While you may hear ‘California’ and think of its iconic cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, we shouldn’t overlook California’s stunning natural beauty.
From the lush national parks like the Yosemite with its towering sequoias, and the desolate but beautiful Death Valley, to its stunning coastlines featuring pristine beaches.
But for all the beauty that is visible on land, there is just as much beauty below the blue.
The majority of diving can also be done offshore, making it easily accessible. However, tide changes are big and bring with them equally big surges.
If you’re new to diving, it’s always better to dive with a local school or guide as they’ll know when and where the best conditions are for a fun diving experience.
But without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the best diving spots in California!
Best Diving Spots
Middle Farallon & Noonday Rock: As most of the waters around the Farallon Islands are protected, diving is only permitted around the Middle Farallon and Noonday Rock. Recreational diving happens in the spring and summertime, as shark season is in the fall.
Lover’s Point: What better place to go for a romantic dive? Lover’s Point is to the south of the same beach as Otter’s Cove, which is to the north of the beach.
You can easily slip into the waters of Lover’s Point thanks to the concrete steps leading you right in from the east of the Point. This is an excellent choice for beginners!
Otter’s Cove: You can access Otter’s Cove either via the stairs in the middle of Perkin’s Park or via the parking area by Ocean View Boulevard and Beach Street intersection. Don’t forget to soak in the incredible view, and keep your eye out for any dolphins and whales swimming by.
North Monastery Beach: On a calm, flat day, the shore entry to the North Monastery is easy enough, but when the weather takes a turn the surf packs a punch, and it could be quite dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Locals with experience of diving in this area have dubbed their special technique the ‘Monastery Crawl.’ That’s right, the best way to approach this dive is on your knees.
It’s all worth it when you’re in the water though, and this beach is a favorite spot for many west coast divers. The beach lies on the Eastern rim of the Carmel Canyon so a 200-yard surface swim can land you in 200/60ft of water.
NOSC Tower: If you’ve ever dived under a jetty, you’ll know that marine life can’t get enough of vertical structures. The NOSC Tower was an oceanic research center, and the supporting legs have long been a fascinating dive site.
But in 1988 a storm knocked over the topside platform and it became a wreck site. It has since gone through a rather poetic reincarnation, now supporting the marine life it was intended to study.
La Jolla Bay: For quintessentially Californian diving, head to La Jolla Bay. Parking in the bay is cheap and easy, and access to the water is provided by a ramp. There are also washrooms nearby to use before or after your dive.
You’ll find two massive canyons under the water - the La Jolla Canyon and the Scripps Canyon. These canyons meet just offshore from the bay area, supplying a wide array of spots for divers of all levels.
La Jolla Cove is also at the southern end of La Jolla Bay, and is an excellent spot for beginner divers thanks to its sandy beach entry and gentle conditions. It’s also a great place for families to go snorkelling.
Sante Clemente: The southernmost island of the Channel Island Archipelago and 60 miles from the mainland, Sante Clement is also a 6-8 hour boat ride from San Diego - a great day trip if you’re visiting the area!
It’s been a US Navy base since 1934, so as well as spotting some cool marine life, you may also see a cool Top Gun style plane fly overhead. However, recreational diving is limited to when military training isn’t taking place.
Breakwater Cove: Protected by both the natural harbor and the marina just south of the Cove’s entrance, Breakwater Cove generally has very calm waters which attracts a lot of beginner divers. This can make it a little crowded at times. Depths range from 10-60ft/3-18m and the cove is easily accessible for all.
What you will see
Middle Farallon & Noonday Rock: With pinnacles of steep slopes, walls, and canyons carpetered with colorful sponges and sea anemones, and fish life such as rockfish, scorpionfish, and wolf eels, this seascape is truly breathtaking.
Due to its deeper waters and sometimes rough conditions, intermediate to advanced deep divers with nitrox certification are best suited to this spot.
Lover’s Point: A lush underwater scene full of seagrass and kelp, be careful not to get your fins tangled in Lover’s Point! The abundance of vegetation makes for excellent visibility.
Much like Breakwater Cove, Lover’s Point is a great place to do some night diving. Although marine life isn’t particularly exciting on this site, it’s still a simple dive for those who want more of a chilled out time.
Otter’s Cove: Meanwhile, on the west side of the same beach, the topography changes to a rocky scene full of scattered boulders, and giant and bull kelp. However, because fishing is permitted here there isn’t a huge abundance of marine life.
But you can often spot seals, sea lions, and the cove’s namesake - otters! Watching them weave through the kelp is a delightful sight, and they may even playfully nip at your fins.
North Monastery Beach: Thanks to the upwelling of cold water and nutrients from the deep canyon, North Monastery Beach promises plenty of marine life sightings and great visibility.
There’s kelp as far as the eye can see, and the topography of the area is a wall with a seemingly endless bottom, so be mindful of your depth gauge.
Here you can spot leopard sharks, lobsters, rockfish, and many more. Seals and dolphins often make an appearance, so always keep an eye out for any great whites lurking around.
NOSC Tower: Now submerged at 70 ft, the tower is almost completely carpeted in mussels. An excellent food source for ochre sea stars! Go deeper and you’ll find colorful anemones and pure white Metridiums. For those who want to take some pictures underwater, NOSC is the place to do it!
A wide-angle is great for capturing the sun filtering through the tower, or an angel shark lurking on the bottom. You may also find tiny crabs and shrimps hiding in the nooks and crannies. This is an easy dive for divers of all levels, and a good place to practice buoyancy as you weave in and out of the structure.
La Jolla Bay: At just 10-20 ft deep, the initial part of La Jolla Cove is a rocky reef. But here you will find plenty of life like the garibaldi, moray eels, horn sharks, and the California goldfish.
Heading north, further away from the beach, you’ll find a fantastic kelp forest. Here you may spot playful seals and sea lions. At just 40ft, divers of all levels can enjoy this fun dive.
Sante Clemente: The best spots are mainly located at the ends of the islands, and are very much dependent on the weather. Pyramid Head and Cove at the south eastern tip are particularly exciting and the prevailing wind gives them better conditions.
Depths range from 20-100ft with great visibility of 70ft. The topography begins with rocky pinnacles and boulders, before transforming into a thick kelp forest in the middle depths.
You can also find a wide variety of marine life that include lobsters, moray eels, sheephead, leopard sharks, and seal lions. However, if you spot any unusual artifacts leave them be - those are to be collected by the military.
Breakwater Cove: Not many wildlife sightings happen here, as it is a site so close to land and humans. But you can still be treated to stunning corals and nudibranchs. Perfect for some underwater photography!
It’s off-shore location is convenient and makes it a popular night time dive. During fall and winter, you can also spot Californian sea lions hanging out at the end of the pier, so you may get lucky and spot them underwater too!
Types of risks
Scuba diving has become a popular recreational sport in recent years, as we become more aware of the beautiful coral reefs and fascinating shipwrecks that reside below the ocean’s surface.
But it’s important to keep in mind that scuba diving is an extreme sport with its own particular injuries and life-threatening hazards.
Most of the scuba diving dangers we’ll discuss below are usually due to increased water pressure, and inadequate equipment.
Decompression sickness: Often referred to as ‘the bends,’ decompression sickness is caused by increased underwater pressure that causes the body to absorb more nitrogen. If that pressure isn’t reduced gradually, the extra nitrogen forms potentially harmful bubbles in your body’s tissues.
This is why divers must return to the surface in carefully monitored stages, usually following the speed of their bubbles so they can better control the rate at which the absorbed nitrogen is released.
The severity of the bends will depend on how much nitrogen has been absorbed and how quickly it was released. A case of the bends can range from aching joints or a skin rash to paralysis and even death.
Sea life: It’s easy to forget when diving that we are entering an underwater wilderness. But while most sea creatures are not aggressive towards divers and attacks are rare, they are always a possibility and you should always keep in mind that you are surrounded by wild animals.
Don’t ever touch an undersea animal, even coral. Keeping your distance not only protects you from injury, but also protects the sea life.
Defective equipment: More often than not, you will be renting your own diving equipment from a scuba diving operator and not buying it yourself. A broken depth gauge could lead to mild decompression sickness, and a bad regulator might cause you to drown.
No matter if it's your own or a rental, always thoroughly check your equipment before using it. Don’t be afraid to ask for a new piece of gear if you believe something may be wrong with the equipment you’ve been given.
These three are the most common types of risks associated with diving, but there are other risks to be mindful of too.
Barotrauma: Damage done by increased underwater pressure on the air pocket of your middle ear causes barotrauma. Divers ‘equalize’ their ears during a dive by pinching their nose shut and blowing, chewing, or swallowing to push more air into their middle ear.
However, a descent that is too fast can overcome their ability to equalize and result in severe pain or injury to the middle ear.
Nitrogen Narcosis: Another nitrogen-related danger is the narcotic effect of the extra nitrogen absorbed by the body. This is similar to the effect of nitrous-oxide gas at the dentist.
Nitrogen narcosis can impair your sensory perception and judgement. Much like decompression sickness, nitrogen narcosis can worsen the deeper a diver goes and the more nitrogen they absorb.
Pulmonary Embolism: This is another risk associated with ascending too rapidly to the surface. The increased pressure of the undersea environment leads to the gas a diver breathes becoming denser, as more gas is crammed into the space under pressure.
The gas in the lungs will expand at the same rate that the pressure on the body is reduced. Therefore, a rapid ascent can cause the lungs to swell and even pop. To avoid pulmonary embolism, divers make slow, controlled ascents to the surface and never hold their breath.
Anything else you should know
Below we’ll share some tips for planning a dive, and some general areas to keep in mind when planning your next dive in California.
Monterey Bay: Home to an iconic aquarium, it’s no wonder Monterey Bay has world-renowned diving on its doorstep. Monterey Bay Canyon is just offshore, and is a totally unique geographical feature.
This canyon upwells super deep water (600-600ft) full of nutrients and plankton, supporting larger marine life. Here you can see whales, dolphins, seals, and cute otters just off the boulevard.
San Diego: The next scuba diving hub after Monterey Bay is San Diego. San Diego’s incredibly deep canyons just offshore encourage cold water full of nutrients to the surface, supporting kelp forests and their inhabitants, making it an intriguing place to go diving!
Wreck Alley: What makes San Diego even more fascinating is the abundance of local wrecks. This is due to the US Navy deliberately sinking old ships off in the old shallows. There are now eight wrecks to explore in Wreck Alley at various depths and suited to different levels of difficulty. One of the most popular is the HMCS Yukon.
The newest resident of Wreck Alley, the HMCS Yukon is certainly the most exciting too. It was sunk in 2000, and the 366ft vessel sits at 100ft in remarkable condition. HMCS Yukon lies on her port side, due to unfavorable weather conditions prior to her sinking.
HMCS Yukon has acquired all kinds of coral and has now become home to many schools of fish. Because she was a crew-carrying ship she did not have the huge cargo holds that you’ll find in many other wrecks.
The tight corridors and labyrinthine stairwells are very tricky to navigate, so if you want to go inside you must be properly trained and accompanied by an experienced guide.
Visibility can be a reasonable 50ft, giving you a good view of her form, propellers and gun turrets. The fact the wreck is so intact and is teeming with marine life makes it a great subject for some photography!
For intermediate divers, the external part of the wreck is accessible, but only more advanced divers who have experience with wrecks should venture inside.
Now onto some tips for planning your first diving trip!
Test your gear: If you’re buying your own scuba equipment, test it out at your local pool or dive site, but if you can’t make it to either of those places, then testing the gear in your bathtub is better than nothing. It’s better to know your gear is all in working order before you’re on the dive boat, where it may be too late to fix or replace something.
Make a checklist when packing: It’s also wise to have multiple checklists for clothes, dive gear, first aid items, etc, to make sure you don’t leave anything important behind.
Prepare a save-a-dive kit: This kit can include spare mask straps to a spare mask so you’re doubly prepared.
Pack lightly: It’s tempting to buy an underwater camera when you’re on vacation, or when you are looking forward to an exciting, advanced dive. But if you’re still getting used to diving, and are getting to grips with neutral buoyancy, you should leave the extra gear for when you’ve had more experience.