Guide to Central California Shore Diving (Monterey & Carmel) Dive Sites Ranked

There are dozens of dive sites in our local area all with their own features that make them unique.  Wether you are diving, or freediving these are all sites worth checking out.  This is going to be a down and dirty guide to the well known sites in this area, best way to reach them and what to expect.  I will be doing my best to rate these sites in terms of ease of diving and quality of diving.  The sites will be listed in order of easiest to hardest to dive and a score out of 10 will be given for the quality of diving.  Obviously these are objective opinions based on my diving experience in the area but I feel I have a pretty good feel for many of these well known dive sites.

Monterey:

  1. Breakwater/ San Carlos Beach:  (4/10) This site is probably one of the most well known dive sites in central California, and the primary place for dive shops to conduct certification dives.  It is a very easy entry into the water and the location is tucked into Monterey so only the largest swells prevent diving.  There is a lot of sand at this site and divers will only have 3 options to explore the wall, middle reef, and the pipe/ medtridium fields.  For first diving experience or first California diving experience this is a good ice breaker but due to the high volume of divers, and silty bottom this dive site is more like a bunny slope, a good taste of diving but will not leave you satisfied like other sites.  Breakwater does actually have a decent variety of fish and creatures to see but does not have the volume of life that other sites have, it is one of the best places to have an encounter with Sea Lions though.  If you are new to diving or conditions are not looking great this is the place you will probably dive.  Average Max depth 40-50ft.
  2. Maccabee Beach: (6/10) This dive site is located between Breakwater and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  It is a moderately protected location but does get more waves than Breakwater.  The bottom structure is more interesting with much more rock structure, thicker kelp forest and old pipes and chains left from the old canneries.  If you are able or willing to swim out or have access to a boat there are some deeper rock structures large boulders that have large crevices that ling cod and cabezon like to occupy.  There is still a fine sand at this site so it can get stirred up but generally less divers so it doesn’t feel so crowded.  Average Max depth 35-80ft depending on where you go there are plenty to see in the shallows.
  3. Otter Cove/Lovers Point: (6/10) This dive site is unique because on the western side of the point which otter cove is located fishing/spearfishing is allowed.  This makes it a popular dive site for spearfisherman especially when the swell is a little rougher.  there are multiple entry points with stairs down to small beaches.  This dive site it is best to focus on the center of the cove where most of the structure and kelp is.  It does stretch a good amount of distance but is speckled with low rubble and mini pinnacles throughout.  This is a great place to get into the kelp and just wander.  The deeper portion of this site turns to sand so if your are looking to simple navigation you can stick to the outer edges.  Average Max depth 40-50 ft.
  4. Coral St/ Chase Reef: (7/10) This site is located just before Point Pinos and is much more subject to swell affecting its dive ability.  When it is dividable I believe it is one of the best shore dives in Monterey, There is a bit of a swim to get to the more interesting structure but well worth it.  The kelp forrest at Chase Reef stretches on and on and has a huge abundance of life.  This site is similar to Otter Cove in the low lying rubble with pinnacles scattered about but the pinnacles are much larger.  This site also gets much deeper than lovers with the shallower portions about 35 ft and can get deeper than 90 ft.  A very good quality dive site but more dependent on the swell than the others listed so far.  This site is best suited for more experienced divers.

Carmel:

  1. Still Water Cove/ Pebble beach: (7/10) This dive site while it is accessible from shore it is an extremely long surface swim.  To be honest if you don’t have a boat or a kayak you should not consider this site.  But if you are willing to attempt it you will find just beyond the first set of rocks out from the pier there is some wonderful structure with canyons and pinnacles, tons of kelp and plenty of fish.  Even Farther out there is Peekaboo rock which is were you can reach some real depth, and if you are lucky can find some of the large swim throughs in the reef.  This site is really broken into 3 parts the interior bay between the rocks and the pier, outside of the rocks and peekaboo.  Max Depth for interior are about 15ft, you want to get outside the rocks, beyond the rocks it drops to 40-60ft, and at peekaboo it can get deeper than 100ft.  Once again this is a site best suited for a dive kayak or boat.  Biggest benefit to this site is it is south facing and usually protected when many other sites are blown out by the swell.
  2. Butterfly House/ Carmel River: (8/10) This may be one of the more iconic sites in carmel marked by a house on the coast with a scalloped roof that looks like wings.  There are multiple entry points and limited parking, so getting there early is key.  This dive site has plenty of Granite structure with kelp pinnacles and canyons with depths that range from 20ft-90ft.  In my opinion it is best to enter from the rocks on either the left or right side of butterfly house and to explore from there entering on the beach there is a long swim and lots of bull kelp to fight through to get to some of the better structure.  The biggest down side to this site is its location, it is situated in such a way that regardless of swell direction it tends to get hit no matter what.  This site is best dived when the swell is very small, which can be tricky to get the timing right.
  3. South Monastery: (9/10) This dive site is one half of probably the most infamous sites on the central coast, its steep burn, large particle sand, and shore break can be deceptive to divers that are not familiar.  But learning how to dive this site provides vast rewards.  The South side of the beach is usually a little calmer being tucked in the southern corner of the Carmel Bay.  There is great structure but usually requires a longer swim to get to the more interesting locations, but provides a very large area to explore.  You will need dozens of dives to truly explore the vastness of South Monastery, this is best explored with kayak, but a fair amount can be done with surface swim for the devoted.  The farther around the corner you explore the more extreme the structure get with canyons, valleys and pinnacles all over.  Large fish are a common site because it is part of the Point Lobos MPA so No Take of any fish, invertebrates or shells.  This site is best capitalized on a south swell, this will provide adequate protection to easily enter and exit the water.  Also for dives at Monastery south or north always be prepared to exit the water using the Monastery Crawl if you don’t know about it you shouldn’t be diving at Monastery.
  4. North Monastery: 9/10 This like South Monastery has all of the same hazards for diving and is best avoided if there is significant swell, even if the waves don’t look very powerful they are deceptive and will even give seasoned divers trouble.  Beyond that the North site has a much smaller footprint, with a reef that can easily be fully explored in a handful of dives.  It does get deeper much faster reaching the northern end of the Carmel trench within swimming distance giving access to deep dives very readily max depths can be more than 120ft although the most interesting stuff can be found between 20-60 ft.  There is plenty of kelp and rock structure at this site with more big fish and usually a school of blue rock fish.  Most iconic kelp pictures taken in Monterey/Carmel that are published are taken at North Monastery, when you dive there you will see why.  This is a very difficult site if you are not familiar with this beach, so it is best to make sure your first dives are with someone that is familiar with diving this beach.
  5. Point Lobos: 10/10 This is the best place to dive if you are able, with that there are some things to be aware of, you need to make a reservation to dive Point Lobos, and you must dive with a buddy.  The reservations require that 2 divers are signed up. This site does have a very easy entry a boat launch ramp, but it can be slippery so watch your step.  The entry point in whalers cove is very protected and usually the easiest place to dive in all of Carmel.  There are 2 diving areas Whalers Cove, and Bluefish Cove.  Whalers is very easily accessed with nice structures canyons, walls, pinnacles and lots of kelp, getting moderately deep at about 70ft.  If you are willing to make the swim or have a kayak, Bluefish Cove is by far one of the best dives on the central coast.  Bluefish offers more extreme structures, deeper water, more fish, and stunning colors.  You can easily find yourself deeper than 100ft but the best stuff is in the 40-80ft range.  An amazing dive site that is perfect for photography with dramatic structure and an abundance of life.

There is no doubt that Monterey and Carmel Have amazing diving, if you enjoy shore diving these are some great sites worth checking out.  Make sure if you are unfamiliar with diving this area it is best to dive with someone that is or hire a guide.  Many of these sites can be difficult to dive depending on conditions so it is best to consult with your local dive center to determine when to experience some of the more difficult dives.  With that being said in diving there is also no guarantees so surge, visibility and fish density can change from dive to dive, so experience these sites as much as you can to get all the best they have to offer.

Happy Diving everyone, Be safe and blow some bubbles.

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