If you’re a diver in California, you know that much of the diving in the state is from the rocky shore.
While the conditions can make diving more difficult along the Pacific Coast, the beauty of the kelp forest habitat makes diving here worth the bigger effort!
In San Francisco Bay specifically, however, the shoreline is shallow, muddy, and not the most shore-dive-friendly environment.
The tides get very low, the bottom is very dirty and difficult to trudge through to enter the water, and the bay is generally void of life.
So where should you go to dive if you live in the San Francisco Bay area?
This article will guide you through the best dive regions and specific sites surrounding the city.
- Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary, Fanny Shoal, Hurst Shoal
- Monterey Bay
- Shoreline North to Mendocino
- Farallon Islands
- Point Lobos and Carmel Bay Reserves
- Lake Tahoe
- Diver’s Guide to the the San Francisco Bay
Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary, Fanny Shoal, Hurst Shoal
This region is the closest spectacular diving location to San Francisco, but it is not generally available to the recreational diving community.
A permit is required to dive in Cordell Marine Sanctuary for either scientific or educational purposes.
These dive spots are 40-50 miles off the coast of the city, just North of the Farallon Islands (discussed below) and therefore only accessible by boat when in possession of required permits.
Monterey Bay is the closest accessible recreational diving area to San Francisco that offers a wide variety of dive sites. Known for its wildlife diversity, Monterey Bay boasts a deep canyon right offshore that ensures consistent upwelling of rich nutrients, and this creates a diver’s paradise!
There is a huge number of shore dives in the area, and dive boat charters are also active out of the bay.
If you take a scuba certification course through a dive shop in San Francisco, Monterey Bay is likely to be the place your certification dives take place!
You can also choose a dive shop in Monterey for your certification course, like Bamboo Reef.
Here are some well-known dive spots to check out in Monterey:
Protected from the rough open ocean, this cove is a great spot for beginners and is a macro photographer’s heaven.
With tons of nudibranchs, lobster, and bright corals, it is also an easily accessible spot from shore for night diving.
This pinnacle is diveable for beginner to experienced divers due to its shallower position, and is known for being covered in strawberry anemones and colorful fish.
Divers have to grab a boat out to experience this wonderful site.
Hopkins Marine Station
A short boat ride out from the marine station, divers can explore a reef system next door to Monterey Bay Aquarium that’s been protected since 1931, searching the kelp forest and eelgrass beds for octopus and other amazing critters.
This spot is used often for marine biology or ecology research dives with Stanford students, so you know there’s great stuff to see!
This site is a great shore dive for beginners if they have shore diving experience, but could be difficult for shore diving novices due to the rocky entry.
However, it’s a shallow site with ample kelp beds and small pinnacles, so the dive is not too advanced once the diver is in the water.
This varied topography offers so much life to explore that divers can return to the site again and again, seeing new life each dive. One of the top san francisco dive sites no doubt.
Shoreline North to Mendocino
If you’re simply looking for shore diving that’s as close to San Francisco as possible, there are a few sites just North of the city that can work for a half day or full day dive trip.
To dive this area of shoreline through a shop, you can book guided trips with Sonomoa Coast Divers or other shops in Sonoma County.
You can also plan a trip with a dive buddy if you have shore diving experience.
Either way, be prepared to cancel the dive upon arrival if the conditions are unsafe, and reduce your chances of a cancelled dive by studying the swell and tide conditions before you arrive. This is the drill for any shore diving in California.
For those of you that are reading this article to find out about the great white sharks, here is where to find them! 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, these formidable islands are nestled in a marine reserve that is larger than the state of Rhode Island.
The islands are famed for acting as a sanctuary to a variety of marine birds, thousands of seals and sea lions, and of course they are renowned for hosting great white sharks (generally in the fall) for part of their annual migration.
During the couple of months white sharks are around the island–roughly September to November–divers and snorkelers, alike, flock to experience the cage interactions with great whites.
Cage experiences with the sharks are full day trips, leaving from San Francisco ports.
Many of the day trip operators have gone out of business, so to dive or get cage experiences on these islands it is now generally required to book a group trip through a travel agency or hire a private boat charter (only hire a boat and captain that has experience traveling to Farallon Islands).
When the sharks have moved on, recreational diving takes place around Middle Farallon Island and Noonday Rock pinnacle during the spring and summer.
Be sure to have your advanced and nitrox scuba diving certification, with experience in tougher conditions, before diving here outside of a cage.
Point Lobos and Carmel Bay Reserves
Carmel Bay is known in California as one of the most beautiful stretches of beach you will ever encounter.
What many may not realize is that these iconic California cliffs overlook a marine reserve that also offers some of the most amazing underwater life in the US (and many would argue, the world).
Here are some of the hot dive sites:
Nestled in a relatively shallow, protected cove, this is a fairly easy dive full of colorful life scattered across the unique pinnacle formations and swim throughs.
While there are shelves to explore in shallow water, the outer edges of the pinnacles drop off to deeper than 100 ft with no bottom.
It is best to have more than 25 dives under your belt with confidence in your buoyancy before diving a formation like these pinnacles.
North Monastery Beach
Dubbed “The Trench” because of it’s diver access to the Monterey Canyon, upwelling ensures that abundance of wildlife at this dive site.
Be warned — conditions can get rough during the 200 yard surface swim, and the site is essentially a wall with no bottom, so make sure you’re an advanced California beach diver before visiting this site.
At these dive sites, you enter through Whaler’s Cove into the wondrous topography of scattered boulders and kelp forest, and if you continue out you will reach a sandy trench and deeper waters off a wall to the East.
Divers can also surface swim or kayak around to Bluefish Cove to access a giant sea wall starting at 40 ft and sloping down below 100 ft.
At Whaler’s Cove and anywhere else within the Point Lobos Reserve boundaries, divers must reserve a permit to enter (boaters and kayakers, too).
Mini caves and overhangs, pinnacles, and walls scatter the area, making it a coveted scuba location.
Situated in between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is an off-the map, under-represented dive location.
If you’re looking for a truly unique dive experience in a region with lots of other outdoor activities to offer, Lake Tahoe should be on your shortlist.
The Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail is one of the more popular dive sites, as it highlights an underwater “trail” of historic barges, boats, and other artifacts.
There are also dive sites around Lake Tahoe that feature sunken forests, shipwrecks and sunken buses, cars, or planes, and sheer cliff faces.
While diving here requires a bit more planning than a day trip to Mendocino or Monterey Bay, it is a popular destination for divers in the San Francisco Bay area.
To prepare for a dive trip to Lake Tahoe, divers can take courses or book dives through Sierra Diving Center, which calls itself the gateway to Lake Tahoe.
Note: You will need to be trained for altitude diving to experience Lake Tahoe dive sites, and the water is cold enough to require a drysuit year-round.
Diver’s Guide to the the San Francisco Bay
When to dive in NorCal
The California Coast is diveable year round, but be warned that the water does get colder between December and April.
The water begins to warm up at the end of spring and usually reaches its warmest in late fall.
That being said, California is considered cold water diving year-round, so do not expect balmy water temperatures at any time of the year in NorCal!
Drysuits are common, and divers can also get away with 7mm wetsuits during the warmer months.
Spring can have low visibility, and fall through winter often has the best visibility, but conditions in California strongly depend on the weather patterns and can often vary greatly from one day to the next.
It is necessary to study resources that predict the conditions of an area before traveling to that site to dive, and cancelled dives are not uncommon during strong weather in California.
Cost of diving in NorCal
Since much of the diving in California is shore diving, the dives themselves are free. Renting recreational gear from a local shop can cost anywhere from $75-$110 for a full kit.
To dive from a boat costs an additional $140 for a 3 dive day.
If you are coming in from out of town and booking a shore dive through a dive shop, the price of the dive guide will vary depending on whether you’re guided with a group of divers, or privately with an instructor.
This can range from $35 per person with a group up to $100 an hour with a private guide.
The cost of the dives will always be in addition to the cost of renting gear, so if you own any gear that will work in cold water, it is worth bringing it with you to save on rental gear costs!
Where to stay
Unfortunately, diving along the California coast has not become a huge tourist attraction the way diving is in many other regions around the world.
Therefore, establishments like all-inclusive dive resorts or hotels that offer guided diving are extremely few and far between – so, diving here requires more planning from the diver.
The best way to plan a dive trip to California is to get in contact with a dive shop near where you plan to visit and ask about recommendations for local dive spots.
Book a hotel close to the dive shop or dive site, and make sure your experience level is solid enough to dive the site without a guide or hire a guide from the shop you speak with/rent gear from.
Local dive shops will usually have information on the best dive sites, how to get to them, where to park, where to find information about dive conditions, etc.
Generally, you will need to hire a guide and plan a dive day ahead of arrival, so do not expect to walk into a shop and walk out with a dive guide the day you want to dive.
Dive guides and instructors in California are usually freelance (don’t work in the industry full time) and need to be scheduled ahead of time.
If you book a space on a dive boat, you can find a dive buddy once you’re on the boat, but there will not be a divemaster leading the dive – you and your buddy will have to plan the dive and navigate yourselves.
It is strongly recommended to hire a guide to dive in California if you do not have experience in cold water conditions or beach diving!
To read a more extensive article about these sites and others along the entirety of California’s coast, check out the Top Diving Sites in California.
Do you agree with this list of the best dive sites in San Francisco Bay area? Let us know what we left out in the comments below!