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Diving at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, California

Updated on April 28, 2010

A cool-water paradise lies off the coast of Southern California in the kelp forests and rocky reefs of the Channel Islands. Like rough-hewn gems in a sapphire sea, the eight Channel Islands stretch 160 miles from San Diego to Point Conception, just north of Santa Barbara. The five northern islands — San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and
 
Santa Barbara — are encompassed by both a national park and a national marine sanctuary, ensuring that the land will remain undeveloped and the surrounding waters pristine for generations to come. The convergence of cool currents from the north and warmer tropical waters from the south creates a unique ecosystem that supports many hundreds of species of fish, invertebrates, plants, and marine mammals.

The topography of coral reefs can be spectacular and the fish there are colorful and abundant, but a warm tropical sea doesn't support the explosion of life you find in the cool, nutrient-rich waters of the Channel Islands. Differing from the somewhat flattened world of a coral reef, a kelp forest is a full three-dimensional experience with plenty of things to see from the canopy of kelp fronds at the water's surface to the rocky sea bottom 60 or more feet below.

Ambling through an Underwater Forest

On the surface, amber-colored, buglike isopods and frilly bryozoans, colonial animals related to coral and anemones, cling to the kelp fronds, while juvenile rockfish dart about under the canopy. Kicking down, you'll see schools of blue rockfish or a big pink-and-black sheephead swimming through the midwater forest. Giant kelpfish are also common here, but they're easy to miss among the kelp fronds because they change their color to match the background. While you're busy looking for camouflaged fish, a sea lion may zip up and grab one of your fins in a game of tug-of-war.
 
Chances are at some point you'll come face to mask with California's official saltwater fish, the garibaldi. With their garish orange bodies, white lips, and eyes that seem to pop out of their skulls, these fish may look comical, but don't be deceived by appearances: they are fiercely territorial and will boldly charge divers who venture too close to their nests. When you reach the reef, you'll encounter a phantasmagoria of movement, color, and texture. Living organisms blanket every available surface. Colonies of strawberry anemones in hues of pink, orange, and lavender compete for space with giant purple sea stars and spiny red sea urchins.

Island Highlights

Each of the islands in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary has its own flavor and sports dozens of distinctive dive spots. There's something for everyone from wreck diving and lobster hunting to photography, snorkeling, and underwater sightseeing. On calm, moonlit nights, consider an after-dinner dive — a mystical experience lit, at certain times of year, by phosphorescent plankton that make tiny blue sparks stream from your fins and fingertips as you swim along.
 
First in line for south-flowing cold currents is San Miguel, the northernmost island. Because of its exposure to wind and weather, getting to San Miguel is more difficult than other islands, but it's worth the trip, since this island supports the highest density of marine life. The invertebrates and fish are larger, and elephant seals, pelicans, and cormorants make it a stopping point. In addition, six species of pinnipeds are found here in the largest rookery in the Channel Islands. Two offshore rocks, Richardson and Wilson, have sheer rock walls with an abundance of scallops and fish.
 
Continued In: Diving at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, California - Part 2

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