After you’re geared up, it’s down a small flight of stairs and straight into the Pacific Ocean. At this dive park, it’s just that simple.

Once in the water, it’s easy to feel small in the overall scheme of things. With visibility averaging between 30 and 80 feet, depending on the time of year, the mighty Pacific shows divers just how big and beautiful it really is, but it can also demonstrate awesome strength in the blink of an eye. Our first dive was magnificent; the way the sun shone through the kelp forest was simply breathtaking. The abundant and aggressive bright- orange garibaldi warned us when we were a bit too close to their egg patches on the rocks. You’ll see giant kelpfish, lobster, Spanish shawls, halibut, giant black sea bass the size of a small car and so many more species that inhabit this protected and well-kept jewel of Southern California diving. There are even a couple of small wrecks on either end of the park, if that’s what tickles your bubble-making fancy.

On our second dive, the surge kicked up with such speed that it took everyone in the water completely by surprise. That beautiful, statuesque kelp forest I spoke of was suddenly lying flat on the bottom of the ocean floor. What began as an incredible dive in such an amazing place quickly turned to a real-life refresher course on what we were all trained to do when we were certified. Stay calm, and stay alive. After an exhausting 30-minute battle against Mother Nature to make it back to the steps and dry land, our day of diving was over. Over 100 divers, mostly strangers, were checking on each other to make sure everyone was okay. It’s a small fraternity, our diving community, but a tight-knit one.

Our waters range from 55 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the time of year. And bring your appetite as well. After your dive, the Casino Dock Café offers great food, cocktails and a friendly staff who make it fun to relax and enjoy some laughs after a great day of diving.

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