Last Updated: May 9, 2023
California has some of the best diving locations and dive schools in the country, but there are a few places that certainly have a bit more magic to them. If you want to see some of the most beautiful seascapes that the state has to offer, then Catalina Island should definitely be near the top of your list.
Not only is it a stunning place to enjoy a vacation or a long weekend, but the island has some incredible scuba opportunities for divers at every possible level. You could dip your toes into the water here for the first time ever, or you could enjoy new sights and experiences as a veteran diver.
In this article, I’m going to take a look at some of the best sites to explore when scuba diving in Catalina Island, what the conditions are like and when to get out in the water, how much it might cost, and the operators I recommend on the island itself.
There’s a lot to talk about but, first and foremost, let’s dive straight into the incredible sites that you can find around the island (pun intended).
Best Dives Sites in Catalina Island
1. Casino Point Dive Park
Casino Point is perhaps the most famous place on Catalina Island, and for good reason. It was actually the first non-profit underwater park in the country (and, arguably, the entire world) that opened to the public and it is located right next door to the very iconic Casino Building.
There are around 2.5 acres of space to play in, with a whole host of different things to see beneath the waves. There are numerous wrecks and monuments, as well as multiple reefs that are teeming with octopus, lobsters, eels, and abalone. They even have a resident eel named “Fang”.
The water is very clear and is best known for the incredible examples of giant kelp that you can weave your way in and out of as you swim. These kelp forests are an absolute haven for wildlife, playing host to senorita fish, blacksmith, garibaldi, kelp bass, and even angel sharks and bat rays at times.
Casino Point is large enough that they typically have multiple dives happening at the same time, and it is perfect for beginners. Its very self-contained, clearly marked, and well-protected.
2. Farnsworth Bank
For an experience that is a little more off-the-beaten-path, Farnsworth Bank (also known as Farnsworth Wall or Farnsworth Pinnacles) can be found about five miles southwest of the Island itself.
The most dramatic appeal of this site is the colossal pinnacles that rise up from the ocean floor 200 feet below, with their peaks reaching around 60 feet in depth. Diving on this more western side of Catalina Island is noticeably different from the lush green waters to the east; cleaner and more silver but still stuffed with remarkable wildlife.
The depth and distance from land do mean that diving here is a little more advanced, but it is without a doubt a special experience. The pinnacles are covered in coral, urchins, limpets, and more, the structures themselves are a joy to swim around, and the water is generally clear as crystal.
You might also be lucky enough to see Bat Rays, Harbor Seals, Giant Bass, and Electric Rays – and jellyfish make an appearance relatively often as well.
3. Blue Cavern Point
Slightly east of the well-known Isthmus Cove, you will find Blue Cavern Point jutting out into the Pacific. Its volcanic rock is absolutely riddled with caves, and you can even see the remains of lava that once flowed down the hillside and into the sea.
The waters of Blue Cavern Point are highly protected. Nothing can be taken, and nothing can be left behind, which makes it a highly pristine and special environment to explore. The strict rules do make it a little tricky to get out here, though, as even anchoring is forbidden.
With the right operator, you can anchor up a little outside the reserve on the northeastern side or stay adrift on a live boat while you dive.
The center of this site is dominated by a wall that extends from around 30 to 75 feet down, with lots of caves to poke around in. There is also a reasonable amount of kelp that brings in even more wildlife, and you might be lucky enough to see leopard sharks or rays in the open water.
4. Italian Gardens
Italian Gardens is a site that’s perhaps better known for its campsites and beaches than for its diving, but it has as much to offer below the waves as it does at the shoreline. The area is accessible by boat and is named after an Italian fisherman who used the beaches as a spot to dry out his nets.
You can kayak, camp, swim, snorkel, and dive at Italian Gardens, and it is a great place for families or less experienced divers to have some fun.
The water is not excessively deep and there aren’t a huge number of distinct landmarks, but it is a very popular spot for hundreds of different species of fish and crustaceans to relax in the relatively calm waters.
5. Bird Rock
If you’re looking for somewhere on the island that offers a little bit of everything, Bird Rock might be your best bet. There are shallow reefs teeming with life, there’s an underwater arch to swim through, and there is a steep wall to swim over as well.
Bird Rock itself is a large domed rock just inside of Isthmus Harbor, and each side of it has something a little different to see. The shallow areas are very calm and full of colorful fish, making them excellent for less-experienced divers but, for something more challenging, the wall on the other side plunges to around 70 feet down.
Stretching away from the rock and the wall is quite a large boulder field and the iconic arch, around 55 feet under the surface. There are often kelp forests around Bird Rock as well, although it does depend on the time of year that you arrive.
6. Valiant Wreck
For some people, wrecks are the most exciting and interesting sites to be around undewater – and The Valiant is one of the most accessible in all of California’s wreck dives.
This 160-foot-long luxury yacht sank in December of 1930, just 4 years after she was built. She was anchored in Descanso Bay when the gas generator ran out of fuel, and an unfortunate spark during refilling caused a fire that ultimately led to the Valiant sinking down to her current resting place.
You can find the wreck just outside of the Avalon Underwater Park, and it sits around 100 feet down. You will need to get permission from the harbormaster before you go, and the depth and conditions make it quite an advanced dive.
It has been in the water for a long time, so the ship has been almost completely reclaimed by the sea, to the point where it is even covered in tall strands of kelp for much of the year. Many fish like to swim in and out of its various crevices, and large parts of the structure have started to deteriorate, making for excellent photo opportunities.
7. Isthmus Reef
Isthmus Reef can be found very close to Bird Rock, and it is known for being one of the easiest dives on the island. If you have younger children with you or are wanting to get into the water for the first time, this is usually seen as the best place to do it.
In fact, Isthmus Reef is where most instructors like to carry out their lessons because there is a lot to see but the water is relatively shallow and usually very calm.
The reef is around 1500 feet long and 800 feet wide, never reaching below 60 feet in depth. Beyond the reef and all of the coral and creatures that inhabit it, there is also a very small wall to the south and a rocky slope to the north.
Sometimes larger marine life, like rays, will venture onto the reef but it is usually occupied by numerous schools of smaller fish.
Catalina Dive Sites Map
Diving Conditions and Best Time to Dive Catalina Island
Depending on which side of the island you are exploring, and what time of year you visit, the conditions around Catalina Island can change quite a bit.
In late summer, the temperatures generally range from 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit – reaching their hottest in late September and early October. In the winter, however, you will probably want a wetsuit or drysuit as it can be between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with March usually being the coldest month.
As for visibility, the average is around 40 feet, although that can be much better in the winter and a little worse in the summer. In some areas and at certain times of the year, visibility can almost reach 100 feet, and it is very rare that it will be less than 30 feet.
You can dive on the island all year round, but September to December generally offers the best combination of high visibility and warm water temperatures.
Catalina Scuba Diving Prices & Certification
Depending on the time of year that you dive, the equipment you need to hire, and the company or location you choose, diving around Catalina can vary in price.
The average cost per person for a single dive is about $135 with equipment, but it can be as little as $100 for a guided dive or as much as $220 for a full day.
In terms of certification, a PADI course can be around $500 for the course that requires you to continue diving with a professional, or $650+ for Open Water Diver training that qualifies you for independent dives up to depths of 60 feet.
Top Catalina Island Dive Operators
#1. Catalina Divers Supply
Catalina Divers Supply in Avalon is one of the most popular dive operators on the island, and they offer everything from gear rentals and sales to boat dives and classes. You can find them on the pier in Avalon Bay.
They have been in the industry for more than 60 years, and the Casino Point Underwater Park was built, maintained, and preserved primarily due to their efforts.
#2. Diving Catalina
Diving Catalina offers programs in snorkeling and scuba diving for people at every level, as well as all of the gear you could need. They are also located in Avalon and are very well-reviewed by customers.
They are also right at Casino Point Dive Park, so you can enjoy one of the best dive sites in the area while getting some guidance from a professional who is very familiar with the area.
#3. Catalina Scuba
On Casino Point, you will also find Catalina Scuba offering diving tours, classes, freediving, and professional training. The dive shop has been owned and operated by instructors for more than 20 years, and they have a great reputation.
From a beginner to an expert, you will be supplied with the best equipment and receive individualized training that is catered to your goals with an emphasis on safety and pleasure.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Go Scuba Diving in Catalina Island?
Not only is scuba diving possible on Catalina Island, but it is highly popular and available all year round.
Do You Need a Wetsuit for Catalina Island?
Depending on the time of year, you may need a wetsuit or a drysuit when you are scuba diving around Catalina Island. In the winter months, the water temperature is often below 59°F.
Are There Sharks in Catalina Island?
The waters of the California coast are known for their sharks, and Catalina Island is no different. You might see Blue Sharks, Makos, Horn Sharks, White Sharks, Leopard Sharks, and more.
Are There Jellyfish in Catalina?
Catalina Island is not always surrounded by jellyfish, but there are quite a number of different species that are seen occasionally. Some are less than an inch across, like the euphysa japonica, while others, like the Pacific sea nettle, can be more than 3 feet in diameter with tentacles that trail as far as 15 feet.
How Deep is the Water Around Catalina Island?
Around Catalina Island, the water at most dive sites is between 60 and 100 feet deep. Between the island and the mainland, though, the water reaches a maximum depth of around 3,000 feet.
My unbounded love for the oceans and everything it has to offer motivated me to pursue my passion and become a professional scuba diving instructor.
I keep reading, exploring, and learning more about scuba diving and the underwater world all the time, so I’m excited to share my knowledge with fellow scuba enthusiasts and hopefully contribute a little to your development as a diver. I want people to fall in love with the oceans with as much passion as I have. Read more about me here.