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Diving at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, California - Part 2

Updated on April 28, 2010

Second largest in the chain, Santa Rosa Island offers wind-swept sandy beaches, rocky intertidal areas, and grasslands — an especially pretty spot to visit. Explore the good dive sites in the sheltered coves behind South Point and the east end Pinnacles, where you'll find rocky shelves covered in anemones and scallops.

Santa Cruz Island is the largest and most visited dive spot for live-aboards in the northern Channel Islands. You can snorkel and shore dive off Scorpion Landing or visit the wooden wreck of a U.S. Navy minesweeper, the U.S.S. Peacock.

Anacapa is the only rookery in California for the endangered brown pelican. In another area, a mile of the northeast shoreline down to 60 feet is protected from hunting; as a result, the fish, scallops, and lobsters are large and docile. The kelp is also thick in a pristine kelp-forest habitat with hundreds of species of animals and plants.

Santa Barbara supports one of the largest California sea lion rookeries in the state. If you dive here, be prepared for fun and games with the playful pinnipeds, but be careful: Sea lions have sharp teeth. Some, especially mothers with young pups, have been known to nip divers who startle them, so keep your distance. One popular dive spot is Southeast Reef, on the protected southeast tip of the island. The kelp is lush and the rocky bottom covered with colorful nudibranchs, anemones, and sea urchins.

Crossing the Channel

The northern Channel Islands are separated from the mainland by a 40-mile-wide channel, so you'll need to hop on a live-aboard or charter dive boat to get there. Boats leave for the northern islands from the harbors at Santa Barbara and Ventura. The channel crossing takes from two to four hours, but travelers are often treated to dolphin or whale sightings along the way. Some 27 species of whales and dolphins frequent the area, including gray, blue, and humpback whales, spinner dolphins, and orcas.
Live-aboards are the best way to dive the Channel Islands. During the day, the captains move their boats around, so you can usually dive a number of sites on different islands during the multi-day trip. At each spot, the divemaster or captain gives a brief overview of the underwater terrain and marine life and recommends a dive plan, but the buddy pairs are usually on their own to plan and execute their dives. Because the wind and weather can change from hour to hour, most captains play it by ear when moving around and choose sites in the interest of diver safety.
To dive the Channel Islands, you'll need a full wet suit or dry suit, including hood, gloves, and booties. The water temperatures can be invigorating or shocking, depending on what you're used to and the time of year. During the spring upwelling, when water temperatures dip into the 50s, it may be a little too invigorating for all but the hardiest divers, but have no fear — by late summer and early fall, water temperatures typically climb into the 70s. The water clarity also tops out in the fall, with visibility of 60 or more feet.
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