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Best Spots to Scuba Dive in California

Best Spots to Scuba Dive in California

Discover colorful marine life, and explore underwater caves at these dive sites across the state

Don’t think that California’s spectacular scenery is only land-based. With 840 miles of coastline and dozens of islands, there are a variety of opportunities to view amazing underwater topography, as well as kelp forests teeming with marine life. While it’s possible to dive year-round in California, much depends on the dive site’s location and weather conditions. When it’s a new-to-you site, it’s always best to check with a local dive center for tips, as well as advice on how much exposure protection to wear. Check out these eight great places to scuba dive in California, listed north to south.

Northern California

Smith River

In California’s far north, the free-flowing Smith River runs through rocky canyons on its way to the ocean. About 10 miles east from its mouth at Crescent City is Early Hole, a popular dive site among dive shops for training and experienced divers looking for something different. The deep hole is accessible most of the year and can often have visibility of up to 50 feet, due to the gravel bottom. Salmon and trout abound here, as well as some smaller fish. Bring your own dive gear, or rent at Pacific Quest Dive Center in Crescent City.

Lake Tahoe

The second-deepest lake in the United States (at 1,645 feet), Lake Tahoe sits at an elevation of 6,225 feet. If you’re seeking an ideal place for an Altitude Diver course, this is the one. If you already have that specialty, hit the Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail (easily accessible from both North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe destinations). Established in 2018, it includes two large barges and 12 recreational boats, mostly within 10 to 60 feet of water. Visibility is often well over 100 feet, giving divers a view from wreck to wreck. 

Monterey Bay

The Monterey Bay Sanctuary lures divers who come to experience the thrill of diving in towering kelp forests and rocky reefs. Rays of sunlight filter through the thick leafy canopy at the surface, illuminating a world filled with brightly colored anemones and sea stars. Sea otters float on the surface, and harbor seals and California sea lions can be seen darting past you. You might even spy a whale swim by on its annual migration. Popular beach dive sites include Lovers Point in Pacific Grove, Monterey State Beach, San Carlos Beach, and McAbee Beach. Classes and dive tours are offered by Aquarius Dive Shop, Bamboo Reef, and Monterey Bay Scuba.

Point Lobos

Plan ahead to dive in the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, because reservations are required. Diving permits are limited to 10 teams (of two people each) per day, and reservations can be made as much as two months in advance. The divers’ crown jewels here are Bluefish Cove and Whalers Cove; as marine life has long been protected, fish are not shy. Divers can spot lingcod, cabezon, blue rockfish, vermillion rockfish, spiny brittle stars, and colorful sponges. The Great Pinnacle, composed of two pinnacles and several spurs found off Bluefish Cove, is ideal for advanced divers. Best bets for local dive shops are listed in the Monterey Bay section above.

Southern California

Channel Islands National Park

The kelp forests surrounding Channel Islands National Park may be some of the most pristine in California. Anacapa Island has more than 40 diving and snorkeling sites with scattered reefs and lush kelp forests where you can spy nudibranchs, cabezons, garibaldis, and yellowfish. Santa Cruz Island has underwater caves and caverns, and the wreck of the USS Peacock, a World War II minesweeper. You can spot a range of whales and dolphins in addition to a similar selection of marine life as Anacapa Island. Public boat transportation from Ventura is available through Island Packers, and divers can also book day trips through local dive shops on the mainland.

Catalina Island

While Catalina Island is technically part of the Channel Islands, it deserves its own entry, because it’s one of the most popular diving destinations in California. There are dive and snorkel sites throughout the island, a variety of Marine Protected Areas, an official underwater park at Casino Point, a plane wreck, and a handful of shipwrecks. Here’s the place to spot more garibaldis, endangered giant black sea bass, leopard sharks, California sea lions, and moray eels. Get there via the Catalina Express ferry from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point, or the Catalina Flyer from Newport Beach. Bring your own gear, rent from a shop on the mainland, or connect with Catalina Divers Supply when you’re on island.

La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores

La Jolla Cove is San Diego’s most visited dive site and requires only a single beach entry. The Cove, as well as La Jolla Shores, is part of the Matalahuayl State Marine Reserve—an area that’s been protected since 1929. There are four main habitats here: seagrass meadow, kelp beds, shallow rock reefs, and sea caves. The most popular marine life spotted include horn sharks, broadnose seven-gill sharks, California sea lions, green sea turtles, surfperch, California sheephead, and opaleye. Rent gear from a San Diego dive shop, or sign up for a guided day or night dive.

Wreck Alley

San Diego’s Wreck Alley features the West Coast’s largest assembly of artificially sunken ships (including the HMCS Yukon and Ruby E), submerged ocean platforms, and the remains of the old Ingraham Street Bridge. The nutrient-rich, cold-water currents keep the area full of marine life, including colorful gorgonians and strawberry anemones, as well as lingcod and giant sea bass. The wrecks start at 60 feet, so it’s helpful to have an Advanced Open Water Certificate here. If you want to enter a wreck, you’ll need an additional Wreck Diver certification. Access is only by boat, and local dive shops offer guided trips.