While taking invertebrates is illegal, fishing in part of the park is allowed with a license. The most magical and accessible part of the park is the 533 acres designated as the “look but don't touch” La Jolla Ecological Reserve. In brief, leave everything be, living or not. Five large, yellow buoys mark the reserve’s offshore boundaries that comprise the waters around the Cove, the seven caves, La Jolla Shores and the adjoining submarine canyon.
Signage by the California Department of Fish & Game clearly states that “No person shall disturb or take any plant, bird, mammal, fish, mollusk, crustacean, reptile or any other form of plant life, marine life, shells, geological formations or archaeological artifacts ...”
The reserve is unique to the coast because of its four distinct habitats that may be likened to the Grand Canyon, a redwood forest, a desert and a rocky stretch of boulders. And don’t forget that each particular backdrop houses specially adapted species. You'd be driving for days to access all these environments on land. Join me below for an armchair tour highlighting aspects of this tiny square mile-and-a-half area.
La Jolla Cove, one of two gateways to the reserve, is best-described as a public aquarium. Take one step into the drink and, at depths of less than 10 feet, see zebra perch, senorita and opaleye fish. Rock and boulder outcroppings support lush flora, including algae (brown, green, and red) and verdant surf grass strands. Besides human protection, the Cove is patrolled by California’s state marine fish, the flamboyant and irascible flame-colored garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus). Irascible? Well, once I inadvertently impinged on the temperamental fish's domain, and he bit me on the lip.
Anchored offshore of the Cove at 30-foot depths is a swath of California giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera). From land, the brownish surface slick belies the altogether different underwater vision of a towering redwood forest. True, the drama is better realized at 100-foot depths, but even here the forest is impressive.
When I’m diving in clear water and under sunny skies, I look skyward to see shimmering rays of sunlight bend and splay through the amber fronds. Each kelp stand is held in place at the base by a holdfast, a complex maze of root-like matter that binds to rock or boulder. The holdfast houses a menagerie of small animals, like brittle seastars and insectlike isopods.
The kelp forest shelters the ocean floor, which crawls with crabs, sea hares, and knobby sea stars. Giant kelp is not only a species,but a habitat as well. It's a bed and breakfast of sorts, offering food and lodging for millions of critters from hundreds of species both large and small. Sea lions, the re-emergence of giant sea bass, bat rays, sardines and California barracuda school, hover or weave through the forest. Once, when I was intently photographing something, a baby harbor seal gently tugged on one of my fins. After gaining my attention, it rose up to rest its head on my upper arm and gaze into my eyes. An experience like this won't happen in tropical seas because kelp only thrives in water temperatures I euphemistically label “brisk.”
Across the bay from the Cove and adjoining kelp bed is La Jolla Shores, a mile-long beach and the reserve’s other gateway. At first glance, the ripply sand bottom looks stark like a desert, but close up is flush with life, albeit more subtle than the dramatic displays found in the Cove and kelp forest. Pipefish are camouflaged among tufts of sea lettuce algae, while invertebrates like sea pansies, sea pens, and sand dollars live life atop the sand grains. Burrow openings are the only clues that clams reside below.
Summertime brings a convention of leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciata) to the southern end of La Jolla Shores off the Marine Room in the surf zone. Easily identified by their gray body (averaging less than five feet long) adorned with thick black, elongated spots draping over the back and sides, you probably wouldn’t guess that nearly all are females. No need to worry about your place on their food chain because a leopard shark’s dinner bell chimes for mostly for mollusks like squid. For best viewing, snorkel or float on the surface, as flailing swimmers and scuba tank bubbles terrify the shy creatures. Look for shovelnose guitarfish rays that often cohabitate with the leopards.
The La Jolla Submarine Canyon plunges to depths off limits to humans but the terraced ledges (about 50 to 85 feet deep) are fun for scuba divers to investigate. To access the canyon, enter the water at La Jolla Shores. Swim west several hundred yards, after which the sandy bottom drifts downward, then drops off sharply. Adventurers travel over terrain such as gentle slopes, gullies, steep cliffs, and wide valleys.
Oddly named, odd-looking or surprisingly colorful creatures like sarcastic fringehead fish, fairy hydroids, giant sheepcrabs, scarlet gorgonian fans and vermillion rockfish are some regular canyon denizens, but extraordinary creatures like market squid, Loligo opalescens, periodically emerge from the inky depths.
Spawning squid present a breathtaking show, and even when it’s over the resulting cigar-shaped, white egg capsules may transform the mud bottom into a winter snow scene. While the protected head of the canyon is the squids’ spawning goal (driven like spawning salmon), an uptick in the local squid fishery over the past 10 years (likely due to the collapse of numerous squid fisheries globally from overfishing) means that boatloads of squid don’t reach their final destination. Even if divers can no longer thrill to football fields of squid eggs seen in the past, those having never seen such a display aren’t disappointed by the more recent shows. Boats lined up offshore (outside the reserve's boundaries) at night blare stadium lights, a technique that attracts squid into the deployed purse seine nets, and these have become familiar to longtime La Jollans with ocean view homes.
When my first book about the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park came out, one reviewer noted, “I suspect that there are many man-made things deposited on the ocean floor over these many years. Just in case I should put on a wet suit and venture into the deep some day, I would like to know everything about what I would encounter in that other world.”
What’s so is that only a few bits of line from old buoys are seen, and these are not noteworthy. Whether it be accidentally dropped or purposely deposited, nothing will remain within scuba diving range for long. Shifting sands from constant water movement (tidal flow, currents, storms, swells) transport the debris downward, which bottoms out at about 1,000 feet deep. For anyone who purposely trashes the reserve, it is not only illegal but a fruitless exercise by the clueless.
The La Jolla Ecological Reserve exists as a grand example of “the small but the mighty” because of its many benefits: aside from protecting marine life species within four distinctive landscapes, it is a rare urban reserve. Is there poaching? Yes, some, but having easy access highlights the reserve’s existence and value to the public. How great it is to swim and dive in an area not picked over and strewn with tangles of fishing line (a safety concern for divers). And for nonhuman visitors like leopard sharks who don’t live in the reserve year round, protection is still key because they congregate here, meaning they would otherwise be easily decimated from fishing.
Be it swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving, in the 35 years I’ve spent exploring this unique city park, I’ll never finish seeing it. But don't believe me. Sea for yourself! Don a face mask and step into the water to discover a submerged wonderland of unparalleled beauty you otherwise could not imagine exists.
— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.