Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Monterey California
Visited: December 2017
Monterey Bay California offers a world-class scuba diving experience. The kelp forests just off the beach host a vast variety of marine species, and shore divers are in for a real treat. Divers who are willing to brave cold water diving in the frigid Northern California waters will be rewarded with up-close encounters with marine mammals, such as sea lions, seals, and sea otters, as well as many rockfish and aquatic invertebrates. Get your wetsuit (or dry suit) ready, throw on some extra weight to control your buoyancy, and head out to the breakwater right in downtown Monterey.
Sun shining through the kelp forest
Monterey is located just a short two hour drive south of San Francisco along the rugged Central California coastline. Once an important fishing and canning community, today its quaint small-town charm, along with the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, make Monterey a very popular destination for overseas tourists, and California weekenders alike.
A seagull at the beach in Monterey
Monterey really is the quintessential example of a Central California coastal community. Seals and sea lions congregate along the rocky shores, while pelicans and gulls patrol the air looking for their next meal.
Fishing boats can still be seen passing in and out of the marina located in the heart of downtown Monterey, and the cold California coastal winds whip along the rocky breakwaters, bringing with them the distinct smells of the briny kelp forests which lie just below the surface. Sea otters floating on their backs cracking shellfish on their bellies are a regular fixture, and even migratory humpbacks are not an unusual sight from the seaside lookouts scattered throughout the town.
Sea lions on the dock at Elkhorn Slough
For me, all of these sights sounds and smells invoke memories of my childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, it is right here in Monterey that I received my advanced open water scuba certification.
I have heard people say that if you can dive the California coast, you can dive anywhere, and after several years of diving around the world I believe it.
With an average annual water temperature of only 13°C, currents of every imaginable variety, and typical visibility of only about 1-2 meters, kelp which and wrap around you like a net, and a healthy population of the largest great white sharks on the planet, the California coast can provide just about every trial that scuba divers can experience.
Kelp Forrest Monterey Bay
Despite the challenging conditions, if you can get below the surface on a good day, when the seas are calm, and visibility is high (6 meters or so) the kelp forests of Central California will truly take your breath away.
Rays of sunlight through the kelp
There is no other diving experience quite like swimming through the kelp. Rays of sunlight filter through the thick leafy canopy at the surface, illuminating a world filled with brightly colored anemones and starfish.
Anemone and starfish cover the rocks
Seals and sea lions can be seen darting past you at breakneck speeds, playfully hunting the abundant fish below. The cold water brings a host of species not found in warmer areas, including giant sea bass, leopard sharks, colorful rockfish, lingcod, and countless varieties of macro creatures crawling on the kelp and along the sea floor. Life in the kelp forest is both diverse and abundant.
My wife and I have been renting equipment and diving with Breakwater Scuba for several years now. Located on Cannery Row, just a short walk away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I really cannot say enough about Breakwater.
They are always friendly, their equipment is impeccably maintained, and they are located right across the street from the ocean. You can literally suit up in their shop, walk across the street, and go diving. Julia was our guide for these dives, and she truly is a bad-ass.
School of fish in the kelp forest
We really lucked out on our dives. We had perfect conditions. For a December day, the weather was a relatively warm 18°C (66°F) or so, and the visibility was easily 8-9 meters.
Spiky sea slug
On our first dive we explored the breakwater that separates the harbor from the bay. As we swam through the thick kelp, we encountered scores of rockfish, long gangly-legged sheep crabs, a few giant sea bass, and even a playful seal.
I was absolutely blown away by the macro sea life living in the rocks of the breakwater. Under every rock was a miniature world filled with strange and tiny creatures.
For our second dive, we opted to go out a little further to the metridium anemone fields. Metridium or “giant plume” anemones can grow to lengths of up to 1 meter long, and are only found along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Catalina.
Recently hatched shark eggs
On the way out, it became apparent that we were in for a special treat, as we swam out, the sea became thicker and thicker with sea nettles, or giant orange and red jellyfish.
Sea nettle jellyfish
We were absolutely surrounded. Everywhere we looked, tens of thousands of long-tentacled jellyfish filled our view. We had to literally push them out of the way in order to swim.
Thankfully, we were wearing thick full-length wetsuits with hoods, boots, and gloves; otherwise this amazingly beautiful experience would have quickly turned into a painful nightmare.
Surrounded by jellyfish
Despite the protection from the wetsuit, I still managed to get stung on the cheek, between my wetsuit hood and mask. The mark stuck around for about a week, but didn’t hurt too much, and was totally worth it.
Swimming in a sea of sea nettles
Swimming through the sea nettles was one of the most ethereal and beautiful experiences I have ever had while diving.
Diving in Monterey California is an incredible experience. The cold-water kelp forests offer a rich ecosystem that is very different than most of the tropical destinations frequented by the majority of recreational divers. While diving in Monterey can be a bit challenging with the frigid water, low visibility and sometimes unpredictable tidal surges, it is also incredibly rewarding for those who are willing to don the thick wetsuit and just go for it. When the conditions are just right, Monterey offers some of the most beautiful diving that I have seen anywhere on Earth.