Bruce Watkins: Northern California Dive Sites

  • Octopus at Breakwater
  • Point Pinos Healthy Kelp
  • Point Pinos Urchin Barren
  • Urchin Barren
  • Fluorescent Anemone
  • Moby Ling Cove

By Alan Throop

At our March General Meeting, Bruce Watkins gave a useful and interesting program containing beautiful images of our local Northern California waters.

Bruce is a well-known photojournalist who writes for California Diving News (CDN) and has over 500 articles and thousands of photographs in national and international periodicals. He has also written four books that are staples for any No Cal diver. His book on Monterey Co. dive sites is particularly useful for the diving around Monterey as we do; it is already in its second edition; the new edition is much different from the first, so if you have his old book, it’s worth buying the new second edition.

Bruce always has great stories to tell, stunning & interesting photos to show, and good diving information to share. This time – for the benefit of the many new divers we have in the club – he spoke about local dive sites and the problem we have with urchin barrens … a problem for which he is advocating in Sacramento along with others (see more at the end of this article). Since Bruce knows we do a lot of beach diving, he focused on local beach dive sites instead of those accessible mainly by boat.

Since you can see his great dive site maps and information in his books and CDN, I’ll show only one in this report as an example; you’ll need to get his new book to see his other great maps. He began by talking about the San Carlos Beach (aka, Breakwater) in Monterey. While known best as a diver training area, it is also a wonderfully-diverse site dive that represents a microcosm of all Monterey diving. It’s probably the best night-diving site in No Cal. One can regularly see octopuses on the sand, just at the bend in the jetty… just look for movement because they are well camouflaged during the day and reflections from their eyes at night. You can attract the playful sea lions by throwing a rock up & down in the water column.

Breakwater Map

Breakwater Map

East Pt Pinos, near the lighthouse, is a favorite dive site of Bruce. Although it is somewhat protected by the rocks, it still requires good sea conditions for comfortable diving. Bruce discussed the problem of urchin-barrens at the end of his talk and this is discussed at the end of this report as well, but photos in slide show at the top of this post show Pt. Pinos before and after the current urchin problem and an urchin barren, absent of both its lush kelp canopy and the marine life that it supports.

Scallop Eyes

Scallop Eyes

Next, Bruce talked about Butterfly House, a great dive site located at Scenic Road and Stewart Way in Carmel. While parking is limited, the facilities nonexistent, and there’s a bit of a climb down to the little, in the spring & summer when the south swell is down it’s a beautiful scenic dive. The bottom drops in a series of rocky steps from 5 feet to about 80 to a sandy bottom with big boulders and kelp in clear blue water that makes for stunning wide-angle photography, as well that of smaller marine life (see the “eyes” in the scallop).

Monastery Beach is Bruce’s favorite beach dive. It’s of course known for its infamous entries and exits (and the “Monastery Crawl”), but done properly and at the right locations (far north & far south ends), they are not that bad. Both ends – but particularly the north end – offer not only deep dives with sites of interest, but also great shallow reefs where you can off-gas from your deep dive in a beautiful scenic kelp forest. Fortunately, the urchins have been less of a problem here, so the kelp is still healthy. Bruce described how you can take creative photos of fluorescing marine life using a blue filter on your flash – cheaply made from Tap Plastic materials. Also check out Backscatter and Dive Photo Guide for other ideas on this.

Diver with Hydrocoral

Diver with Hydrocoral

Point Lobos is one of the most-pristine dive sites in No Cal, having become the first underwater preserve in the nation in 1960. The fishes here are large and generally used to divers. Wide-angle photography is great outside of the shallow Whalers Cove, which itself offers great macro- and normal-lens shots of the many types of marine life, including large sheephead, leopard sharks that breed there in March, and harbor seals. Interesting colorful underwater canyons can be dived in clear water on the west side Whalers Cove. Bruce described some fun cavern-dive spots on the east side of Whaler’s cover … really fun to try to find the shallow-water opening on a calm day. Unfortunately, the kelp has largely disappeared in Bluefish Cove due to the urchin problem.

Bruce then moved south to some less-dived – but still great – beach dive sites that are well worth the drive when you can get into them. Garrapata State Park (“Mile Marker 67”) is a beautiful place to dive and hike, with the scenic Waterfall Beach – where Soberances Creek cascades to the beach – and Moby Ling Cove that makes for great diving. There’s a short walk to rocks on the water’s edge, a well-timed 10’ jump into the water, and a fun exit when you let the surge carry you back onto the rocks. The well-known Lobos Rocks dive site is just out from the cove, but only accessible from a boat. The deep clear waters that bathe this whole region has beautiful hydrocoral, large rose anemone, concentrations of large lingcod and cabezon, and pelagic species such as ocean sunfish and large lion’s mane jellyfish.

Further south lays Partington Cove, which used to be a smuggler’s cove and is at the northern end of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You need to plan ahead to get a key at JPB Park headquarters and show a $1M insurance coverage (most divemasters have this), but you then unlock a gate, drive down a road, park, hike down a short trail to the rocky entry, and enter two coves that feature rocky ridges and pinnacles jut up from a 40-60’ sandy bottom. The South Cove has an infamous sea tunnel that you should NOT enter; a number of divers have died in the surge here. Also here is the spectacular McWay Waterfall, where McWay Creek flows over a 100’ cliff, dropping to the beach below.

Jade Rock at Jade Cove

Jade Rock at Jade Cove

Finally, Bruce described Jade Cove, that is still further south and where the club used to occasionally dive. This requires a long, strenuous hike down to a small unprotected gravel beach, but just offshore is a large rock with a tunnel in about 20’ of water whose side is lined with polished jade. It’s a beautiful, special dive but one that is best dived in the fall and winter in the calm between storms when the kelp is less prominent. Still, one can find small jade rocks on the shore and the cove bottom.

Bruce discussed the problem of purple-urchin barrens that has occurred due to the loss of sea stars (particularly Sunflower stars) that are their natural predators, which were themselves wasted by a viral disease. With no predator in the absence of sea stars, the urchins have proliferated and over-grazed the kelp (more Bull Kelp in the north, but also the Macrocystis giant kelp in the south). After they have destroyed the kelp, the urchins themselves don’t die off – as is often common for other cases of predator loss – but they simply barely stay alive, become of no commercial value, and can continue to leave an area barren for many years until the sea stars are eventually able to recover. With no kelp for food, the abalone population is also weakened, and becomes small and decimated.

Bruce is working with others to spearhead an effort to allow divers to destroy sea urchins in large numbers where there are barrens; this effort is currently hindered by a 35-urchin daily limit and (apparently) not being allowed in Marine Sanctuary areas. This removal process would be similar to east-coast programs that remove the invasive lionfish that have been causing disruption in the Atlantic and Caribbean ecosystems. You can contact Bruce if you want more information or to write to the Fish & Game Commission as they consider this. Josh Russo of the Watermen’s Alliance is hoping to begin to remove urchins from Ocean Cove beginning Memorial Day weekend. Maybe Tooters want to participate in this?

Bruce has also written an interesting article for CDN that describes some of the recent disruptions and repercussions that we have seen along our coast: algal blooms, sea star wasting disease, and urchin barrens. More information can also be found at Sea Ranch Abalone Bay, California Outdoors QAs (look down the Q&A list), National Geographic, and Sanctuary Simon.

Kelp Forest Food Chain

Kelp Forest Food Chain

We wholeheartedly thank Bruce for presenting such an interesting, informative program to us and look forward to hearing from him again in the future.