Skip to main content

Channel Islands Diving


California's Channel Islands

Top 10 Dive Locations on Earth!

California diving offers temperate water conditions in a variety of unique, cold and warmer water ecosystems, which makes our liveaboard dive adventures incredibly unique not only for North America, but the world.

Come aboard the “Queen of the Coast” M/V Vision and let us take you to incredible and remote dive locations.

Check our charter calendar for current offerings

Northern Islands

These islands offer a diverse set of wildlife, geology, and diving opportunities. They are within the Channel Islands National Park and National Marine Sanctuary.

San Miguel Island

The remoteness of San Miguel, combined with its offshore location and shifting weather patterns, makes diving here very condition-dependent. However, San Miguel has some of the most spectacular diving found off the coast of California. San Miguel offers a wide variety of dive site topography, including offshore pinnacles, walls, and expansive kelp forest reefs. The abundance of marine life at San Miguel is striking compared to the other islands, and the fishing and hunting at San Miguel is spectacular. Halibut, lingcod, schools of rockfishes, and nudibranchs galore inhabit these waters. More varieties of pinnipeds can be seen here than on any other Channel Island. A nice day of diving at San Miguel is about as good as it gets.

Popular dive sites include Wyckoff Ledge, Prince Island, Judith Rock, Richardson Rock, Simonton Cove, Wilson’s Rock, the Foul Hole, Skyscraper Pinnacle, and Castle Rock. Learn more about San Miguel Island.

Santa Rosa Island

California divers began flocking to Santa Rosa in the 1970’s and 80’s and it has remained a popular diving destination ever since. Talcott Shoals, which lies off the northwest section of the island, is a large plateau reef with extensive kelp forests that offers various terrain for divers. The shipwreck of the Aggie, which lays in 25 to 50 feet of water along a ridge, is a highlight. The east end of Santa Rosa has a wonderful assortment of pinnacles that are covered in Corynactis (strawberry anemone), rockfishes, and scallops. Weather permitting, we often spend the night in Bechers Bay, a large sandy anchorage overlooking the windswept island.

Santa Cruz Island

The diving at Santa Cruz Island is probably the most diverse of all eight Channel Islands. The island bisects both warm southerly and colder northern currents, creating diverse habitats for many different species. Usually, the southern side has warmer water temperatures compared to the northern side. As the largest of California’s Channel Islands, Santa Cruz has a wide variety of different dive spots, each with its own unique characteristics.

The northwest section of the island is volcanic with steep, rocky cliffs. It is home to some of the world’s largest sea caves. The southeast section is flatter and composed of large plateaus with thick kelp beds. Santa Cruz offers more places to find good diving during rough weather periods than any other island, due to its size and many coves. Seals, sea lions, bat rays, and schools of fish are common sights while scuba diving along the shores.

Santa Barbara Island


Santa Barbara Island (639 acres) is 1.67 miles across at its longest point and lies 73 nautical miles (nm) Southeast of Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of all of California’s Channel Islands and the southernmost member of the Channel Islands National Park. Like most of the Channel Islands, it can be seen from the mainland on exceptionally clear days usually in winter, though the island’s profile is markedly lower than those of its bigger counterparts. The highest peak on the Santa Barbara Island is Signal Hill, at 634 feet. Despite its volcanic composure of Miocene basalts, Santa Barbara Island is not a volcano. The steep wave-cut cliffs of its shoreline indicate that erosion is still in its formative processes; this is one of the younger Channel Islands. Signs of a rising and falling ocean are marked into the basalt cliffs. Six wave-cut marine terraces can be found, an indication of both changes in sea level as well as tectonic uplift and subsidence (called porpoising). A 130 ft. arch dominates the aptly named Arch Point on the northeast corner of the island. Extensive colonies of birds reside on the volcanic cliffs of Santa Barbara Island as well as the two nearby offshore rocks: Shag Rock off the northerly shore (1 acre), and Sutil Island off the southwest end (12 acres). The steep cliffs and isolation from mainland predators provide safe breeding sites for thousands of sea birds. Santa Barbara Island, although small by any standard, boasts an impressive diversity in its habitats, with a few narrow rocky beaches, six canyons, and a badlands area.


Santa Barbara Island is known for its large rookery where you can spend hours diving with sea lions. Photographers get more opportunities to photograph these animals up close here than any Channel Island. The playful, curious pups will pose and frolic in front of a diver’s lens as long as one can stay in the water.

Diving Santa Barbara Island with Channel Islands Expeditions will take you to a host of incredible sites around the island, including the famous undersea “Arch.” The top of the reef just breaks the surface at low tide and the bottom of the arch lies in 40 feet of water. One of the more unique underwater arches in the world it makes the perfect backdrop for photographers. In addition to the “Arch,” there are many offshore pinnacles that are home to shear walls along with some of the largest clusters of purple hydrocoral found anywhere.

Santa Barbara has long been a prime destination for spearfishing. Warm southern currents coupled with lush kelp beds make this island attract a wealth of game fish. Calico bass, white sea bass, yellowtail, and an occasional tuna are among the species that can be found in the waters surrounding this island. As with all Channel Islands, a healthy spiny lobster population makes this a favorite destination during season.

Santa Barbara Island can offer some of the best scuba diving found in Southern California but if conditions are rough there are not man


Though it is thought to have never been permanently inhabited, Santa Barbara Island may have played a crucial role in the lives of the island peoples who occupied the surrounding Channel Islands for at least 10,000 years. Archeological evidence suggests that Santa Barbara Island may have been a convenient stopover on inter-island trade routes, a testament to its central location in the Channel Islands chain. The rich marine life found here may have drawn people to seasonally harvest the shores of this island for shellfish, seals, and fish. Recent studies indicate this may have begun about 4,000 years ago.

The first European visitor to the Channel Islands in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer, made no mention of this island. Sixty years later, the island was named by Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, who visited the island on December 4, 1602, the feast day dedicated to Santa Barbara. The island was infrequently visited in subsequent years, owning largely to its sparse vegetation and lack of a reliable water source. Santa Barbara Island did play host to an assemblage of seal hunters, squatters, fishermen, and the occasional whaling ship off its shores.

A few notable individuals eked out a living here, chief among them the family of Alvin Hyder. After a winning bid of $250 in 1916, Hyder and his family assumed ownership of the island and were the first to establish a residence of any permanence there. Hard work and a constant struggle to maintain a supply of fresh water were trademark features of a tough existence on this island. Santa Barbara Island would become a part of the Channel Islands National Monument in 1938 and was utilized as a Coastal Lookout Station during WWII. Santa Barbara Island became part of the Channel Islands National Park upon its establishment in 1980.

Santa Barbara Island is home to a large sea lion rookery and seabird nesting colonies, including three species of storm-petrel, three species of cormorant, and the once-endangered California brown pelican. It is also home to the largest breeding colony for the Scripps’s Murrelet, a threatened seabird species. Scripps’s murrelet is listed as vulnerable, and is mainly threatened by oil spills, as the population exists in such a small area and is adjacent to the heavily trafficked shipping lanes that connect to the Port of Los Angeles. Spring rains bring out the flowering plants, such as the Giant coreopsis, the endemic Santa Barbara Island live-forever (Dudleya traskiae), shrubby buckwheat, sea blite, and an annual poppy. There is a visitor contact station and museum on the island with exhibits, dioramas, and murals of the natural and cultural resources.

Southern Islands and Cortes Bank

Travel a little farther South and you’ll reach warmer water and some of the most incredible offshore pinnacles in the world.

Santa Catalina Island


After Alcatraz, Santa Catalina Island is probably the best known of any of California’s islands. This island’s proximity to Los Angeles transformed it into a popular tourist destination, evidenced by its one million visitors each year. The island is 22 miles long and eight miles across at its greatest width. The highest point on the island is Mt. Orizaba 2,126 feet. The island was widely developed as a resort by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. Now, ninety percent of the island is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, with the remainder of the island under the ownership of private entities.

The island is a rugged terrain of ridges and canyons with a few valleys inland and on its coastal fringes. The island is semi-arid with only 12 inches of rainfall each year, though the marine climate does moderate temperatures during the summer and winter. The majority of the terrain here is characterized by chaparral vegetation with pine forest interspersed in canyons and at higher elevations.


Catalina Island is well known for its calm, clear, and warm waters. Even though Catalina is the most populated dive site of any other Channel Island, it is still sought out by scuba divers around the globe. Any trip with Channel Islands Expeditions is sure to encounter verdant kelp forest full of garibaldi, yellowtail, kelp bass, white seabass, giant black sea bass, and leopard sharks, as well as many other intriguing species. Photography and sightseeing are especially good in these clear waters, though free divers enjoy the possibility of spearing yellowtail and white seabass. Channel Islands Expeditions makes this destination part of its itinerary on the southern islands multi-day dive excursions, mostly during the summer months.

San Clemente Island


San Clemente Island is the southernmost of all eight of the Channel Islands and is located 113 nautical miles (nm) from Santa Barbara. It is 21 nm long and is 4-1/2 nm across at its widest point, with a total area of 57 square miles. The U.S. Navy acquired the island in 1934 and it has been owned and operated by various naval commands. San Clemente is also home to an auxiliary naval airfield, United States Navy SEALs training facilities, and the southern end of the island is the Navy’s only remaining ship-to-shore live firing range.

San Clemente Island is made of up of volcanic materials dating back to 5 million years ago. The terrain varies between exposed marine terraces and steep canyons dotted sparsely with freshwater springs. The island can be described as being on a ‘tilt;’ the north side rises dramatically out of the ocean (the highest point, Mt. Thirst, is 1,965 ft), while the south side has a much gentler slope to its rocky shores. With a frost-free, semi-arid climate, the island typically gets less than 6 inches of rain in a year.


Diving conditions at San Clemente Island are known for the clearest, warmest waters of all eight Channel Islands. Located in the southernmost region of California this island receives the warmest waters from the tropical currents from the south. Giant kelp beds, schools of fish, coral banks, and shear walls make this a diver’s paradise. Waters in the summer can reach over 70 degrees Fahrenheit and photographers flock to this island for some of the best wide-angle photography available in California.

Most of the prime scuba diving is located at each end of the island. The east end of the island is more protected and offers pinnacles, shear walls, and protected shallow kelp covered coves. San Clemente’s west end is more exposed to the westerly winds and swells but has some of the more prolific areas found off California. Nine Fathom Reef (it rises to 6 ½ fathoms) is a rocky structure with shear walls covered in purple hydrocoral. This is an open ocean diving location and is swept by currents and swells so diving this area can be tricky. Once dove, it is never forgotten.


San Clemente Island is one of the best documented archeological settings in California. Archeologists have found traces of human occupation on the San Clemente Island dating back 10,000 years, a remarkable figure for an island 55 nautical miles out to sea, but consistent with results on other Channel Islands. The native inhabitants here called the island ‘Kinipar,’ and bore many cultural similarities to the nearby Nicholenos on San Nicolas Island. Travel between the islands was facilitated by the ‘ti’at,’ a plank canoe that enabled the islanders to cross wide channels and open ocean. Inhabitants here left trade materials from the northern islands and from the mainland, including Coso obsidian from the Mohave high desert. It has not been established what tribe the recent inhabitants belonged to, although the Tongva, from Santa Catalina Island and the Los Angeles Basin, are the most likely candidates. The Chumash who occupied the northern Channel Islands may have influenced the inhabitants.

The island was named by the mapping expedition of Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, who spotted it on November 23, 1602; known as Saint Clement’s feast day in the Catholic tradition. The first actual visit happened much later in 1769, when the San Antonio of the Portola expedition anchored in Pyramid Cove on the south end of the island. Natives rowed out in ti’ats and exchanged gifts with the expedition, including two otter-fur robes. It was later used by ranchers, fishermen, and smugglers during the 19th century and into the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s the factory ships Lansing and California anchored off San Clemente Island, processing blue and fin whales, among other species, caught by their own fleets of steam-driven whale catchers.


In recent years effort has been made by several conservation organizations, including Channel Islands Restoration, to remove invasive species from San Clemente Island and promote the re-emergence of native and endemic flora and fauna. The removal of invasive ice plant has encouraged native plants, like the boxthorn (Lycium spp.) to flourish. This is especially important as many endemic species of birds and reptiles use this native plant as cover and nesting habitat.

The San Clemente Island Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus mearnsi) is an endangered species that the Navy is taking steps to protect. The Island fox (Urocyon littoralis) and San Clemente Island brodiaea (Brodiaea kinkiensis) are notable examples of endemic species on the island. Feral goats roamed the island for centuries, reaching a population of 11,000 in 1972 when their effect on indigenous species was realized. By 1980 the population had been reduced to 4,000 and a plan for shooting remaining goats was blocked in court by the Fund for Animals, so the goats were removed with nets and helicopters.

San Nicolas Island


San Nicolas Island is the most remote of California’s Channel Islands lying 78 nautical miles (nm) south by southeast from Santa Barbara and 53 miles from the nearest coastline. Rising out of the rolling Pacific swells, the 14,500 acre (23 square miles) island is defined by wave cut terraces and windswept, grassy hills. It is currently controlled and operated as a weapons testing and training facility by the United States Navy. The island has a small airport and the several buildings supporting the naval operation are affectionately referred to as ‘Nictown.’ Landing on the island is strictly prohibited and one of the offshore water areas is restricted from transiting or anchoring.


Channel Islands Expeditions travels out to San Nicolas Island during the summer and early fall to dive the iconic Begg Rock and some of the island’s nearshore reefs. Begg Rock is a small rock lying almost 8 miles to the west from the island and it is one of California’s most pristine dive locations. This is open ocean diving so wind, swell, and currents can make this a difficult area to scuba dive. When the conditions are right, this dive will not be forgotten. Shear walls covered in corynactis anemones paint this dive in a rainbow of colors. In the fall, the island itself is a popular lobster diving area when they are in season. Its remote location means that a trip to San Nicolas implies a chance of encountering unstable weather. A day of unfavorable conditions can result in tough diving in this open ocean environment. However, or those up for the adventure, a good day of weather will result in one of the most unique and unforgettable dive experiences you can have at the Channel Islands.


San Nicolas Island shows signs of habitation that date back over 10,000 years. The native peoples that most recently occupied the island are referred to as “Nicholeños,” who had their own distinctive language and culture, though they were probably related to the Tongva people who lived on Santa Catalina Island. The name the Tongva have for San Nicholas is ‘Haraashngna.’ We do not know much of the language or history of the Nicholeños, as the large majority of their population was evacuated and assimilated into the California mission system. Their language became extinct soon after.

The person who would become the most famous resident of San Nicholas Island was left behind by the Franciscan padres who took the rest of the Nicholeños to the California missions. Juana Maria, as she would be known (though her real name was never found out), was the last surviving member of the Nicholeños. She lived alone on the island for 18 years, subsisting on shellfish and seal fat from the Northern elephant seals. Captain George Nidever found Juana Maria on the island in 1853, living in a crude whalebone hut. She was brought back to Santa Barbara, and was the object of much curiosity, becoming well-known for the beautiful songs she would sing. This would be short-lived though, as she died only seven weeks after her arrival to the mainland. Her story was the basis for Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Medal-winning 1961 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins. Academic curiosity about the “Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island” still persists, and after a 20-year search, archaeologists may have uncovered the cave she lived in in 2012.


The ecological diversity of San Nicholas was heavily impacted by sheep ranching for a period of over 80 years. The sheep removed much of the native ground cover until their removal in 1943. This in turn increased the rates of erosion and promoted non-native plant species to spread. Despite the degradation, three endemic plants are found on the island: Astragalus traskiae, Eriogonum grande tamorum, and Lomatium insulare.

The isolated beaches of San Nicholas are anything but lonely during the breeding season of one of the world’s largest seals. The Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) hauls out here to breed each season, with an estimated 23,000 individuals occupying the beachfront to mate and give birth to pups. A bull elephant seal can weigh in at over 8,000 pounds and measure at up to 16 feet from nose to tail. The female is distinctively smaller, “only” weighing in at 2,000 pounds and measuring 12 feet in length. The island is home to about 30 percent of the wide-ranging California population

The dominant plant community on the island is coastal bluff scrubland, with giant coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea) and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) the most visible components. The few trees present today, including California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) were introduced in modern times. However, early written accounts and the remains of ancient plants in the form of calcareous root casts, known as ‘caliche,’ indicate that, prior to 1860, brush covered a portion of the island.

There are only three species of endemic land vertebrates on the island; the Island night lizard (Xantusia riversiana), deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus exterus), and island fox (Urocyon littoralis dickey). Two other reptiles, the common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana), and the southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata) were at one time thought to be endemic, but an analysis of mitochondrial DNA indicates that both species were most likely introduced in recent times.

San Nicolas Island is home to large populations of nesting birds. The two largest nesting populations are the Western gull (Larus occidentalis) and Brandt’s cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus). These birds, along with the Island night lizard were threatened by a large population of feral cats, but after extensive eradication efforts by the US Navy and other organizations, the island was declared free of cats in 2012. The birds and once endangered Island night lizard populations immediately rebounded, and the night lizard was consequently taken off the endangered species list in 2014.

Cortes Bank


Cortes Bank is a chain of underwater pinnacles and plateaus located 137 nautical miles (nm) South by Southeast from Santa Barbara and about 40 nm Southwest of San Clemente Island. Bishop Rock is one of the peaks in the underwater mountain chain that rises to within 6 feet of the surface and is marked by a nearby warning buoy. It was named for the clipper ship Stillwell S. Bishop that struck the rock in 1855 and with a patched hull limped its way back to San Francisco. Nine Fathom spot is about 4.5 miles Northwest of Bishop Rock and rises to about 60 feet below the surface. Both are noted scuba diving locations featuring clear water and abundant sea life.


Scuba diving Cortes Bank with Channel Islands Expeditions is a truly unique experience. It is an open water seamount where currents sweep clean ocean water over the spot and invertebrates cling to the rocks. Sea palms (Postelsia palmaeformis) fixed to the rocks provides shelter for smaller fish and invertebrates that hide amongst its fronds. Large clusters of purple hydrocorals can be seen throughout the area as well as tuna, yellowtail, large schools of baitfish, sea lions, and occasional sharks. Large black and white sea bass are common sights as well California sheep head. Lobster divers continue to make this spot a top priority to visit during season and free divers frequent the area in the spring and summer for yellowtail, white sea bass, and tuna. Wreck diving can also be done at this location on the Abalonia.

Diving at Cortes Bank can be spectacular but anyone who ventures out there needs to be mentally and physically prepared. On any open ocean dive location, one needs to understand that ocean swells and currents are normally present. A flat calm day is rare. When you get good conditions at “The Bank” it will be a dive you will not forget. Sometimes it can be frustrating to get to the bank, but when you do, it can be well worth the effort.


In 1969 a group of promoters bought the World War II surplus troop ship SS Jalisco, renamed her USS Abalonia, and sailed her to the bank intending to sink her in shallow water to form a tax-free island nation and shellfish processing plant. But during the sinking, rough seas broke a mooring line and pushed her into deeper water. Another company planned to build a platform on the bank and form a nation called ‘Taluga,’ but the US government declared that the bank was part of the continental shelf and was US territory. The wreck of the Abalonia today lies in three pieces in about 30 to 40 feet of water. Now, only scuba divers and the vibrant marine life are citizens of this almost-nation.

On November 2, 1985, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise struck Cortes Bank about one mile east of Bishop Rock during exercises, putting a 40-foot gash in her outer hull and damaging a propeller. She continued operations then went into dry dock at Hunter’s Point Shipyard in San Francisco for repairs.

Tanner Bank


Tanner Bank is a chain of underwater pinnacles and plateaus located 120 nautical miles (nm) south by southeast of Santa Barbara, California, and 35 miles West by Southwest of San Clemente Island This bank rises within 80 feet of the surface and is considered one of the best advanced open water dive locations on the California coast. Like Cortes Banks, this seamount is open ocean with exposure to wind, current, and swell. Timing is everything when it comes to a successful day of diving this spot.


Scuba diving with Channel Islands Expeditions at Tanner Bank offers no protection from the weather so anchoring overnight is truly rare. Diving the bank is generally done on a multiple day liveaboard trip when you can take advantage of a weather window and dash out for a day. This dive location is so far offshore and exposed to the elements, so a diver can get a true feeling of open ocean diving that you cannot get next to land.

Under most circumstances this is considered advanced diving. It is deep and there can be current and surge, but the payoff can be huge. Like any other open ocean dive spot, you must be willing to roll the dice and see what Mother Nature will dish out.


This is an open water seamount, so currents sweep clean ocean water over the spot. You’ll find that everything that lives here clings tightly to the rocks. Palm kelp fixed to the rocks provides shelter for smaller fish and sea life that hide amongst its fronds. Large clusters of purple hydrocorals can be seen throughout the area as well as tuna, yellowtail, large schools of baitfish, sea lions, and occasional sharks. Lobster divers have scored well in this location at times and many a sea story have been written once aboard the Truth and Vision