California, nicknamed the golden state, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the USA. Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, and a lot of sunshine make it popular to visit year round. While the stunning coast line is best known for its incredible road trips, it also makes for some great diving as well. Technically speaking, there are dive spots all down the coast, including around the major cities of San Francisco and LA, but to keep this guide as helpful as possible, we’re just focusing on the top spots. So if you are looking to go scuba diving in California, these are your best bets.
*Important: Many of California’s best dive sites are kelp forests. If you are not experienced with kelp diving it is advised you go with a local dive master who is as kelp can be incredibly dangerous.
– NOTE: The locations on this list are indeed the best in the country, but are not ranked from 1-4. The list is random. Number 4 might be just as good as number 1. You decide.
And as usual, as I make my way around this amazing country, I am Instagraming and Tweeting my adventures daily!
GUIDE TO SCUBA DIVING IN CALIFORNIA
1. Santa Cruz and Monterey
Only an hour or so away from San Francisco is the small city of Santa Cruz. With a laid-back vibe, Santa Cruz area is known for its beautiful beaches, water sports, and outdoor activities. An hours drive away is another smaller city, Monterey. Often done as a day trip, Monterey is also popular with water enthusiasts and prized for its beautiful coastline. It’s no surprise that these two smaller cities are great destinations for scuba diving in California.
How to get to Santa Cruz:
Santa Cruz is close enough to San Francisco that visitors often arrive via SFO. There are also a couple smaller airports in the area, the closest to Santa Cruz being San Jose Airport. There are several shuttles that run between SFO and San Jose airports to Santa Cruz. It is also possible to take a bus, Greyhound is the most popular bus company, or drive.
How to get to Monterey
Monterey does have its own small airport that gets regular flights from SFO, LAX, and several other American airports. However, as it is such as small city, most people add it in as part of a road-trip and drive. It is also possible to take the bus or train, though you will have to make a couple connections depending on where you are coming from.
Dive sites closer to Santa Cruz:
- Fraser Point: A great area for all levels of diving, Fraser Point can be separated into a few different dive sites depending on what you are most interested in. There is a large kelp forest, and some rocky reefs. Expect plenty of marine life and colourful sea fans that are popular with underwater photographers.
- Fraser Cove: Big cliffs and a drop off are the defining feature of this site. There are plenty of channels, holes, and caves make this a good place to find lobster and other fish, so keep a sharp eye.
- Sandstone Point: Large, thick, kelp forests make this site fun for photography. You will see plenty of gobi, crabs, snails, and starfish.
- Quail Rock: Small walls and patches of kelp make up this dive site where you can find rockfish, lobster, lingcod, and sheephead.
- Little Scorpion Anchorage: Cliffs, drop-offs, and kelp forests provide shelter to a variety of sea life at this dive site. Commonly seen species include lobsters, mantis shrimp, and rays.
Dive sites closer to Monterey:
- Coral Street Beach: One of the most interesting dives in the area, this is a big kelp forest where you can often find otters, seals, sea lion, and if you are really luck, whales. Great for photography. It is highly recommended that you go with an experienced guide who knows the area.
- Breakwater Cove: Enter by beach and follow the pipes out until about 40-50 feet depths. Lots of sea life here including octopus, sea lions, and halibut. A popular place for classes, so busier on weekends.
Other Things to do in Santa Cruz:
Santa Cruz, famous for its beaches, is a water-lovers paradise. Surfing, paddle boarding, and sailing are all common activities here. There are also trails for biking and hiking. It is also worth taking some time to check out the beach boardwalk and downtown area.
Other Things to do in Monterey:
Monterey is small, and unless you enjoy the low-key and laid-back atmosphere, you can see the area as a day trip. Monterey is known for its historic buildings and its aquarium. There are also a few museums and parks in the area.
WHERE TO STAY IN MONTEREY
2. Santa Barbara
Part of the Channel Islands group, Santa Barbara is popular with nature lovers of all kinds. A lot of the area is untouched, making it not only a good home for marine life, but it also promotes the growth of many species including sea lions, sharks, and whales. Good visibility also makes it a popular spot for underwater photographers. For these reasons, it is one of the best places to go scuba diving in California.
How to get to Santa Barbara:
Santa Barbara has a small municipal airport which gets service from several nearby major cities including San Francisco and LA. Local bus #11 will take travelers from the airport into the downtown core.
Santa Barbara is also accessible by bus and train. Both the Amtrak station and the Greyhound bus station are located in the Funk Zone of the city.
For those driving through the area, Santa Barbara is off highway 101. Though be warned, the roads can be a complete gridlock sometimes, especially Sunday afternoons.
Dive sites in Santa Barbara:
- Sutil Pass: A large kelp forest is home to all kinds of sea life. Playful sea lions will swim by your side. Blackfish, rockfish, urchins, starfish, and lobster are all common sightings. And, for those visiting during the summer months, bat rays congregate in the area for mating season.
- Sea Lion Rookery: As guessed, this is the best known place for photographing and seeing sea lions. The rock walls are also home to urchins, spiny lobsters, and other small sea creatures.
- Shag Rock: The rocky reefs here are home to halibut. Below, there is a kelp forest which houses plenty of other species including leopard sharks and bat rays.
- Black Cavern: Roomy caves and caverns are the highlight of this dive site. Peek into crags and holes to find lobster, starfish, sea fans, and brightly coloured sponges. Due to the depth, this site is not suitable for open water divers.
Other things to do in Santa Barbara:
Santa Barbara has all kinds of different attractions depending on what you are interested. The city has lots of museums and historical sites for those interested in learning more about the area while active travellers will appreciate the gold courses, surfing, hiking and kayaking. Santa Barbara is also home to a few wineries and of course everyone should spend some time at the beautiful beaches.
Located on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, Malibu is a staple in American pop culture and has been featured in a variety of television shows and movies. Along with its celebrity status, Malibu has some awesome sites for those interested in scuba diving in California.
How to get to Malibu
The closest airport to Malibu is LAX. From Los Angeles, you can take a public bus (number 534) which also services Santa Monica. Your best bet though is to rent a car, as Malibu is part of the PCH.
Dive Sites in Malibu
- Staircase: A remote dive site that involves a difficult hike (nicknamed heart attack hill). But, divers who make it will be rewarded with a healthy kelp forests and hides plenty of sea creatures including some friendly harbour seals.
- Leo Carillo: A great dive site that can be divided into three sections for three separate dives, Leo Carillo is home to sharks, rays, octopus, nudibranchs, seals, sea lions, lobster and more. It is also a great spot for night dives.
- Nicholas Canyon: Made up of large reefs and kelp forests, this site is full of life because it is not as popular a dive site as others in the nearby area. Rockfish, sand bass, blacksmith, and perch are common sightings. Lucky divers will also see bat rays, thornback rays, and angel sharks.
- Point Dume: Tall pinnacles and great visibility make this a popular dive site. Sea lions will frequently join divers as they search for lobster, horn sharks, bat rays, and the sand dollar beds. Keep an eye on the blue for whales and dolphins.
Other things to do in Malibu
One of the most popular events in Malibu is the Spring Film Festival, which is worth checking out if you are around during that time. Malibu is also great for surfing or just swimming and relaxing on the beaches.
4. Orange County
Orange country is a large stretch along the coast that is made up of several municipalities. Some of the more popular areas include Anaheim, Newport Beach, Laguna Niguel, and Santa Ana. The large stretch of coastline makes it popular for beach goers and scuba divers alike. For those interested in scuba diving in California, Orange County is a great area to go.
How to get to Orange County:
Given the stretch of area that Orange County makes up, there are several large and small airports that service the area. San Diego International Airport and LAX are the closest major airports. While John Wayne airport and Fullerton Municipal airport are significantly smaller, but much closer.
For those coming from LA, the Metrolink has a few lines that serve Orange County. Once in Orange county, there is the Orange County Transportation Authority that offers transportation between the different cities.
Dive sites in Orange County:
- Reef Point: A very rocky entry (not recommended for novice divers) leads to a healthy reef bursting with colour. Expect to see bat rays, octopus, eels, and nudibranchs. Lots of swimthroughs here as well.
- Crescent Bay: A shallow dive site known for its mussel bed, there is also a large variety of sea life here including nudibranchs, halibut, sandbass, lobster, and sea lions.
- Shaw’s Cove: Great visibility and lots of sea life make this one of the most popular dive sites in the area. Look for horn sharks, bat rays, blacksmith, sheephead, and octopus.
- Fisherman’s Cove: A small protected area with lots of mini reefs. Starfish, gorgonians, urchins, mussels, and bat rays are common sights here. It is also a great spot for night dives where you can see hunting octopus, horn sharks, and swell sharks.
Other things to do in Orange County:
Aside from scuba diving, Orange county has some great beaches that are worth exploring. Whale watching and surfing are also popular things to do in this area. There are several museums that may be of interest. Also see Balboa Island, which is known for the boardwalk, Little Saigon, and Knott’s Berry Farm. Disney fans should be sure to visit Disney Land, which is located in Anaheim.
WHERE TO STAY IN ORANGE COUNTY
5. San Diego Area
San Diego, located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, is located in Southern California; just across the border from Mexico. This city is best known for its beaches, nightlife, and the abundance of available outdoor activities. While most people come to swim, surf, and hike, dive enthusiasts should know shorelines here also offer some of the best scuba diving in California.
One of the highlights of diving in the waters around San Diego is the water never gets truly cold. In the winter, the water only goes as low as 57F(13C) which, while not tropical, is certainly not freezing either. The most well-known spot for diving in San Diego is La Jolla, although there are a few other great spots in the area as well.
How to get to San Diego:
San Diego has its own international airport that receives travellers from all over north America, as well as from some international countries. Taxis are available (about $15USD +tip) from the airport, or you can take the Airport Flyer Bus ($2.25 one way) to get into the city center.
It is also possible to arrive in San Diego by bus or train. Greyhound buses are the most popular and the most common company, and serve most major cities throughout North America. Amtrak is the main train service, and the main station is located in Santa Fe, which is in walking distance of downtown San Diego bay.
Dive sites in San Diego:
- La Jolla Shores: The most frequented dive site in the San Diego area, La Jolla shores is perfect for divers of all levels. It’s a very gradual sandy slope to a canyon and offers the possibility of seeing fleets of bat rays, swarms of jellyfish, squads of squid, and even some playful sea lions. There are several dive sites here: Vallecitos Point, South Walls, North Wall, Sand Flats, and the Sea Garden.
- La Jolla Cove: A shallow dive site with a rocky reef, you can find all kinds of sea life at La Jolla Cove. Further out, there are some kelp beds and caves that can be explored as well.
- Scripps Canyon: Scripps Canyon can be tricky to access, but once you get in it’s worth it. Steep cliffs and an abundance of marine life make it one of the best spots in the area. Bring a flashlight to look into the cracks and crevices for nudibranchs, eels, and even sharks. Not suitable for open water divers.
- Yukon: One of the largest, and most intact, wreck in California. The Yukon was intentionally sunk in 2000 as part of an artificial reef for a project called Wreck Ally (two more dive sites, Ruby E and NOSC Tower are also part of this project). The reef can be penetrated for those with certifications to do so, but there is plenty to see outside as well.
- Point Loma Kelp Beds: This underwater kelp forest is a must for anyone diving around San Diego. Keep an eye out for lobsters, nudibranchs, shrimp, starfish, anemone, and more.
- Coronado Islands: Technically, these islands are not located in Mexico, not California, but boats leave from the San Diego area. The Coronado Islands are where you can find seals and sea lion pups. It is suitable for all divers however, make sure to have your passport with you since it is out of country.
Other things to do in San Diego:
San Diego is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Golfing, biking, hiking, rock climbing, surfing, swimming, and more are all popular activities to take part in. The city is also known for its many museums including the natural history museum and the air and space museum. Visitors should also make sure to check out Balboa Park, and the Gaslamp Quarter.
Best times of year to scuba dive California:
Scuba diving in California is available all year, with some considerations. Obviously, the winter months will be colder than the summer months. That being said, the summer months are also much busier, not just with divers but with snorkelers and boating activities as well.
It is possible that some specific dive sites are closed during the winter months. It is best to check if this is the case ahead of time. A local dive shop will be able to answer any questions or concerns you may have.
With such a large coastline, there are plenty of opportunities to go scuba diving in California. While the four destinations listed above are considered to be the best, if you find yourself elsewhere along the coast it might be worth inquiring about diving in the area. From shipwrecks to sharks, you never know what you may find.