A YouTube viewer has asked my recommendation for places to skin dive in Santa Barbara, California. Here are my top three spots for anyone who cares to give them a try. Number three required several years of random exploration to find. It would be fun to take my family and GoPro back to these places to relive and share memories which helped mature my spirit for submarine adventure.
1. BUTTERFLY BEACH – Head on down to the Biltmore Hotel and park across the street just in front of the hotel. When you descend the short steps to the beach walk over to the point just in front of the historic Coral Casino club house which is right on the beach. Before you hop in the water, take a moment to imagine Charlie Chaplin, Rock Hudson and other stars of Hollywood’s heyday leaning over the rail above your head and sipping martinis as they admire the water you are about to enter. Put your stuff on the sand or rocks in front of this historic beach house and head straight out into the water. The dive is very shallow (5 to 20 feet max) and full of interest. There’s no big kelp forest here though it’s a fun, safe and exceedingly pleasant dive. When you’re done, dry off and take a stroll though the grounds of the Four Seasons hotel across the street. Admire the Spanish colonial architecture and soak in the opulence of the lifestyle of the 1%. Just don’t track too much sand onto the polished floors.
2. SHARK POINT – Go up to the Mesa and park in the residential area near the long stairway to the beach called “Thousand Steps.” It’s in the area around the homes not far from the elementary school and nature preserve. When you get down to the beach take a left and walk to the first point you come to. There are some sharp rocks against the cliff where you can stash your gear. Don’t worry too much about your stuff as the nudists on the beach haven’t got pockets to put anything in. This place is full of potential. Close in there are some excellent rock formations and open patches of sand to explore in relatively shallow water. When you’re ready, swim past these near formations and out across the open sandy area towards the kelp bed which is located in deeper water. The kelp forest here is about the size of a football field and you can easily spend three years just getting acquainted with all this dive spot has to offer. The shore-side of the forest is in 20-25 feet of water and is an excellent spot to cut your teeth as a new skin diver. When you’re ready, look for the many channels which wind into the thick forest and which lead to the spectacular middle areas which feature huge underwater rooms, corridors and secret spots formed of the kelp. The forest mats very heavy on the surface here, dampening the waves and providing a lovely gloom to the deeper water which runs 30 to 40 feet in this area along a rocky bottom with many channels and a few short sea caves. The outer edge of the forest lies in water 40-50 feet deep moving quickly to an average blue water depth of around 60. Go on a clear day and this outer edge is where you’ll spot big schools of barracuda, fast-moving white sea bass and maybe even a bigger shark than the four to five foot leopard sharks which hunt within and around the forest. I call this place Shark Point as it was here I had my encounter with an enormous deep water shark which followed me for a while along the northern edge of the forest. Look for sea lions and dolphins to pass by during your dive, and if you’re real lucky you might meet gray whales at the outer edge. One time I spotted a blue whale passing just beyond the kelp bed. I was on the cliff at the time surveying the area and was unable to get into the water to meet it first hand. Another time a grey whale jumped clean out of the water not far from me crashing down with the sound of an explosion.
3. BASS CRACK – As the name suggests this is a good place to see enormous calico bass. It’s one of my favorite spots in fact, and a place that got me hooked on exploring the sea alone. This spot is a little hard to find and you’ll need either a good deal of luck or perseverance to locate the exact area. Start at Arroyo Burro beach (aka Hendry’s) at the edge of Hope Ranch. Park by the restaurant on the sand and then start walking south. Again, keep an eye out for the nudists who come here for the same solitude and private moments you seek. My memory is hazy but after about a half mile you should start to survey the ocean. Go at low tide to increase your odds of seeing what I am about to describe. The underwater topography here is mostly sand. However, there is an enormous boulder, roughly the size of a two car garage, situated in 30 feet of water about 100 yards out from the beach. The rock is interesting as it has an enormous crack running right down the middle, almost as though a giant karate expert had given it a rock splitting chop. There’s a small bit of kelp growing nearby which makes a little patch on the surface. If you can find that patch then swim out and check it out. Don’t go to the deep edge of the rock as that’s a special place and if you just barge in you’ll disturb the timid inhabitants there. Instead, locate the lee side of the crack I mentioned and swim down and then move through the crack until you are peeking out into deeper water through the ocean side of the crack. The crack is narrow here and you can easily wedge your body to keep you in one spot. If you are lucky, you’re going to be treated to the sight of some of the biggest calico bass I’ve ever seen which live along the far side of the rock and move like sovereigns as they slowly patrol their domain. If you do a good job of hiding they will swim right past your crack and you’ll get a better eyeful than any aquarium might provide. On days when the visibility is really good watch for the hazy shapes of large, fast moving pelagic fish torpedoing by further out in the deep. Nearby to the south and in deeper water there are a string of boulders leading into 50+ feet of depth which then drop off to 60 feet and deeper as the fine beach sand turns to deep water gravel. There’s adventure to be had out there though watch out for boats as you can quickly find yourself far off shore and in lanes of coastal traffic.Watch out for currents as well in the deep water as more than once I’ve had to fight the good fight to make it back to land.