|Couple great water visibility and awe inspiring underwater terrain covered with a huge amount of colorful marine life and you have the makings of a tremendous dive. Arch Reef off of Santa Barbara Island offers this in heaps.
The reef gains its name from the main attraction of the dive site, a massive underwater arch. Base of the arch, about 60 feet down, is approximately 50 feet wide. Top of the arch is at about 35 feet deep. The reef the arch sits under is about 10 to 15 feet deep. With the usually great visibility, it is possible to set yourself down in the middle and take all of it in with its inspiring beauty. Bright orange garibaldi, pink and black sheephead, green opaleye and señoritas swirl about in the surge backed by a beautiful and lush kelp forest. Schools blacksmith cruise by. Get your dive buddy to pose for size scale and the arch makes for some excellent wide angle-photography.
On either side of the arch are deep crevices inhabited by rockfish, small lingcod, and lobster. Bring a light to explore these interesting environs. Yellow mustard sponges cover sections of the rocks along with dots of orange provided by orange cup coral. Green anemones are prolific on the floor of the arch. There is some macro subject material, but the frequent surge makes sitting in one spot very difficult. To escape the surge, head deeper over to the wall to the south.
The wall here is one of the best in all the Channel Islands. It is especially awesome given the excellent water clarity that is common here. Top of the wall is about 20 feet down and drops vertically to over 80 feet deep. Cuts, cracks and crevices are prolific filled with horn sharks, rockfish, painted greenlings and a variety of types of nudibranches. A cave with lobster can be found at 100 feet. Huge ochre and sun stars are abundant on the rocks below the wall feasting on the mussels that break off in the intense surge from the shallows above. Colorful bat and blood stars are also present.
Attached to the wall are colorful stalks of red gorgonian that make excellent photo subjects against the muted blue-green of the kelp forest. A bit further on, you will come across small stands of purple hydrocoral--more color for the eyes.
As with much of Santa Barbara Island, lobster hunting is good here. Don't look under the arch in the corners as the bugs you will find here are small. Better is the boulders, caves and crevices to the south at the base of the wall and the boulders to the northeast toward the island. Other than lobster, there are spearfishing opportunities for calico bass and sheephead, although most of the big ones are gone. Rock scallops are present but most are small.
Because if its open ocean location, Arch Reef is not always divable. Only experienced skippers should attempt to anchor and make that judgment. Currents and big swells are common. The top of the arch will break and boil is a moderate swell. Because of the surge and the depths possible along the wall, this is a dive for intermediate divers or beginners only when conditions are ideal and with an experienced guide.
Special thanks to the crew of the dive charter boat Sand Dollar for help in creating this article.
Location: Approximately 2/3 of a mile off Webster Point. (GPS N33°28.859', W119°03.749'. Do not use GPS as your sole source of navigation). Use caution as reef breaks in moderate swell.
Skill Level: Intermediate or better
Depths: arch 35 to 60 feet, wall 25 to 80 and deeper.
Visibility: Excellent, averages 60 feet but often reaches 80+
Photography: Excellent wide-angle with arch, kelp and swirling fish. Macro difficult in surge but good along deep wall.
Hunting: Good for lobster. Some calico bass and sheephead but big ones are few. Some rock scallops but most are small.
Hazards: Surge and currents. Depths along wall can be extreme.
Suggested Dive Charter Boats Serving Santa Barbara Island:
Sand Dollar - (877) 444-BOAT
Sundiver - (800) 555-9446
Spectre - (805) 483-6612
Peace - (805) 650-DIVE
Truth/Conception/Vision - (805) 962-1127
Horizon - (858) 277-7823