Last Updated: Apr 05, 2013
The indigo waters surrounding the Catalina Islands serve as a haven for a spectacular array of marine life. Made up of 20 small islands, the Catalina archipelago is a scuba paradise. Divers take the plunge in hopes of sighting one of the many species of rays known to dwell in the islands' waters such as spotted eagle rays and devil manta rays. For those who prefer an above-water adventure, birdwatching boat tours are another popular activity on the islands' waters.
Trolling the Catalina Islands' waters on a boat tour is a top pick for the birdwatchers out there. Glide along and search for diverse species of birds including frigate birds, brown boobies and spoonbills. The tropical Bridled tern nests here from March to September.
Divers should swim between January and March – the best time to swim among bat rays, spotted eagle rays, stingrays, cow-nosed rays bullseye electric rays and devil manta rays. An awe-inspiring sight is to look up and see the giant manta ray floating above you. These underwater beasts have a stunning average wingspan of 14 to 20 feet (4 to 6 m.)!
Rays also swim alongside a diverse array of other marine life. These waters are home to tropical fish such as the lemon-colored barberfish, bright-striped Cortez angelfish and spiny scorpionfish. Divers can also come face-to-face with king angelfish, starfish, sea fans, Moorish idols (crowned scythes), green moray eels, octopi, sea fans, sea turtles and white-tip reef sharks.
If you're lucky, scuba tours are known to sometimes spot Spinner dolphins, Humpback whales, Pilot whales, Orca (killer) whales, Whale sharks and Tiger sharks. The best time for whale watching is between September and March – when visibility is at its best.
The Catalinas offer a wealth of dive sites to explore:
- Big Cupcake: Massive schools of neon-purple and bright-blue King anglefish occupy the waters at Big Cupcake. Depth: 45 to 120 ft. (roughly 14 to 36 m.).
- Little Cupcake: Similar to its big sister, Little Cupcake is a top destination to spot Parrotfish, often swimming among schools of King anglefish. Depth: 45 to 100 ft. (roughly 14 to 30 m.).
- Big Catalina ("Catalina Grande"): One of the favorite sites for seasoned (and brave) divers, Big Catalina is known as the best spot to witness whitetip reef sharks and Giant manta rays. Depth: 45 to 120 ft. (roughly 14 to 36 m.).
- Two Hats ("Dos Sombreros"): This dive site is marked by two small islands, which jut out of the water to create rock formations that resemble a pair of Mexican sombreros. Steep, underwater rock walls provide great opportunities for marine life encounters. Depth: 45 to 120 ft. (roughly 14 to 36 m.).
- Elephant ("Elefante"): A hotspot for rays and whitetip reef sharks. Depth: 45 to 100 ft. (roughly 14 to 30 m.).
- Dangerous ("Peligrosa"): Despite its name, "Peligrosa" is equally as safe as other Catalina dive sites. A great pick for underwater coral formations. Depth: 45 to 100 ft. (roughly 14 to 30 m.).
- Dirty Rock ("Roca Sucia"): Also known as The Widow, this dive site is one of the best at Catalina. Dirty Rock is named for the bird droppings that decorate its above-water cliffs. Visibility is consistently clear and marine life is plentiful. Depth: 45 to 100 ft. (roughly 14 to 30 m.).
The best way to reach the Catalina Islands is to take a car or shuttle to Flamingo (30-minutes), where you can then hop on a boat to zip out to the islands. Scuba and birdwatching tours generally include shuttle service and depart daily from Playa Flamingo, Playa Conchal, Playa del Coco, Papagayo and Tamarindo. Catalina Island dives can also be combined with a visit to the Bat Islands, locally known as the "Islas Murcielagos".