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Catalina Island CA is a snorkeler’s paradise just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California. While the topography and architecture draw comparisons to the Italian Riviera, the crystal-clear water and abundant marine life are purely Pacific! The rocky shorelines, underwater rock formations and giant kelp forests draw a unique landscape full of hiding spots for fish and crustaceans. When planning to go snorkeling in Catalina Island, check out these tips to make your trip smooth and carefree.
What Is Catalina Island Known For?
The crown of California’s Channel Islands, Catalina Island is a one-hour boat ride away from Los Angeles. Catalina is known for its idyllic coastal towns, sandy beaches, pristine waters, abundant wildlife, glamorous dining scene, and incredible snorkeling and scuba diving thanks to the fantastic water clarity and abundant sea life.
How to Get to Catalina Island?
While Catalina Island may seem exclusive, this destination is easily accessible for the public. You simply have to be willing to take a boat ride.
The easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to get to Catalina Island is by taking a high-speed passenger ferry boat from ports in mainland California such as Newport Beach, Dana Point, San Pedro or Long Beach. Ferry rides are available to both Two Harbors and Avalon.
Those with the means can get here much faster using private helicopters or planes arriving at Catalina’s Airport in the Sky.
Does Catalina Island Have Good Snorkeling?
Absolutely! Santa Catalina Island is a beloved snorkeling destination that gives travelers coming in from all over the world through mainland Southern California a true getaway! The clear waters here ensure that snorkelers enjoy unobstructed views of the vibrant fish species, giant kelp, and hundreds of other inhabitants.
In fact, the average visibility of 30-40 ft (9.1-12.2 meters) makes Catalina Island have the best underwater conditions for diving and snorkeling in California. Moreover, it is also known as a marine biodiversity hot spot in the region.
Visitors will find many protected areas that are ideal for snorkelers at all levels. While mooring is welcomed at many snorkeling sites, there’s no need to have a boat of your own as there are shore snorkeling spots too where you can just step right in the water to observe fantastic aquatic life!
What Time of the Year Is the Best to Snorkel at Catalina Island?
Catalina Island’s year-round moderate temperatures technically make snorkeling possible all year long. However, winter ocean temperatures averaging 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5°C) can make snorkeling a little too chilly for some, therefore summer is the ideal time for snorkeling off of Catalina’s coast when the water temperature is between 68-70°F/20-21.1°C.
Do You Need a Wetsuit to Snorkel on Catalina Island?
An average annual water temperature of 64-66 degrees Fahrenheit (17.7-18.8 °C) on Santa Catalina Island’s coast means chillier conditions.
Chillier fall and winter temperatures (58-62 °F/14.4-16.6 °C) make a 4-5 mm wetsuit essential for snorkeling on Catalina Island. However, wetsuits aren’t typically necessary in the summer when the ocean temperatures rise to 68-70°F/20-21.1°C.
Of course, it depends on your personal sensitivity to cold water how thick wetsuit you will need or if you even need one. Most rental places on the island will provide you with a wetsuit if you do not have your own.
Best Catalina Island Snorkeling Spots
Casino Point Dive Park (Avalon Underwater Park)
Offering a medley of the best that Channel Island diving has to offer, two-acre Avalon Underwater Park -right in front of the island’s iconic Colosseum-like building- is a world-class diving and snorkeling spot famed for its lush kelp forest, rich marine life, sand flats, apexes, and shipwrecks.
The snorkeling area is roped off; this makes it safe even for beginners as boats cannot enter. Getting to the water is easy and convenient through concrete steps. The water is usually calm here, but be careful as there can be currents from west to east.
Snorkelers usually describe swimming in underwater park as being in a real aquarium! Visitors can expect to encounter up to 60 different species of fish while exploring this jewel of Avalon Bay including kelp bass and garibaldis. An interesting fact is that this bright orange fish was named after an Italian general who was usually wearing an orange shirt and later it became California State Marine Fish!
An undersea monument of Jacques Cousteau can be spotted at 35 feet (10 meters), and also remains of a glass-bottom boat and assorted wreckages at a depth of 60 feet (18.2 meters). However, these underwater attractions can be seen while diving only.
What’s more, a 54-foot-long (16.4 meters), starboard side resting sailboat that was pushed into the rocks during a 1980 storm also haunts the depths here. There’s also a sandy bottom reaching 80ft/24m that’s a hotbed for crawling sea life.
If you are looking for an exceptional hotel nearby, Pavilion Hotel is a great choice conveniently located to everything.
Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve
This stunning rocky beach on the east side of Avalon is Catalina Island’s most popular snorkeling spot. Knowing that this marine protected area is a preferred destination for glass-bottom tours really makes you feel like you’re getting a priceless experience for free.
Entering the rocky shore, snorkelers will need to traverse a few feet of rock before hitting the water. Once submerged, you are treated to a world populated by sheepshead, bass, and garibaldi fish. Sometimes even sea lions can be found playing in the kelp just beyond the cove!
Lover’s Cove has a very shallow entry, but depths reach 20 feet (6 meters) at points. If you want to explore deeper waters with some underwater rock formations too, swim out to the edge of the canyon running parallel to the beach.
Vibrant turquoise waters and silky sand make this one of the most inviting Catalina Island snorkeling places. Snorkelers can expect to encounter starfish, sea urchins, garibaldi, rudderfish, blacksmiths, bat rays, leopard sharks, and sometimes even octopus when exploring the kelp forest beyond the beach here.
The best-kept secret about snorkeling at Descanso Beach is the underwater canyon that often attracts schools of fish and bat rays to its mazes of rock formations. This is the area towards the buoys, so I recommend swimming out there only for good swimmers.
Note that this is a private beach of Descanso Beach Club so you need to pay a small fee to enter this site.
Nestled on Catalina Island’s northern side, Two Harbors is sometimes overlooked by visitors. Those who know about Two Harbors treasure it as a top spot for fishing, kayaking, and snorkeling.
Depths within Two Harbors range from 15 feet to 85 feet (4.5-25 meters). A spot called Isthmus Reef is the highlight of a Two Harbors snorkeling trip. A quick swim from the shore, this shallow reef is known to host large sea bass, leopard sharks, schools of sardines, and more.
A second snorkeling spot called Cherry Cove is ideal for adventurous snorkelers. Featuring an underwater cliff with a steep drop, it is a great spot to see larger marine creatures such as rays and sea lions.
If you are planning to spend more days on the island and looking for a relaxed area to stay in, Two Harbors is an excellent choice! Check out Banning House, a fantastic property set upon the hilltop overlooking the two harbors and the Pacific Ocean!
Home to Catalina’s longest stretch of beach, White’s Landing provides quite an adventure for snorkelers. It is located on the leeward coast of the island, west of Avalon.
Many people pick this as a launch spot because they want to combine snorkeling with kayaking and hiking. There is even a picnic area here, and also a grass volleyball and bocce court making this the perfect spot for spending quality time with your family or friends far from the crowds.
The waters here are famed for being home to both underwater and above-water rock formations. Expect to wade through garibaldis, blennies and Halfmoon fish when exploring the inviting depths here. Spiny lobsters are also known to skitter among underwater rocks. Depths here can reach 60ft/18m.
Accessible only by boat, Gallagher Beach features a stunning, raw shoreline that’s part of a northeast-facing cove. A camp experience called the Campus by the Sea has been operating here since 1951.
Unlike some of the “friendlier” Catalina snorkeling spots, Gallagher Beach does not offer any public facilities. Due to the remoteness of the area, only advanced snorkelers should entertain the idea of voyaging these unspoiled waters. The average depth is about 60 feet here (18 meters) and the usual Catalina Island fish species can be seen swimming in the kelp.
Emerald Bay – Indian Rock
Indian Rock is a gem in the center of Emerald Bay that is a popular spot for mooring due to the fact that it’s so protected. Kelp-sheathed rocks that pop from the water denote the extensive reefs that stretch out from Indian Rock from all directions.
This is a place where divers and snorkelers can realistically expect to be surrounded by thousands of fish at any given moment. Schools of anchovies, mackerels, gobies and garibaldis are especially common as well as octopuses, morays eels, shrimps and small lobsters. If you look closely, you might spot nudibranchs too!
Beginners can enjoy depths of 30 feet to 40 feet (9.1-12.1 meters) on Indian Rock’s western side. For divers, heading seaward brings the most enjoyment. Once the reef drops in the north end to depths of 60 feet (18 m), sea fans can be seen among the kelp.
Bird Rock is credited with being one of Catalina Island’s most diverse snorkeling sites. It is located about 1500 ft (450 meters) off the mainland, on the north side of the island.
The immersed terrain here consists of shallow reefs, steep drops, and a majestic underwater arch. Beginner snorkelers will appreciate the shallow areas for exploration found close to the rocks. Be sure to fix your eyes on the rocks to see dozens of orange garibaldi come into focus around the ledges.
Moving out into the reef brings snorkelers into a gently sloping area. Divers can consider heading deeper down the sea wall’s edge until hitting a vertical drop hitting 20 feet to 85 feet (6-26 meters) at spots.
With the diverse terrain of this diving and snorkeling site comes a diverse array of marine life. A single excursion could include sightings of blue-banded gobies, Spanish shawl, scallops, orange cup coral, spiny lobsters, rockfish, and painted greenlings. In addition, it is common to see sea lions here playing hide and seek in the lush kelp forest!
Home to a scenic cove, Little Harbor is a favorite spot for snorkeling in Catalina Island among both experts and beginners. It is accessible by Safari Bus (Catalina Island bus service) or by an about 5-mile-long (8 km) hike on the Trans-Catalina Trail starting from Two Harbors.
This is also one of Catalina’s largest beaches. Visitors can look forward to calm water conditions due to an outcropping known as the Whale’s Tail. In addition to being an extremely picture-worthy formation, the Whale’s Tail also shields Little Harbor from breaking waves.
The abundant campsites located around this gorgeous sandy beach help to make Little Harbor a great pick when looking for a relaxed spot for spending your Catalina Island getaway. Reservations are required to camp at Little Harbor Campground so think ahead if you wish to spend some time at this scenic location!
Santa Catalina Island is referred to as one of the best places to snorkel in California with good reason. The clear waters are teeming with life providing snorkelers and divers with the opportunity of observing a good variety of marine species. The two most popular and easily accessible snorkel sites are Casino Point and Lovers Cove.
However, as we are talking about the Pacific Ocean, the water can be a bit cold so wearing a wetsuit is necessary year-round except for the peak summer months. Also, sometimes there are strong currents at certain spots meaning that novice snorkelers and those who are weak swimmers should exercise caution when snorkeling in Catalina Island.
How much is it to snorkel in Catalina Island?
Snorkeling is free in Catalina Island when providing your own snorkeling gear as long as you choose to shore snorkel from a public entry point. Those who do not have their own equipment can rent snorkel sets at several spots on the island for a fee of around $20 per day. If you prefer to book a snorkeling excursion, the cost is typically $60 to $125 per person. Most snorkeling tour companies provide all the gear needed.
Is snorkeling free at Catalina Island?
Yes, Catalina Island has many free snorkeling spots offering easy access without the need to hire a charter. In fact, Catalina Island offers a higher number of shore diving spots that are accessible from public beaches and parks. When snorkeling at private beaches such as Descanso Beach, paying a small fee (around $2-5) is required to enter.
What can you see while snorkeling in Catalina Island?
Hundreds of marine life species are teeming in the waters surrounding Catalina Island. The area is thought to have the richest biodiversity in the region. Some of the species that are commonly spotted by snorkelers and divers include garibaldi, lobsters, leopard sharks, horn sharks, starfish, kelp bass, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, moray eels, rudderfish, barracudas, gobies, scorpionfish, blacksmiths, bat rays, nudibranch and the occasional octopus. Moreover, there is a chance to see sea lions too. Sometimes you can even encounter sea turtles swimming around the island, although they are not common.
Are there sea lions on Catalina Island?
Sea lions can be seen year-round on California’s coasts meaning that you can encounter them around Santa Catalina Island too while snorkeling or diving.
Can you see dolphins and whales on Catalina Island?
Although you can’t encounter dolphins or whales while snorkeling in Catalina Island, it is possible that you will see them during the boat ride to and from the island. However, you cannot swim with them as it is illegal in California.
What else can you do on Santa Catalina Island?
There’s so much to explore when you’re not busy snorkeling in Catalina Island! Glass-bottom-boat tours, yacht excursions, beach walks, guided fishing excursions, and sunbathing are all popular activities here. Catalina Island Casino, Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, Green Pleasure Pier, and Garden to the Sky Trail are highlights worthy of any itinerary.
Are there coral reefs on Santa Catalina Island?
Catalina Island does not have coral reefs but does have some corals. It is better known for its extensive Giant bladder kelp forests that provide habitat for a wide variety of marine species.
Can you snorkel on your own in Catalina Island?
Yes, self-guided snorkeling is permitted in Catalina Island. However, it’s recommended that beginners utilize a guided snorkel tour for added safety and enjoyment.
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