Scuba diving is a truly immersive sport that allows divers to become one with the ocean and see an ecosystem that is invisible from the surface. While Orange County is known for surfing and spectacular beaches, scuba divers are the underrepresented coterie of the O.C.
Snorkeling is a great avenue as well to explore Southern California’s coastal marine life from the surface of the Pacific. If you’re interested in SCUBA diving or snorkeling in Orange County, here are the best places to visit.
Laguna Beach Diving Spots
Laguna Beach is home to some of the best spots for both diving and snorkeling in Orange County. The area brings an artsy crowd and beachgoers alike. Laguna offers great diving and snorkeling because it is home to a marine wildlife reserve which allows fish and wildlife to roam freely. Parking here is a bit of a struggle but there is street parking as well. Bathroom facilities in Laguna are convenient and shops are nearby. Beach entry here is through various staircases that feed directly into sandy beaches.
Each dive spot featured in Laguna Beach is also a phenomenal snorkeling location. Essentially anywhere diving is good in California, snorkeling is inherently good as well so be sure to check out the thick kelp forests and active wildlife either with just a snorkel or a full SCUBA setup!
989 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Shaw’s Cove offers easy beach entry and is nestled beneath multi-million dollar homes. This dive destination is perfect for novice divers. Shaw’s Cove boasts numerous steps, cold water (like every other California dive spot), and difficult parking during peak diving hours in the early morning. This location also allows for more experienced divers to dive the Crevice which is best dove when the surge is still. At the end of the Crevice is the Crescent Bay Arch. In 2018, Beach Cities Scuba voted Shaw’s Cove the number one dive spot in Orange County due to the quality of diving here. Shaw’s Cove also is home to the statue of Shelly who has called Shaw’s home since the early 2000s.
1991 Ocean Way, Laguna Beach 92651
Wood’s Cove, another Laguna dive spot, is popular for a reason. In recent years the entire city has become a protected wildlife preserve for the State Marine Conservation area. The Laguna coast is home to lobsters, sheepshead, Garibaldi (California’s State Fish), nudibranchs, and starfish, just to name a few. Wood’s Cove features an active reef that is home to all of these protected fish and other marine life. Only street parking is available here and can be difficult – especially during the busiest part of the day.
375 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach 92651
Diver’s Cove is good for both novice and advanced divers. The cove is nicely protected making it the perfect spot for beginners. This dive spot also features a northwest-facing reef with vast wildlife. Diver’s Cove is one of the best night dive locations in the area as well. Like much of Laguna Beach, parking can be rough on the weekends and during peak parking hours.
375 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach 92651
Heisler is located in Laguna Beach and home to some of the clearest water in Southern California. Snorkeling and scuba diving are some of the most popular activities to do in this upscale cluster of beaches. Scuba divers can graze the depths of the active seafloor and snorkelers can witness the incredible kelp forests from above. Water temperatures in this area hover between the low 50s and the low to mid-60s in the summer, making divers and snorkelers come in thick wetsuits and booties to stay warm. Beachgoers may also notice from shore the thick kelp forest and active wildlife at the surface. Snorkelers also frequent Heisler Beach to explore the reefs.
100 Barranca Way, Laguna Beach 92651
Nearby is Shaw’s, but Crescent is a different experience. Crescent allows divers to swim out to Seal Rock where you can encounter sea lions up close. Keep swimming another 200 yards and you’ll come to Dead Man’s Reef. It’s a long surface swim away from shore but truly worth it once you are out there. This remote underwater site is teeming with some of Southern California’s best marine species. Parking here, like much of Laguna, is sparse but the site does have some street parking on Cliff Drive and adjacent side streets. Crescent Bay is also a good spot for snorkelers.
Cleo Street Barge
Beach access is via Cleo Street a short distance south of the intersection of PCH and Laguna Canyon.
Cleo Street Barge is a delightful treat for scuba divers who want to essentially do a boat dive without the cost. Cleo Street Barge, also known as Foss 125, is one of the only wreck dives in the area that you can do from a beach entry. While it is a long surface swim, it is a great spot. Drop down to about 45 feet to find the wreck. Max/Min depths are 0′ – 52′. The Cleo Street Barge was built in 1919 as the USN YC-470. While operating in Laguna Beach it was known as the “Foss 125” and sank during a wind storm.
Boat diving in California is an experience in the coldest water and some of the best reefs on the west coast. This type of diving is great to do when conditions are not the best and for a different experience that is truly unforgettable. While Catalina diving is the go-to for Southern California divers, there are several other boat diving options as well.
Riviera Dive Boat
The Riviera Dive Boat is the only dive boat based out of Dana Point Harbor. The dive boat offers tanks, weights, and food. The Riviera is a Coast Guard-approved boat that accommodates 20 divers (14 divers now due to COVID-19 modifications). The charter during this time requires passengers and crew to wear masks. This dive boat is a two-tank dive boat that offers explorations in San Clemente, Laguna Beach, Dana Point, and Newport Beach.
The Sundiver is one of the best fleets of boats that a diver can take. The Sundiver is a well-guided fleet that consists of four boats and goes to various spots. Sundiver is a liveaboard that accommodates 22 divers and goes to dive spots such as Santa Barbara Island and San Clemente Island. Sundiver II is a certified lifeguard and rescue boat that can accommodate up to six divers and is used for research projects and search activities. Sundiver III is an inflatable boat that works in conjunction with Sundiver Express to accommodate 22 divers on day dive trips to Catalina. Sundiver is truly a great way to see California diving in a fast and fun way!
Not in Orange County, but any local diver must visit Avalon on Catalina Island, home to some of the best diving in California. Catalina’s Dive Park is a short boat ride away and offers tourists, locals, divers, and snorkelers alike the opportunity to see clear waters, giant black sea bass, lobster, garibaldi, sheepshead, and so much more.
Avalon is home to the only nonprofit underwater dive park in the country where divers can find great conditions and a combination of a boat and beach dive. Right at the tip of Casino Point sits the 2.5 acre protected park. The point is home to Dive Park which offers one of the areas biggest and best ecosystems possible.
While the water is cold year-round, the visibility is incredible in the fall and winter (up to 100 feet) offering divers and snorkelers crystal clear water to explore and enjoy. Water temps are the typically high 60s to low 70s in the summer and early fall and the water temps dip to the low to mid-50s in the fall and winter.
Much like Laguna, Catalina being so deeply protected allows for magnificent wildlife and breathtaking kelp forests. The Dive Park offers dive and snorkeling rentals nearby and bathrooms 200 yards from the beach entry. Once divers and snorkelers are done in the water, you can enjoy the beauty and small-town vibe of Avalon.
Whatever your favorite water activity is, Orange County is the best place to find inexpensive and fun diving or snorkeling spots. Whatever place you chose is it sure to be a great time on the water!
Best Time to Dive in Southern California
Diving in Southern California can be enjoyed all year with some obvious considerations that the winter months (December-February) will be cooler than the summer months (June-August). The best season to see bigger animals starts from spring through late fall. Gray whales typically pass through from mid-December to mid- April. Visibility can be better in the fall when there is less wind compared to the spring.
Regardless of what time of year you go, a 7mm wetsuit is a must. Many people also wear a hood and gloves year-round.
Visibility is often between 10-20 meters. Southern California waters are chilly. Water temperature (at depth) can range from 68°F (20°C ) during the summer with waters staying between 57-59°F (14 -15°C ) in the winter. The water temperature generally reaches its warmest around October, after it has been heated by the summer sun. The coldest months are January through March.
7mm wetsuits are recommended as well as gloves year round. Drysuit diving is also very common, especially in the winter.
Not ready to dive but still want to check out the Southern California? Try these Orange County tidepools.
Marine Life while Diving in California
- Harbor Seal
- California Sea Lions
- Humpback Whales
- Wolf Eel
- Moray Eel
- California Two-Spot Octupus
- Green Sea Turtle
- Large Schools of Fish
- Giant Black Sea Bass, Sand Bass, Kelp Bass
- Halibut, Garbaldi, Sheephead, Senoritas, Sculpin
- California Scorpionfish
- Pacific Seahorse
- Pacific White-sided dolphins
- Pacific Barracuda
- Torpedo, Bat Rays
- Round Stingray
- Catalina Goby
- Spiny Lobstert
- Angel Shark
- Leopard Shark
- Hermit crabs
- Sponges and anemones
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Rebecca has an undeniable love of writing and recently graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. She enjoys watching hockey, scuba diving, swimming, and working out.