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Coastal Diving-Port San Luis (Avila) to Big Sur

Port San Luis/Avila to Morro Bay
Morro Bay to Jade Cove
Jade Cove to Big Sur (Point Sur Lighthouse Station)

Along the coast of California there are plenty of excellent dive sites but as in everything there is a catch. The biggest being our ever-changing weather and most good spots are off the beaten path. Probably my all-time favorite is the coastline between Port San Luis, otherwise known as Avila Beach to Big Sur.  Now that I mentioned Big Sur most will think what about the cliffs and how do you get to the ocean. Great question because most sites are best reached by boat or kayak but there are some good sites somewhat easily reached by foot and some of these would be around the Morro Bay area, Cambria and Jade Cove.

I have been fortunate over the years to be able to explore much of the Central Coast coastline by small and large boats, inflatable and by foot doing shore dives. I have chartered several boats that used to run out of Morro Bay such as the Princess out of the old Virg’s Landing which is the first boat I ever used to go to the Honda wrecks in front of Vandenberg that no longer can be dived after 9/11 happened. I have also chartered the Dos Osos catamaran out of Morro Bay which now does whale watching trips along with the Grey Fin steel sailboat built by its owner that used to run out of Port San Luis. I also chartered a friend’s 26’ Aluminum boat several times that we would trailer up from Ventura County spending several days running out of Port San Luis searching and exploring cool dive sites while camping at North Pismo State Beach. Those were the days! Many of these sites are still great dives and the funny thing is most divers around the San Luis Obispo/Morro Bay area know very little if anything at all about the great diving they have locally.

My attempt here is to show others about dive sites with endless beauty that we have along the Central Coast. Just thinking about it is getting me all excited!

To make things somewhat simple I have grouped the Central Coast coastline into 3 sections which will be Port San Luis/Avila to Morro Bay, Morro Bay to Jade Cove and Jade Cove to Big Sur. Jade Cove to Big Sur is the main area that Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara, Ca runs single and multi-day dive trips for about 3 weeks in June calling Morro Bay home while away from its home base in Santa Barbara.

Port San Luis/Avila to Morro Bay

To access both these areas by boat you have 2 choices which would be the launching area at the Port San Luis Harbor in the beautiful Port San Luis/Avila area where they use a sling to pick your boat up from its trailer. Before using this, you might want to check into it because some boats are easier than others to pick up and some trailers are not set up too well for this type of removal. The other area is the launch ramp at Morro Bay Harbor. Morro Bay is another beautiful little town which with much to do if the weather changes your plans. The ramp located in the back of the harbor is the typical type you drive down into the water. They have good parking at both launch areas for the day or long term along with restrooms and fish cleaning facilities. When we stayed for several days in Port San Luis we would tie up to one of the mooring buoys and use the water taxi to get to and from the dock to the boat.

Some words of caution are-There is a large area around the Diablo Nuclear power plant which is a security zone and this is one area you will not want to mistakenly enter plus pay very close attention to the weather. Weather along the central coast can change very quickly and should be of up-most concern!

The other things to think about is that the water temperatures along the central coast can be 45° to 55° depending on time of year and extra thermal protection might be needed plus you SHOULD have plenty of emergency signaling options such as a safety sausage (SMB), whistle, mirror, strobe light, marine two-way radio and Nautilus Lifeline.

There are places to shore dive around the Port San Luis area and the best from what I have been told is in the Shell Beach area. Although I have never shore dived this area I can tell you it is all very weather dependent.

There are many good boat dives along the Port San Luis/Avila to Morro Bay area with some of them listed below:

  • Pirates Cove Area-Shallow rocky area with depths of about 10’-30’. Lots of kelp, some sea lions and some interesting shoreline to check out. Good for sightseeing.
  • White Rock-A large rock breaking the surface with kelp beds all around it. Lots of rocky structure around the area to depths of around 50’. Some fish such as lingcod, Cabazon and kelp bass plus some invertebrates making it a great shallow dive.
  • Howell Rock-Large rock that comes to about 15’ under the surface and the base is around 50’. Lots of crevices and rocky structure. Not much kelp but covered with growth including metridium’s and invertebrates. Some fish but best for photography.
  • Boulder City-Large boulder like rocks at depth and not tall rocky structure like some other sites. Some kelp, rockfish, lingcod and more. This site is one my buddy and I named after a considerable amount of searching for something new. Great dive with depths around 45’ and lots of finger type sponges that I hadn’t seen on any other sites.
  • Souza Rock-Awesome pinnacle dive with the top at about 20’ and the bottom down around 120’. White anemones covering it with some scallops and fish. There is a large cave at around 95’ and an arch at the bottom of the pinnacle. Beautiful spot for photography.
  • Westdhal Rock-This site is a large area with a series of jagged pinnacles. The tops are around 20’ deep with the outer area going to about 70’. Some fish here and lots of invertebrates making it good for photography when weather permits.
  • Santa Rosa Reef-Excellent dive and is more like a large table top reef that sits about 20’-30’ deep with a dramatic sheer wall on one side that drops about 40’-60’. Some fish such as lingcod and kelp greenlings along with lots of invertebrates. Kelp all around and it is a great spot for photography.
  • Pecho Rock-This rock breaks the surface and has plenty of structure around it to keep you busy on your dive. Depths are about 20’-50’ with lots of kelp and marine life such as invertebrates, lingcod, rockfish and more. Good for hunting and photography.
  • Point Buchon Pinnacles-This area is a series of large pinnacles and can be an excellent dive. It has lots of invertebrates, fish, bull kelp and plenty to keep you busy for several dives if weather allows. Depths can range from around 25’ down past 100’. Excellent for hunting and photography.
  • Spooner’s Cove-You can do this as a beach dive when conditions permit. Lots of rock structure and kelp with many crevices to explore. Depths around 15’ plus depending on how far out you go. Better spot for sightseeing.
  • Hazards Reef-This is a large area that has LOTS of ledges and rock structure that gives a nice home to lingcod, vermillion and other rock fish. Depths are around 40’-80’ and there can sometimes be a large swell coming in here as evidence of the surfers. Excellent hunting site. Have had lingcod come out of their holes here to get fish on our stringer.
  • Anywhere Reef-Most anywhere along this area of the coast can be GREAT diving because of the little diving pressure it gets due to the difficult access. Most all of it has bull kelp along the reef and lots of crevices to explore.

Morro Bay to Jade Cove

This area covers about 60 miles and has even less access making more of the sites difficult to get to. Morro Bay Harbor has the launch ramp but other than that the only other place to launch a small boat is Leffingwell Landing along the west end of Moonstone Beach Drive, Cambria. It isn’t the easiest to launch here but with a small inflatable it is doable.

The coastline and kelp beds along this area can offer much exploration from both shore and by boat but be AWARE that the fog can come in thick here without any notice and sometimes big things like sharks are seen swimming around. When diving-ALWAYS be aware of your surroundings and don’t spend lots of time on the surface.

There are many good boat and shore dives along the Morro Bay to Jade Cove area with some of them listed below:

  • Fairbanks Point-For this site you park along the shore by the Natural History Museum and walk along the beach to the point where the bird sanctuary is. This is the only place you can get deep on an easy shore dive but you will be under the boat traffic so a dive float is a MUST. The dive is more like a terraced cliff with lots of crevices and some rock. Not much to see but certainly something different. This site is VERY tidal dependent so plan well!
  • Morro Bay Coastguard T-Pier-One of my favorite dives before they cleaned up the area and worked on the pier a number of years ago. Before diving the coastguard T-pier you must check in with the harbormaster at base of pier and get the OK. They will instruct you to stay under the pier the whole dive and not to go where the coast guard boats are docked. This pier is used for fishing boats and therefore you can find some cool treasures not to mention some excellent nudibranch finds. It is very shallow dive from 10’-20’ and doing a 1.5-hour dive is not all that hard. It is also VERY tidal dependent so plan well!
  • Target Rock-Fun easy shallow dive (10’-25’) with lots of rocks, kelp, fish, invertebrates and hazards such as fishing line. You need to have a float for this dive and not go out far into the boating channel. The BEST fun is to plan the tides and start at the entrance of the harbor making a long drift dive.
  • Morro Rock-One dive I have done but would never suggest to anyone but I am sure there are some that have wondered “what would it be like”. I can tell you from experience you don’t need to find out. We started this dive from the outfall which helped us swim out to the outer area of the rock. Some ways out we had the current pushing us back. We overcame this being young and dumb and swim around the rock which is quite a swim. There wasn’t much to see but very large anemones and sand. When we got close to the outer break wall we didn’t account for it being high tide and crashing waves on the rock and luckily, we made it. This was one case when I went back to my instructor to thank him for making us do lots of drills over and over and over. If I was someone who too one of the classes they teach nowadays I do believe I might not be here writing this. Thank you Mickey Defazio!!! This site is VERY tidal dependent so plan well!
  • Outer Break Wall-This dive is the inner area of the outer break wall and is a dive you would never think could be so good. There is a story on how we decided to dive this but too long to write about. The area towards the end gets to about 25’ deep and the rocks make a nice home for lots of things like big lingcods. It isn’t that hard to reach from shore and is well worth the effort. This site is VERY tidal dependent so plan well!
  • 10E Buoy-This is more like a pinnacle but with lots of rock around it but beware it does get lots of fishing line and nets on it. Depths are around 40’-80’. It is a great place for hunting and photography.
  • Cayucos Kelp Beds-There are LOTS of thick and healthy kelp beds along the coast just past Cayucos along Hwy 1. Find a turnout and explore! Depths are shallow from about 10’-30’ and visibility can vary. Lots of rocky structure with crevices to explore.
  • Von Helm Rock-Excellent offshore pinnacle but really more like a series of jagged pinnacles with lots of metridiums covering it. Lots of crevices to explore with fish and invertebrates everywhere and usually great visibility. Depths from about 20’-over 100’. Great dive for the photographer.
  • Leffingwell Rock-There is a small rock that breaks the surface just south of the landing which can be a great dive. Actually the whole area is good diving with lots of kelp, rocky bottom, fish, invertebrates and depths of 30’-50’. The problem here is the fog can come in without notice leaving you out with no bearings to get back to shore. Great dive but be careful!
  • Jade Cove-This is one of my favorites and very much worth the work. To access Jade Cove you must park along Hwy 1 and hike everything down. However, many trips you decide on be careful because the path down is not the easiest, wear good shoes and try to have your hands free to grab a hold if needed. The last 30’ or so of the trail a rope tied off to a stake is recommended. Jade Cove is a place you can find Jade and read lots of stories about it. Even though this area is in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary the taking of Jade below the high tide mark is OK and it can only be pieces no bigger then what you can carry. Diving Jade Cove is also best done with someone who knows the lay of the land plus if something should happen you have some help close by. The dive itself is shallow from 10’-30’ with lots of large rocks, boulders and kelp. It is a beautiful dive with big fish, some invertebrates and much to see but the main reason people dive her is to collect jade. Here is an excellent article by Otto Gasser who knows the area well. Too really enjoy the experience camping at Plaskett Creek campground next to Jade Cove is HIGHLY recommended.

* Words of caution-Hunting for Jade can be very addictive and is like looking for sea glass, megalodon shark teeth, old treasures and gambling in places like Vegas with you always thinking the next big find or jackpot will happen-sounds like a good thing!

  • Mill Creek-This is a very easy entry and you can drive your car down to the beach. It can be a shallow dive depending on how much swimming you like to do. Depths are around 15’-45’ with patch reefs, good structure and kelp.

Jade Cove to Big Sur (Point Sur Lighthouse Station)

It is about 50 miles from Jade Cove to Big Sur and another 24 miles to Monterey. There is plenty about the Big Sur coast to love and it seems you can never get enough of it! If you asked me what it was I would have to say-beautiful, exciting, magical, mystical & exhilarating! The Big Sur coastline is unlike any scene you might have seen at any of the offshore Channel Islands with its steep cliffs, trees, high mountains, homes perched out over the edge of a cliff, mountain goat trails to the beach and basically very little access to the ocean making the entire coastline an area that has seen very few divers in comparison to most of the California coast.

As you can see Big Sur is one of those hard to dive areas and if you have ever drove along the Big Sur coast you would know exactly what I am talking about. The Big Sur coast just can’t be beat and the views along the bluffs are awesome especially when done by boat. There is so much to explore with its jagged rocks that lie off the coast, large kelp beds and unexplored dive sites this area is just waiting for the adventurous diver.

Now the great part about this is that every year in June for about 3 weeks the Vision, owned by Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara moves the Vision up to Morro Bay where they run 1, 2, 3 & 4-day trips along the Big Sur coast and Channel Islands Dive Adventure usually has a half charter for a 3-day trip over the 3rd week of June.

The trips are for the adventurous advanced scuba diver who are mentally and physically prepared to explore this beautiful untouched coastline. Seas can be big and rough or flat as a pancake; however, every year yields yet another new spot that will make you want to keep going back. If you are willing to take a chance with Mother Nature, then you can be one of the lucky divers to find a new and exciting dive location to put into the log book. During some trips we even get an added bonus with whale and dolphin sightings along with a stop at McWay Falls, located at the ocean edge of Julia Pfeiffer State Park. The falls are 80-foot-tall and spill onto the beach-a magnificent view by boat.

Another fun stop is Partington Cove, sitting on the northern boundary of Julia Pfeiffer State Park. More than 100 years ago homesteader John Partington built a tunnel that is six feet wide, eight feet high, and one hundred feet long through the rock to get access to the cove. Built as a wagon trail for mules to haul lumber and tanning bark to ships waiting in the cove, you can still see the iron eyes secured in the rock faces used for the ships. On the point you can also see an old rusty stanchion that was used in the operation.

If you never have been on one of these trips you must give it a try and when you do you will see why they are getting so popular with some coming back year after year. There is some good spearfishing at some sites but all are excellent for photography with macro being the best choice.

There are many good boat dives along the Big Sur coast with some of them listed below:

  • Jade Cove-Diving by boat can be much easier than the hike down to Jade Cove but sometimes the bigger boats can’t get in all that close so you might have a swim to the better areas for Jade collecting. Depths from the boat will be more around 25’-30’. If weather permits the Vision always stops at Jade Cove the last day of a 3 day or longer trip. If you wish to read about shore diving Jade Cove please see above this section of dive sites.
  • Whale Boat Rock-This is an exposed rock that sticks up about 8’ from the surface and underwater it is like a grown-up Jade Cove with large boulders and kelp all around. Lots of crevices to explore with vermillion and lingcod along with small invertebrate life on the rocks. Depths from about 25’-45’.
  • Deep Plaskett-If you like dep dives this one is for you! The top of the rock is like a slanted table with the shallowest part about 95’ and the base around 160’. This is for the most part straight out in the ocean from Jade Cove and Plaskett Rock near the shoreline. It has large boulders and sand around the base and some hydrocoral on the top along with small fish and invertebrates.
  • Haystacks-Awesome dive and one of the best on the Big Sur trip. More like a pinnacle with rock structure and boulders all around the base. Lots of crevices to explore making homes for large lingcods, vermillion, schooling fish and bull kelp at top of pinnacle. Lots of metridiums on the pinnacle with much inveterate life. Depths between 70’-95’
  • Tide Rock-This rock breaks the surface and has two other rocks nearby that also do the same. Tide Rock has very steep sides with some ledges and crevices and is more like a series of pinnacles with big rocks and boulders around the base. Not many fish here but excellent for photography with a large variety of nudibranchs and invertebrate life. Seen a wolfeel here! Depths between 60’-110’.
  • Slate Rock-Another rock that breaks the surface with depths to around 90’. Big boulders towards bottom with some fish. Seemed to have more fish below 60’ but was excellent for macro photography with small clumps of purple Hydrocoral, nudibranchs and lots of invertebrate life.
  • Point Lopez-One of the good anchorages is here at Point Lopez along with some good diving in the surrounding area. Nice area with series of pinnacles, steep walls, boulders, large rocky structure and lots of bull kelp. Depths between 25’-60’. Good for spearfishing with lingcod and rockfish plus great spot for photographers with lots of invertebrates and small fish.
  • Pfeiffer Pinnacle/Pfeiffer 5-Another excellent pinnacle/large rock dive. Lots of macro photography here with lots of invertebrate life. Some fish but better for photography. Depths are 45’-75’ with a wall on one side that is about 50’-70’.
  • Arch Rock-Excellent dive very close to McWay Falls and. Only good on days with little swell because the site is right up against the beach. Shallow dive from sand at about 10’ to further out with lots of rocky structure at about 50’. There is an above water Arch that you can swim under, big rocks, crevices, lots of kelp, smaller lingcod, greenlings and vermillion and large anemones covering the rocks.
  • Hydro Haven-Excellent dive with lots of rocky structure, walls and slopes. Depths were about 75’-45’ with a sandy bottom. Lots of invertebrates plus hydrocoral and meadows of rose and spotted anemones. Some fish but much better for photography.
  • Point Sur Pinnacle-Large pinnacle that was more like a ridge with high spots. Depths of 75’-100’ plus. Lots of small invertebrates and some fish such as lingcod and vermillion.