Santa Catalina Island: An Enchanted Forest in the Sea

On Santa Catalina Island off California, memories are made.
Santa Catalina Island: An Enchanted Forest in the Sea raphoto

At first, I panicked. Which was appropriate, I think, given that I was underwater and suddenly unable to move. I was just off Santa Catalina Island, diving from the back of a friend’s express cruiser after zipping over to Avalon Bay from Los Angeles that morning. We were in the giant kelp forests, and I was in a trance watching the way the stories-tall “trees” swayed with the pull and push of the water. I had seen massive sea fans in the Caribbean and giant sequoia trees in the Pacific Northwest, but never this sort of mashup of the two, with sunlight peeking through to create a kind of stained-glass underwater scene, all in blues and greens.

And then, I was stuck. It took me a few seconds to realize that giant kelp, when they sway, can snag on a scuba fin. One of the towering algae plumes had grabbed me. My dive buddy up ahead was carrying the knife, and my fingers were no match for the tangle. My only choice was to embrace the beauty that comes with being caught in nature’s net.

It looked a lot like the photograph at bottom right, and I felt a world away from the scene just above the surface, of all the boats dotting Avalon Bay. This is a place where Californians cruise for everything from a day trip to a New Year’s Eve weekend on the hook, but just a couple dozen feet underwater, all the noise goes away. The kelp forests are a theater where fish play peekaboo: Some bright-orange Garibaldi eyeballed me as I floated there like a fixture. They swam, and the light twinkled and the kelp waved from side to side, to the front and back, and all around. As I hovered with the stalk attached to my foot, it felt like we were dancing with one another.


Soon enough, my dive buddy cut me free, and we got back on the boat. We hadn’t even gotten ashore yet for a look around, let alone to sample the hiking trails and scenic overlooks and land tours where buffalo graze, and yet I already knew that Catalina Island offered some of the best views of my entire boating life.

Remain calm, I thought, wondering what we’d see next.


Tour a Landmark

The Catalina Casino opened in 1929 and remains a coastline icon today. Despite its name, it offers no gambling; a theater is inside, showing first-run movies every night of the week. Given Catalina’s close cruising distance (about 22 miles) to Los Angeles, the theater once was a yachting destination of choice for such Hollywood titans as Cecil B. De- Mille and Samuel Goldwyn. Tours are available.


Take a Scenic Walk

Lover’s Cove, shown at right, is within walking distance of Avalon, shown at left. If you don’t have snorkeling gear, kayaks, paddleboards and the like aboard, you can rent them for the day in town.

Santa Catalina Island
Lover’s Cove: Just east of Avalon (and Catalina Casino), this cove is popular with snorkelers and kayakers. Christopher Hudson

Dive the Kelp Forests

Underwater scenes of giant kelp are to Catalina Island what coral reefs are to the Caribbean. Scuba enthusiasts flock to these kelp forests, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fish, sea lions and other wildlife that hide here from predators. The kelp forests themselves are beautiful too — and known to snag the occasional diver’s fin or air tank. Bring along a knife and your best underwater camera.

giant kelp
Underwater Beauty: At a foot a day, giant kelp is one of the fastest growing things on Earth, and it can reach 150 feet. Divepic
Old Surgarloaf Point
The Old Surgarloaf Point: Chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. first cleared the point that now houses Catalina Casino. Karyono Sim