The scene off the coast of La Jolla often looks like an average California. Kayakers glide through ocean water, swimmers head out for morning exercise and the occasional snorkeler leisurely surfaces and disappears underwater.
Snorkeling in Southern California is typically an experience muddled by waves and choppy currents, but our clear water showcases vibrant sea life due to conditions provided by a somewhat-hidden gem—a 6000-acre underwater marine park. Surprisingly, many residents and tourists are either unaware of this must-see San Diego attraction or unsure of how best to explore it.
In this post, I’ll quickly discuss why you should add the La Jolla Underwater Park to your San Diego itinerary. Next, I’ll tell you what it’s like to kayak it with Everyday California.
The Geography of the Underwater Park
The underwater park’s four habitats include rocky reef, kelp bed, sand flats, and a submarine canyon.
Because of the reefs, waves break tamely on to La Jolla Shores beach which is why it is one of the best places in San Diego to launch a stand-up paddleboard, kayak and even learn how to surf. Visibility usually good enough for underwater photography—it’s one of the best places for photography in La Jolla—and water was crystal clear the other day when I was kayaking.
A shallow sand flat extends gradually into the ocean from the beach until a sudden, roughly 500-foot drop leads to the canyon. This deep water combined with rich food sources are reasons why whales are visible so close to shore during seasonal migrations.
Swim out into the underwater park from La Jolla Cove to the kelp beds where magnificent strands grow up to 100ft tall in the deep water. The forest of California giant kelp will catch your eye, if it hasn’t woven around your legs first, when you reach it.
Buoys outline the perimeter of the underwater park’s designated Ecological Reserve, the most protected zone where fishing and scavenging is strictly prohibited. However, it is O.K. to cast a line outside of this area (with a valid fishing license).
Visible Sea Life in the La Jolla Underwater Park
Scuba divers and snorkelers will obviously have an advantage when it comes to visible sea life, though some say the bubbles produced from scuba tanks tend to scare away leopard sharks.
Orange garibaldi (California’s state fish) are easy to spot swimming below the surface from above water as are leopard sharks, though in shallower water.
It’s impossible to miss the various seals and sea lions lounging on the cliffs and swimming in the water. They’re quite vocal, too.
Pregnant female leopard sharks use the warm shallow waters of La Jolla to incubate prior to giving birth. In fact, swimmers near shore often have the opportunity to hang out with them—they are harmless—in knee-deep water.
Squid journey to the underwater park to spawn in winter, planting what has been described as a football field-sized area of white eggs on ocean floor.
Other fish like shovelnose guitarfish rays, perch, sea bass, and anchovies can also be seen. You may have heard recent reports of a hammerhead shark sighting. It is the ocean so, of course, you never know who might swim into view.
La Jolla’s Seven Sea Caves
Adding to the area’s mystique are the seven sea caves set in 75-million-year-old sandstone bordering the La Jolla Underwater Park. All are accessible via kayak or SUP with the exception of Sunny Jim’s cave which visitors can actually tour via the Cave Store on Prospect Street.
Only Clam’s Cave (pictured above) is visible from the shore. Interestingly enough, some of the caves were used for smuggling contraband to town during Prohibition.
How to Explore the Underwater Park
A number of local businesses lead guided diving, snorkeling and/or kayak tours of the La Jolla Underwater Park. It is also possible to bring your own kayak or SUP to go it on your own (rentals by the hour are available at a variety of nearby merchants).
Those not ready or old enough to step into the water can check out the giant lithocrete underwater park map installed on the ground at Kellogg Park, steps from the sand at La Jolla Shores beach. And, of course, a walk along the cliffs around La Jolla Cove provides a spectacular view of birds, seals and those exploring the park.
Whatever mode of exploration you choose, the La Jolla Underwater Parks is one of the best things to do in La Jolla. Don’t miss it.
What’s the coolest sea life you’ve seen in the underwater park? Or, how do you like to explore it?