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Diving in Monterey Bay, California

Updated on April 28, 2010

The most provident spot for divers in the Golden State is in the kelp forests of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Like the fabled sequoias of the High Sierra, kelp is the most prominent member of a complex ecosystem that sustains hundreds of interrelated species. Wildly prolific, a single strand of kelp can measure more than 100 feet long and grow at a rate of five to eight inches a day. Anchored to the seafloor and buoyed by air bladders at the base of each blade, the plants sway in the current, forming a leafy green carpet on the surface and filtering the sun into shifting columns of light.
It's a magical place for diving but not necessarily an easy one. Currents are strong, visibility low, and water temperatures usually in the 50s, making a dry suit or quarter-inch wet suit absolutely essential. The kelp itself can be a problem, too, looping around limbs and entangling gear.

Divers find the Monterey Bay kelp forest at its most luxuriant in early autumn. Upwelling also declines then, making for consistently clear and slightly warmer water and visibility that can reach 60 or 70 feet — nothing to compare with the clarity of the Caribbean, but rare conditions for central California.

Beyond the Bay

Some of the region's best diving can be found to the south of Monterey Bay itself. At the southern tip of Carmel Bay, Point Lobos State Reserve encompasses more than 700 underwater acres that became the nation's first marine preserve in 1960. Nothing can be disturbed here, so the fish are big and tame, and sea otters are commonly encountered (and well fed, judging by the number of empty abalone shells and crab carapaces on the bottom). Only 15 teams of two or three divers can enter the water on a given day, and weekends book up well in advance. Once you enter Whalers Cove at the boat ramp, kick out into the kelp and descend.

Dense stands of giant and bull kelp rise from rocky reefs encrusted with pale pink, scarlet, and cobalt-blue sponges, orange puffball sponges, and waving ribbons of red algae. Swimming or lurking under ledges are an array of rockfish: copper, gopher, blue, and China, to name a few. On the rock faces, carefully camouflaged masking crabs scurry away on spidery legs. You will likely see sea lemon nudibranchs or perhaps their delicate, rosette egg cases. Adjacent to Whalers Cove but accessible only by boat, the smaller Bluefish Cove to the south lays claim to clearer water and up to four times more marine life than its neighbor. Because of the cove's proximity to deeper water and its exposure to waves from many directions, it has a wider variety of open-ocean visitors — jellies, ocean sunfish, and blue sharks.

Sunflower Stars and Hydrocoral

Just north of Point Lobos, divers gather at Monastery Beach, a name uttered in reverent tones not so much for the Franciscan monastery across the highway but for the often rough surf and steep shoreline, which make for a treacherous ocean entry and exit. Many a novice diver winds up foundering in the waves trying to reclaim loose or lost gear, while the successful emerge from their dives plodding on hands and knees — the Monastery crawl — like some early experiment in amphibious evolution. Even divers who emerge unscathed find plenty of pebbly sand grains coating their gear.

Continued In: Diving in Monterey Bay, California - Part 2


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