Underwater charm, from sand dollars to sea lions
by Sara E. Wacker
Published - 08/22/09 - 03:59 AM | 3484 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A curious California sea lion.
PHOTO BY SARA E. WACKER A curious California sea lion.
A guitarfish at La Jolla Shores.
PHOTO BY SARA E. WACKER A guitarfish at La Jolla Shores.
Scott Welchons (left) and Mike Angel inspect their gear before diving at La Jolla Shores.          
Scott Welchons (left) and Mike Angel inspect their gear before diving at La Jolla Shores. PHOTO BY SARA E. WACKER

From the friendly garibaldi to the jovial California sea lion, there is much to see below San Diego’s waters.

There are close to 50 named dive sites throughout San Diego and North County’s coast, including seven at La Jolla Shores, eight in La Jolla Cove, six among Wreck Alley’s collection of diveable shipwrecks in San Diego Bay, 10 in North County and six in Point Loma. Some of the most popular are:

La Jolla Shores is the most frequently dived site in San Diego and often the most used diving instruction site. Ample parking, lots of grassy space for instructors to set up for their classes and the underwater topography make for good conditions here even when other places are washed out.

“The reason I like to instruct here is that it’s very safe — wide-open spaces, plenty of room for everyone, nice sandy, sloping bottom, not a lot of obstacles or hazards, within the recreational dive limits [with regard to depth],” explained Virginia “V” Hatter, a PADI instructor. “La Jolla Shores is also good for open-water training because the first few dives are limited to 40 feet and there’s plenty to see here at 40 feet. The next two dives (dives three and four) are limited to 60 feet. And up to and at 60 feet, there’s a real nice [Scripps] Canyon. You can get your dive students safely within their limits into the canyon to where they can see that and the different marine life that is living in that area. It’s very versatile.”

“For navigation purposes, it’s very easy to dive, because this beach faces due west, and if you are headed west you’re heading out into the ocean; heading east, you’re coming back into your base camp; heading south, heading towards the cove; heading north, heading towards the pier, so as far as navigation, it is very easy to negotiate,” she added.

The Shores is an ecological reserve, The La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve. The bottom is sandy and slopes gradually to about 30 feet deep; after that, the slope increases down to about 60 feet deep, where Scripps Canyon and various walls begin. Dives at the Shores can be boring with a vast sand bottom and little sea life or completely remarkable when you see bat rays, sea lions or leopard sharks.

“I really enjoy the sand dollars,” said Nick Cunningham of San Marcos, who just moved back from Catalina and has spent the last two weekends diving. He has not had much experience diving San Diego. Wreck Alley is next on his list.

La Jolla Cove is another great spot, if the surf is low. The Cove has shallow rock reefs with a lot of fish and other living creatures. Parking can be the biggest challenge, so plan for an arrival of 7 a.m. or earlier.

“I like the diversity of life,” said Scott Welchons of Carlsbad. “La Jolla Shores is a great local dive; easy to do.”

He said the surroundings are what make La Jolla Shores different than the Cove. “La Jolla Cove has the rocky edges going down into the ocean, a lot of sea grass, kelp and a rocky bottom. Here [La Jolla Shores], just as you see the beach, you’ve got a flat sandy plain going out to the [Scripps] Canyon and drops down — so you’ve got a little bit of a difference in how you go out and what you’re going to see.”


Marine Room is one of San Diego divers’ hidden gems. The entrance to this dive site is a sidewalk and stairs on the south side of the Marine Room Restaurant (2000 Spindrift Drive). Due to the Marine Room’s shallowness, some divers opt to snorkel the 2- to 4-foot water directly in front of the restaurant.

Odds are good that leopard sharks, shovelnose sharks and stingrays will be seen, especially in the late summer. The same creatures and critters can be observed at 5 to 30 feet deep as the Cove, including large schools of fish, specifically California barracuda.

Wreck Alley is a collection of shipwrecks in Mission Bay, including the Ruby E, El Rey, NOSC Tower and HMCS Yukon. The Ruby E, a former Coast Guard cutter, fishing boat and salvage vessel, was intentionally sunk in June 1989 to become an artificial reef. It now lies at 65 feet.

The El Rey, also intentionally sunk to become an artificial reef (1987), was formerly a kelp harvester. It lies at 75 feet deep. The NOSC Tower, an offshore tower or platform, is another spot that dive charter boats stop off to visit in a trio of dive spots. It lies at 70 feet.

The latest contribution to San Diego’s Wreck Alley, the HMCS Yukon, is quite possibly the biggest jewel in Wreck Alley’s crown. At 366 feet in length, it is one of California’s largest wrecks accessible by divers. As the newest wreck, it is also the most intact divers can visit, which also makes it potentially one of California’s most dangerous wrecks to dive.

According to CaWreckDivers.org, the Yukon was towed down to San Diego, gutted and cleaned by the San Diego Oceans Foundation. “On Thursday, July 13, 2000, she was towed out and moored off Mission Bay in preparation for sinking. Explosives were placed forward and aft to sink her. The plan was to blow holes in both sides of the bow below the waterline, and then blow holes in the stern.  This systematic opening of the hull allowed water to fill both the port and starboard sides simultaneously, allowing the ship to settle upright. Unfortunately, the plan was never executed. That night swells rocked the ship, allowing water to enter the holes cut low to the waterline. Shortly after midnight, her bow headed for the bottom. Rolling over on her port side, the stern stuck up in the air and it too sank to the bottom 100 feet below.”

North County dive sites are generally very exposed to swell and therefore only diveable when the surf is small. From Fletcher Cove to Cardiff Reef, Pipe’s, Swami’s and Moonlight Beach, there are ample places to check out in North County when the conditions are right.

Point Loma dive sites are exclusively boat access sites. There are a number of local charter boats that regularly take dive groups out to tour the local waters. The most popular Point Loma trips are those to the kelp beds or ancient sea cliffs.

San Diego’s average shore diving visibility in the La Jolla area, where most of the area shore diving occurs, is 15 to 20 feet; however, it can range from 2 to 30 or 40 feet. The water temperature varies substantially; generally, the summer surface will be high 60s to low 70s, summer depth will be low 60s to high 60s. The winter surface will be high 50s to low 60s, with winter depth in the very low 50s to high 50s.

Whether you’re an avid local scuba diver or can appreciate what’s down below the water’s surface but prefer dry land, DiveBums.com is a San Diego-based dive site with all things scuba diving. The site details San Diego dive sites, reports current conditions, showcases a photo identification guide and shares photos and underwater videos of local wrecks and creatures.

The allure of the DiveBums.com site is the photos, whether you’re a diver or not. San Diego’s professional and novice underwater photographers and videographers submit photos for consideration as photos of the week. A chance encounter with a gray whale in La Jolla Cove (January 2007) graces the home page of the site, but regular submissions include the likes of a soupfin shark seen off Shell Beach in La Jolla, a photo of what seems like miles of sand dollars taken at La Jolla Shores or a copper rockfish captured at Point Loma’s ancient sea cliffs.

“There are a lot of different places to go [diving in San Diego County],” Welchons said. “You can go all up and down the coast — Carlsbad, Cardiff Reef — boat diving, Yukon, Ruby E, El Rey, Los Coronados. There’s a lot of different variety and a lot of different skill levels that could be dove in San Diego County.”

If you’re interested in getting certified, Hatter, who’s been diving for the last six-plus years and now teaches four to five times a week, can be reached at padicake7@yahoo.com or by calling (703) 869-5617.

“It’s definitely a lesson in learning and an application of patience — safety comes first, patience second and fun next,” Hatter said. “The only pressure you’ll feel in my classes is what’s in the tank on your back.”

To learn more about scuba diving San Diego’s waters, log onto DiveBums.com. n

— San Diego H2O continues next week
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