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By: Todd Lynch
San Diego's kelp forest is a thriving underwater ecosystem, supporting hundreds of species, and providing a unique undersea experience for divers. Kelp (an algae, not a plant) typically grows at depths of 30 to 80 feet, with narrow stalks rising vertically toward the surface by means of air filled bulbs at the base of their leaves. At the surface, these floating treetops form an overhead canopy. Rays of sunlight filter down through the leaves, illuminating the complex interactions of life.
Near the surface, schools of baitfish move in cyclonic patterns, stalked by barracuda and yellowtail tuna. In the rocky reef below, sea stars and sea urchins scour the bottom, as lobsters, morey eels and octopus hide in cracks and caves, waiting for night to feed. Pastel-hued sea fans sway in the surge and gregarious Garibaldi fish guard their nests. Lucky divers are often visited by curious sea lions, soaring and spinning through the kelp stalks, or encounter bat rays resting in the sand.
The best way to dive the kelp may be from one of the specialized charter dive boats that offer trips to the kelp beds off Point Loma and La Jolla, but the easiest is a shore dive starting and finishing at La Jolla Cove. The Cove is part of a long-standing ecological reserve and, as a result, the marine life is especially healthy and exceptionally trusting. With its north-facing orientation, the Cove is reliably calm and clear during the prime summer diving season. A swim of 100 yards or so will take divers to the inner fringe of the kelp forest, where it's not uncommon to encounter large sea bass, or the prehistoric-looking seven gill shark. Snorkelers will enjoy exploring the grassy shallows within the Cove itself or, on a calm day, the sea caves and sea lion colony just around the corner.
Other fine shore dives, conditions permitting, can be found along the reefs extending south of La Jolla Cove to Bird Rock, or on the wall of the submarine canyon that begins just off the south end of La Jolla Shores Beach. Spearfishing enthusiasts and lobster hunters should check with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to determine locations, seasons, size and catch limits for the different game they plan to hunt. Fishing, diving and specialty spearfishing shops can help get you outfitted and on the right track.
To experience the kelp forest and California diving at its best, consider an all-day boat trip to the nearby Coronado Islands, or a live-aboard adventure to the Southern Channel Islands, where the water visibility can exceed 100 feet and the animal life always seems to be wilder and woolier. Or, for the adventure of a lifetime, take a five-day expedition to Baja's Guadalupe Island, where you can cage dive with great white sharks (no scuba certification required)!
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