>Californians — and not just divers — know Catalina well. It's right there off the coast, gleaming just 22 miles in the distance. On clear days we steal glances at its graceful curves as we drive down the highway. Knowing it's easily within reach, we take it ever-so-slightly for granted. We can hop a ferry over there on any given weekend, so there's no real sense of urgency to do so right now. Local divers attend the waters around this island on at least a semiregular basis: It's an easy ride over there, plenty of day trips from the mainland are available, and there's nearly always a protected site to dive. Still, many of us don't visit it for more than a quick trip. That acquaintance and proximity ironically seem to get in the way.
>Well, familiarity be damned. For the next three days I'm going to reframe my thoughts and view Catalina as what it is: an incredible destination that just happens to be near my home. After all, I'm visiting a beautiful island that rarely sees rain, where unspoiled nature encompasses huge expanses and which boasts some of the most spectacular dive sites in North America.
>When the captain anchors at Little Farnsworth, we know we're in for a treat. One of the highlight dives of Catalina, this offshore pinnacle rises from the seafloor (115 feet at
>Day 1: The Pretty, the Angry and the Exceptionally Large
>I grab my macro rig and hop into the water with my eyes peeled for a glimpse of one of these colorful critters among the Corynactis anemones and zoanthid corals that seem to blanket every surface. It's not long before I've hit the jackpot, finding a cobalt blue, yellow-spotted Felimare californiensis crawling over the reef, looking like a cartoon that has come to life. I spot several more slugs, including some of my most-wanted species — a pink-and-orange confection called Babakina festiva and a pair of bright-pink Okenia rosacea — before it's time to take my exhilarated (and slightly nerdy) self back to the boat.
>I jump in and kick into a strong current to get around the point into the bounds of one of the island's marine protected areas. I pass a few small beds of kelp here and there, but the rocky reef is the real draw. Dozens of spiny lobsters boldly peep at me from the ledges, and a school of mackerel swirls overhead. But the garibaldis here steal the show. With nesting season well underway, these bright-orange members of the damselfish family are feisty, rushing my dome port and prompting jokes back on the boat about "the attack of the angry goldfish."
>Scattered rocky reefs hold spiny lobsters, moray eels, abalone and some of Southern California's most common piscine residents, including garibaldis, sheepshead and kelp bass. For wreck enthusiasts, several sunken structures also lie within easy distance from the shore, although some are so crumbled now that they're more rubble than recognizable. A small glass-bottom boat and a sailboat lie close to one another near the entry stairs at a depth of approximately 60 feet, and a schooner called the SueJac sits a bit further out at about 60 feet deep at the stern to 90 feet at the bow. If divers are willing to gain permission from the harbormaster and kick a bit further, the remains of the Valiant yacht lie just outside of the park perimeter and offer a more advanced experience with a maximum depth of 110 feet. Given the extra effort and boat traffic, this site is not visited as often but is worthwhile, with a host of invertebrate inhabitants and an easily identifiable bow that rises up from the sand.
>As the only divers who've arrived here by boat, we attract and quickly shake off a few scornful glances from our shore-entry brethren as we gear up. I quickly forget my sheepishness as I come face-to-face with a duo of giant sea bass at 40 feet only minutes after I enter the water. While I hover in front of them with my camera at the ready, one of them utters a loud, threatening croak — a sound I take to mean, "Back off, pipsqueak." I oblige, leaving them to their courtship, and continue to explore the kelp, counting off maybe eight more sea bass by the time I ascend. Knowing that they have gathered with the express purpose of making new sea bass is a wonderfully optimistic end to our first day.
>We collectively let out a whoop when we see that we're anchoring next to Ship Rock, a spectacular dive site marked by (predictably) a big rock shaped like a boat's sail. This is a top choice of many locals even though the lush giant kelp forest that once defined
>Day 2: The West Side is the Best Side
>The reef here plummets from the surface to well beyond recreational depths. In the shallows, a few thick tufts of Sargassum horneri (invasive algae that have taken up residence in the area) poke up from between the rocks. Once I drop below 30 feet and head to my planned maximum depth of 100 feet, the rocky reef is increasingly punctuated instead with sponge-covered scallops, red gorgonians and elkhorn kelp. The usual reef denizens — occasional lingcod, moray eels and lobsters — can be spotted here, but the fish life is the standout feature in my opinion. Huge numbers of blacksmiths swarm over the rocks, making it difficult to inspect the deep plateaus for angel sharks and nearly impossible to watch the open water for other sharks and large pelagics.
iws.org/livecams.html). I'm watching the large, graceful birds circle overhead when something in the water catches my eye: A small harbor seal is checking out our group from a nearby kelp bed. Almost as soon as I get my hopes up, I begin to feel greedy. This site has gifted me with some of my most memorable encounters over the years — a frantic market squid run, close interactions with giant sea bass, bat ray flybys and even a swarm of brightly colored jellyfish. It seems too much to hope for that I'd have yet another spectacular interaction.
>I kick slowly through the kelp forest, stopping to flutter my feet into the water column every so often (a seal-attracting trick I learned from a veteran British photographer). When I see one or two other divers watching my antics, I feel somewhat ridiculous — until the harbor seal tugs on my left fin. I manage to closely admire him and get a picture or two before he swims away, presumably to look for something tastier than my beat-up fins. For the rest of the day we admire the healthy giant kelp that dominates this site, observe the schools of mackerel and surfperches that weave past, search for topsnails and kelpfish among the leaves and watch the light rays glint through the canopy until they begin to dim.
>It's our last day, and a glum mood hangs over the galley (everyone knows that "last day" is synonymous with "abbreviated number of dives"). Typical for the departure day of any trip, the weather is perfect, and the water is calm, so eerily calm that the captain comes into the galley to discuss matters with us. "Here's the deal, guys," he says, "Normally we'd try to stay closer to home so you could get in more dives. But I haven't seen it so flat in a very long time. If there's ever been a day to visit the backside of the island, it's today, even if we have to lose a dive to get there." This is a no-brainer for our group, most of whom recognize that a placid dive day on the exposed side of Catalina is a rare and magnificent thing. The vote is unanimous: Quality beats the heck out of quantity. We motor across a glassy surface, marveling at the absence of waves on the shore as we pass the northwest corner of the island and head toward Farnsworth Banks.
>Day 3: Rounding a Corner
>The captain rolls his eyes at us as he grins and agrees. He drops the hook next to Eagle Rock, a small, craggy peak that juts from the water, and we tumble in to explore the adjacent reef that spans from the rock to the western tip of Catalina. The dropoffs here are extremely fishy and covered with gorgonians, so most of our crew heads off to the deeper water. I hang back — the shallow rocky reef here is a personal favorite; divers don't commonly visit it, which seems to make it a hotspot for local marine life.
>Now that the diving is over, I pack my gear as I admire Catalina Island's retreating hills, and I know without a doubt that my next visit to this conveniently located site will be for more than a single day. That's as it should be. Catalina, after all, is an incredible island destination: a beautiful, unspoiled place where precipitation is rare, pristine nature dominates and some of the most outstanding dive sites in North America are just offshore.
>You'd be hard-pressed to find a diver who knows Catalina better than Bill Bushing, Ph.D. The marine biologist, diver and underwater videographer commonly known as "Dr. Bill" has been an island resident since 1969. A frequent visitor to the dive park, he often provides detailed local dive reports and marine life observations to local social media outlets and produces regular newspaper and blog columns, peer-reviewed scientific papers and educational videos.
>Sidebar — Dr. Bill: Catalina Island’s Resident Marine Biologist
>His influence goes far beyond the local dive community. He has provided critical expertise to numerous projects led by Jean-Michel Cousteau (including aiding Ocean Futures Foundation efforts and providing film support for Secret Ocean 3D). Dr. Bill is a lot like Catalina Island itself: Even if you haven't met him, you're likely familiar with some aspect of his work. I couldn't think of a better person to speak with about the island he calls home.
>Why Catalina? How long have you lived on Catalina Island, and what is your professional history there?
>I arrived a little more than 50 years ago to teach marine biology at the former Catalina Island School (at Toyon Bay) for 10 years. Later I was a consultant to the Catalina Island Company and wrote many manuals for their tours. After receiving my Ph.D., I became vice president of the Catalina Island Conservancy.
>What are the most impactful changes you've seen on the island, both topside and underwater?
>There have been positive and negative changes. Topside, the creation of the Catalina Island Conservancy, which several of us suggested to the Wrigley family back in 1971, was a hugely positive step. In the marine world, positives include the recovery of giant black sea bass, white sea bass and California sea lions. On the negative side, I've witnessed the disastrous impact of the highly invasive Sargassum horneri (invasive algae) and the local near-extinction of blue sharks.
>What is your one piece of advice for future stewards of Catalina's ocean environments?
>My dream future would be for them to find a way to eradicate Sargassum. Future stewards, however, should continue educating the general public about the kelp forests and other marine habitats so they will come to understand current ecological issues.
>What is the oddest or most incredible marine life encounter you've had while diving the waters around Catalina?
>There have been many, including working with Jean-Michel Cousteau to film the wonders of Catalina both topside and underwater. The incredible squid run we filmed in 2013-14 would probably be a major highlight.
>You do hundreds of Catalina dives a year, in water that definitely requires exposure protection — and you're known locally as someone whose wetsuit will almost be falling apart before it gets replaced. What is the longest-lived wetsuit you've had?
>I have a wetsuit from the 1970s that's still wearable when the water is warm enough. Some people think the reason I can bear the cold is that I don't have a nervous system.
>Dr. Bill, I have to say that given all that you've accomplished, I strongly disagree with that.
>Getting there: For those who want to pursue a land-based visit, ferries operate regularly out of San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach and Dana Point. Gear rentals, guided dives and boat diving are available in Avalon and Two Harbors. A gear and tank rental facility is located directly adjacent to Casino Point. Single- and multiday dive trips to Catalina are widely available from coastal Southern California, with operators running from as far south as San Diego to as far north as Santa Barbara.
>How to Dive It
>Conditions: Catalina is almost always accessible for diving, but optimal conditions are from late summer into early winter. Water temperatures vary from around 52°F below the thermocline in the winter to about 70°F at the surface during the summer; wear either a drysuit or 7 mm wetsuit with a hood and gloves depending upon individual dive plans. Visibility can range from 30 feet in the spring to more than 80 feet in the autumn and winter. Some of Catalina's dive sites are appropriate for newer divers, and others are better suited for advanced divers. It's best to disclose your certifications, experience and comfort level when booking to ensure an enjoyable trip. The presence of an in-water dive guide or divemaster is uncommon for many operations in California; if you prefer one, specify your request upon booking. A recompression chamber is present on the island.
>Marine protection: In addition to the underwater park at Casino Point, eight other marine protected areas with varying levels of protection exist around Catalina Island. A detailed map that outlines specific restrictions is available at californiampas.org.
>Topside: Tearing yourself away from the incredible diving here will be a challenge, but it's certainly worthwhile. Catalina has a fascinating history, and the Catalina Island Conservancy protects approximately 88 percent of the island, including the longest undeveloped stretch of shoreline in Southern California. Topside activities are numerous and varied, ranging from camping, hiking, off-road tours and ziplining to spa treatments and high-end dining. For more information on lodging, activities and transportation around the island, visit catalinaconservancy.org and catalinachamber.com.
>See more of what Catalina offers in this bonus photo gallery by Andy and Allison Sallmon.
>© Alert Diver — Q2 2020