Scuba Diving in Kelp Forest, Catalina Island

My body swayed first to the left, then right, then back to the left again. The countless kelp in front of me did the same, albeit with so much more elegance. Their blades and stipes swayed with the current: left, right, left, right, and my body in absolute synchrony with them. A couple garibaldi (Catalina goldfish) swam in and out of the kelp forest playfully, and I chased their movements with both my eyes and GoPro, hoping to capture a moment of the beauty while I admired in awe.

Diving in Catalina Island was nothing short of wonderful. There were the joyous discoveries of various marine life: octopuses and lobsters who were hiding underneath rocks; nudibranchs on sunken ships; sheepshead, giant kelpfish, kelp bass, and other fish species (perhaps rockfishes) who just casually swam by performing their daily routine. Then there was that timeless feeling of hovering underwater while the current swayed my body side-to-side, in absolute synchrony with the swaying leaves. It was an experience I first fell in love with in Thailand, and enthralled by again in the kelp forest, inside the Casino Point Dive Park.

Casino Point Dive Park
Scuba Diver existing the water

The dive park is located on Santa Catalina Island in the California Channel Islands, southwest off the coast of Los Angeles (LA). Visitors to the island can take ferries departing from cities in the LA vicinity and disembark at Avalon. Two ferry companies — Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer — shuttle passengers onto the island daily.

Santa Catalina Island has multiple dive sites, but only one is accessible by shore: the Casino Point Dive Park. At about 2.5 acres in size, the dive park (formally established in 1965) is the first non-profit underwater park in the country and is located right adjacent to the island’s casino, thus the name. All marine life at the park are protected; some easily sighted species include garibaldi, black sea bass, sea lions, moray eels, octopus, and lobsters. Divers can enter and exit the water via the stairs and handrails descending straight into the dive park, and be welcomed by the gorgeous kelp forest immediately. Maximum depth here is 95 feet at the park’s boundary.

Casino Point Dive Park Sites
Giant Kelp Forest at Casino Point Dive Park

To my surprise the casino offers no gambling. It was opened in 1929 as a hub for movie, dinner, and dancing under commission of William Wrigley Jr. The ballroom in current days serves as a host for major holiday events, weddings, and other private celebrations. For those simply wanting to explore the Art Deco masterpiece, guided walking tours are available and can be booked online. Two sites I found offering these are TripAdvisor and VisitCatalinaIsland.

Casino Point
Diving at Casino Point

We planned to do six dives total at Casino Point over the course of 3 days and decided to book our dives with Catalina Divers Supply, the longest-running dive shop on the island. Booking with the company was straightforward online with quick turn-around to our email inquiries, and payment information could be emailed in before the trip. Once the tours were booked, we were notified to arrive at the Casino Point parking lot for dive gear setup and introduction. From the city center of Avalon, this was a short walk (~15 min) away.

Our first tour started at 10 am, so we decided to arrive at the parking lot at 9:30 am to get settled and debriefed. When we showed up, we realized other dive shops also had theirs trucks present inside the parking lot. It was like a diver’s hall. Each truck offered rentals, tours, classes, and specialty dives on Catalina Island. Equipment and tours can be booked on the spot, but it is best to make reservations ahead of time during busy seasons to secure the gears and tours of interest.

Casino Point Diving Info
  1. Trucks from each dive shops are parked at Casino Point parking lot to provide rental equipment, tours, classes, and specialty dives.
  2. Dive excursions start every day at 8 am, 10 am, 12 pm, and 2 pm. Additional times can be requested for night dives.
  3. Water temperature are in mid 60-70s during summer and high 50s during winter. Cold temperature helps the kelp to grow, while warm temperature brings about green sea turtles and giant sea bass.

There were already 10+ scuba divers gearing up by the various dive trucks and entering the water when we arrived. We looked around for Catalina Diver’s Supply’s logo and could not find it anywhere. After a few tries looking around, we sought help from the closest dive shop, and learned Catalina Diver’s Supply is the only company whose truck is on the North side of the casino, towards the left of the stairs when facing the marine park. This side is not visible when entering the parking lot from the direction closest to the city center (South of Casino Point).

Location of Catalina Diver’s Supply‘s truck

The representative at Catalina Diver’s Supply greeted us with a big smile. The three of us chatted happily until the moment he mentioned there was no reservation under our names. Uh-oh. “Should be under…” we verified our info again and started to look on our phone for the email confirmation. Perhaps he saw the “oh no” look on our faces, the representative quickly reassured us the dive shop still had availabilities, and immediately introduced us to our dive master, Chelsea. Relieved we can still go diving, we set our items down and started to get ready. While we were gearing up, Chelsea informed us our reservations were probably misregistered in the computer system, and asked us to swing by the main dive shop in the city-center after the dives to finalize our bookings. We followed suite, stopped by the dive shop after our dives, and resolved the booking discrepancies without any additional issues.

Aside from the initial scare, we were glad the dive crew was able to handle the incident promptly and professionally; they provided us a solution that did not hinder our first day’s diving experience on the island, and made us felt valued and taken care of through the whole process. Would definitely recommend the company and return for future dive tours with them!

3 Days 5 Dives Itinerary

We spent three days on the island when the sun was rising ~6:30 am and setting ~4:30 pm, so we spaced out our dives over the course of each mornings to maximize the day time we have for island exploration afterwards.

When we dove, the bottom water temperature was at ~57 °F. Under such condition a 7mm wetsuit was needed and hoods were extremely beneficial. Some of the main marine life in the area, such as green sea turtles and giant sea bass, prefer the warmer climate, so we did not encounter them during our trip. We also did not see sea lions while diving, even though we saw them frolicking in the water when we walked around the island.

Casino Point Dive Park Sites
Day 1
Start
Time
Surface
/Bottom Temp
RouteMarine Life Encounter
10 am61°F/ 57°FDescended stairs
-> Buoy reference line
-> Sunken boats (Glass
bottom boat, sail boat)
-> Kelp forest
-> Return via stairs
Garibaldi, urchin, sea cucumber,
sheepshead, kelpfish, kelp base.
12 pm61°F/ 57°FDescended stairs
-> Buoy reference line
-> Swim platform
-> Octopus rock
-> Kelp forest
-> Return via stairs
Garibaldi, urchin, sea cucumber,
sheepshead, kelpfish, kelp base.

New: Spanish shawl (nudibranch), octopus

On the first dive, we saw plenty of garibaldi, urchin, sea cucumber, sheepshead, kelpfish, and kelp bass. On the second dive we even got up-and-close with Spanish shawls living on the swim platform, and an octopus who was feeding on a snail and hermit crab. For those not familiar with the name, Spanish shawl is a sea slug and a specie of nudibranch; it is colorful with beautiful purple body, orange cerata, and scarlet rhinophores.

Sea cucumber

When we were returning from our second dive, there was a large swarm of fish swimming in front of the stairs in an area perfectly lit up by the sun. The most prominent specie was the garibaldis, whose bodies sparkled brightly as they swam around gracefully. It was a sight to behold! Given this was in the shallower area, there were a lot of snorkelers enjoying the sight from the surface as well, and it was a bit tricky to avoid getting kicked by.

Snorkeler and school of fish
Swimming back to the stairs

Day 2

Start
Time
Surface
/Bottom
Temp
RouteMarine Life Encounter
8 am61°F/ 59°FDescended stairs
-> Buoy reference line
-> Sue-Jac
-> Kelp forest
-> Return via stairs
Nudibranchs, sheepshead,
kelp wrasse/bass.

New: Lobster
10 am61°F/ 59°FDescended stairs
-> Buoy reference line
-> Sunken boats
(Glass bottom boat,
sail boat)
-> Kismit
-> Swim Platform
-> Kelp forest
-> Return via stairs
Spanish shawl, sheepshead,
lobsters hiding underneath rocks,
and schools of fish swimming in the wrecks.

I started carrying my new dive lights along on the second day, and immediately fell in love with the beautiful colors they added back to the pictures and videos. The California sheepsheads is one of the best models to show the benefits of having dive lights. When we looked at sheepsheads underwater without the lights, the fish appeared to have gray stripe down the center, but when the fish swam into the light, the stripe turned from gray to red! This explained why all the marine life murals in the city depicted sheepsheads with black-and-red colors; at first we thought we encountered a different specie.

Sheepshead’s stripe looks gray without light

Even if videography is not something of interest, having a dive light truly will make the underwater exploration so much more interesting. Different colors get absorbed at different depth, so at 30~40 m (98~131 ft) it becomes hard to tell what color a coral or a fish has, and everything would look blue-ish. With the dive lights, the colors are added back and so are the distinctive features of each marine specie.

Approximate maximum depth for each color

Since we visited the dive park end of November, for all three days of our dives, the water temperature was ~57 °F at the bottom and ~59 °F at the surface. Even with a 7mm wetsuit, IT. WAS. FREEZING. Especially when the wind blew on my wet hair and body upon exit. We originally planned to brave a night dive on the second day, but considering my lips were already turning purple under the sun after the first dive, we quickly scratched the plan. The dive shop was understanding, and only charged us for five dives, instead of the six originally planned.

Day 3
Start
Time
Surface/
Bottom
Temp
RouteMarine Life Encounter
10 am63°F/ 61°FDescended stairs
-> Buoy reference line
-> Kismit
-> Swim Platform
-> Kelp Forest
-> Return via stairs
The usual nudibranchs,
fish, and lots of lobsters!

New: moral eel, sea anemone,
sea star
Lobster
Can you spot the lobster, sea star, and sea urchin?

We squeezed in a dive on the last day before leaving the island, and opted to see Spanish shawls (nudibranchs) and as many lobsters as we could find. Chelsea had certification classes to run so another dive guide, Emily, took us out instead. Perhaps due to the hood, I have had a lot of issues with water leaking into my mask every dives I went on; luckily I had been able to fix it relatively quickly. On the last day, however, I encountered the worst leak and nothing I tried fixed the issue. Emily was very patient with the situation, recommended several options, and eventually went back to shore to grab another dive mask for me. The new one fit perfectly and I was able to continue on with the dive. Truly thankful to her since we saw plenty of lobsters, Spanish shawls, and even encountered one tiny sea anemone!

That said, also need to give a special shoutout to our dive master of 2 days, Chelsea, who provided us a step-by-step instruction to set up the dive gears on the first day. It was a refresher our group of 5 very much appreciated. Throughout our two days of diving together, Chelsea also discussed detailed dive plan (entry, dive route, return, what to do when missing buddy, applicable hand signals), talked about best seasons to encounter various types of marine lives, and answered any curious questions we had in between dives. She was knowledgeable, amicable, and down to earth; having her as a guide certainly made our trip even more enjoyable.

What Do I Need for Scuba Diving?

Here is a list of our scuba gear for the trip.

Scuba Diving Gear List
  1. Dive certification
    • Can be a physical card or pulled up on the PADI app
    • Dive shops can typically look up this information online as well
    • For those new to diving, schedule a certification course with the dive shop to get started!
  2. Dive gear
    • Owned: Mask, snorkel, swim suit
    • Rented: Scuba tank (AL-80) with air, weights, BCD, regulator, fins, wetsuit (7mm), dive computer
  3. Video gear
    • GoPro
    • Dive lights
      • Use wide-beam for videography/photography
      • Use narrow-beam for further reach or illuminating murky water
  4. Towels
  5. Warm clothes
    • Rash guards or jackets are good for covers in between dives
  6. Water shoes
  7. Fish ID card
    • Usually available online but a physical one can serve as a great souvenir!

For those visiting the area for the first time but experienced in diving, I would recommend at least a 2 hour guided tour, then just rent gears from the dive shop and explore away. We decided to keep all five guided tours since both of us are still relatively new to diving.

What If I don’t scuba dive?

The dive park is also opened to snorkelers and you can see schools of fishes and the kelp forest even from the water surface!

For those not into water sports, consider hiking, biking, fishing, or sailing on the island, or have a relaxing day out by the beach front.

Stayed tuned for upcoming post about our lodging and scrumptious restaurants options on the island!

Cheers,

ShuMui

Published by Shu Mui

An outdoor enthusiast whose goal is to see the world, one step at a time. This blog documents my journeys and I hope you can leverage them for your trips. Bon voyage!

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