Diving at Channel Islands National Park
Some of the finest and most unique dive sites in the world can be found at Channel Islands National Park and diving is a fun way to realize how the park lives up to its nickname as the Galapagos of North America. The islands have that same, wild, untamed aura associated with the Galapagos and having never been connected to the mainland, they are also home to endemic plant and animal species that exist nowhere else in the world. The beautiful rocky shorelines, filled with sea lion rookeries, nesting birds, and passing whales and dolphins, can be reached with a short boat ride but feel a thousand miles away from the hustle and bustle of urban life. Diving through the kelp forests that reach heights of 120 feet in the marine sanctuary surrounding the islands, gives divers a feeling of strolling through a lush forest full of trees and provides a unique experience for divers used to tropical waters.
Giant kelp forests support the islands’ marine ecosystems and are home to over 800 species of diverse marine life. The colder and nutrient-rich California Current flowing from the north surrounds the outer islands of San Miguel and Santa Rosa, while the Davidson Countercurrent flowing from the south runs along Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands. It’s the confluence of these two currents that allow such variety of marine life. Everything from sea anemones to Blue whales, the largest mammals in the world, can be found here.
Divers can expect to find rocks covered in colorful bouquets of sea anemones, starfish, and garlands of hydrocoral, sponges, and sea fans. Hidden in the rock fissures and crevices, divers can spot moray eels, octopus, abalone, rock scallops, California spiny lobsters, and a host of other sea creatures. Giant black sea bass weighing in at 500 pounds, or halibut, lingcod, vermilion rockfish, calico bass, and bat rays are other familiar sights. The most playful swimmers are always the seals and sea lions while the most splashy swimmers are the migrating Gray, Blue, and Humpback whales, and schools of dolphins crossing the channel. Each island offers a different and unique collection of sea life with something to offer every diver. Learn more about what each island has to offer below.
Diving at Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island has excellent dive sites with great visibility that provide a fun experience for divers. Dives vary in depths from a few feet up to 60 feet and are close to the island. Spots feature kelp forests, walls, and pinnacles, and the bottom is mostly made up of sand and rocky reef. Varieties of fish like kelp bass, sheephead, and garibaldi, share the reefs with hundreds of plants and small creatures.
Diving in this kelp forest is a totally different feel from tropical dives. It gives divers the sense of exploring an underwater forest with sun rays piercing through the water and playful sea lions twirling about. Divers commonly spot seals, lobster, bat rays, horn sharks, moray eels, and occasionally giant black sea bass as well as blacksmith perch, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and other small schooling fish. The more you look, the more you see!
The warmest water temperatures are usually recorded at the end of summer, also a time known for amazing visibility. Year-round, visibility averages 40 feet and can be as high as 100 feet. Some of Anacapa Island’s popular dive sites include Coral Reef, Landing Cove, Cathedral Cove, Underwater Arch, Aquarium, Guana Banks, Rat Rock and the West End. These dives are not recommended for beginners.
Diving at Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island sits on a transition zone between warm south currents and cooler north currents, allowing for dive sites rich with diverse marine life. Gull Island is a popular dive near Santa Cruz Island filled with large California sheephead, lobsters and purple urchin tucked into crevices on the reefs, and various colorful sea stars including bat stars, giant spined stars, and bright blood stars. Yellow Banks offers large kelp beds that stretch along the side of the island. Close to shore, the kelp beds are filled with giant brown kelp, but as divers reach depths of 80-90 feet, kelp beds are mainly made up of bullwhip kelp meaning water temperatures are much cooler. This current transition zone makes for great drift diving.
The island is also home to a very extensive system of underwater caves and caverns some of which, like Diablo Anchorage at Diablo Point Cave, make for popular dives. The island offers lots of anchorages and coves protected from the wind and weather. Dive sites around Santa Cruz Island vary from sandy bays to rocky reefs, and are excellent opportunities for beginner to moderate skilled divers.
Diving at Santa Rosa Island
Santa Rosa Island is further from the mainland than Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands, and is often battered by strong winds, but when weather and sea conditions are right, its underwater environment can make for a magical dive for advanced divers.
The Pinnacles at Santa Rosa Island offer thick kelp beds growing atop steep escarpments carpeted in colorful sea anemones. It’s no wonder fish choose to congregate around these amazing views. Depths here can reach 100 feet and the area is often bathed in currents. Nearby, Johnson’s Lee is used as an overnight anchorage by charter dive boats where night diving takes place along shallower reefs.
Diving at San Miguel Island
This northernmost Channel Island has cool nutrient-rich waters fed by the Humboldt and Davidson currents from the north that fuel kelp growth of up to two feet per day! San Miguel Island is home to a great abundance of marine life with thick giant kelp beds and easily spotted California sheephead, black sea bass, bat rays, moray eels, and colorful sea anemones.
Point Bennett on the western tip of San Miguel Island is a popular dive site often visited by California and Steller sea lions, northern and Guadalupe fur seals, and harbor and northern elephant seals, from their nearby breeding grounds. This spot offers great visibility year-round even for 30 to 50 foot dives. Wyckoff Ledge is another popular site protected from currents and home to wolf eels, mosshead warbonnets, and lots of nudibranchs. Judith Rock and Richardson Rock are also beautiful pinnacles and great dive sites for advanced divers who can handle stronger currents and deep dives.
The best spot to view California hydrocoral, a true coral endemic to California, is Wilson’s Rock two miles to the northwest of San Miguel Island, where colorful sea anemones, nudibranchs, and sea stars decorate reefs in vibrant colors and diversity. Advanced divers can enjoy deep dives and visibility exceeding 100 feet on good days.
Diving at Santa Barbara Island
Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the Channel Islands but still boasts huge variety in underwater terrain. Dive sites vary from kelp forests to arches, pinnacles and caves, to sandy bottoms filled with bat rays.
Kelp and congregations of California sheephead and Garibaldi surround The Archway which sits in about 80 feet of water covered by red gorgonians, sea anemones, sunflower stars, and California hydrocorals. Schools of mackerel and other baitfish often swirl above the reef, making for mesmerizing photo opportunities. Off the northern coast of the island, Shag Rock features steep rocks away from shore filled with kelp forests that are home to lingcod, rockfish, and lobsters. Divers also commonly see torpedo rays and leopard sharks swimming through the kelp. On the opposite side of the island, Southeast Reef features moray eels and sea lions threading through small drop-offs and ledges, while bat rays and electric rays cruise the sand corridors.
Check out Sunset Magazine’s 37 Amazing National Park Underwater Sights. The first 10 are all at Channel Islands National Park!