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La Jolla Underwater Park: Water Sports and Sea Life Galore

The scene off the coast of La Jolla is usually bustling with activity. You’ll see kayakers glide through the water, swimmers head out for morning exercise, and the occasional snorkeler leisurely surface and submerge. What they’re all actually doing is enjoying a somewhat hidden gem — the 6000-acre La Jolla Underwater Park.

You’re about to know more about this San Diego attraction than most residents do. And, hopefully, you’ll be inspired to responsibly explore it in the variety of ways discussed below. No, you don’t need to get wet if you don’t want to.

About the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park

Visitors admire the calm La Jolla Cove water on a sunny day.
View over La Jolla Cove into the underwater park.

The full name for the La Jolla Underwater Park is actually San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. La Jolla resides in the City of San Diego which you can learn more about in my FAQ post about La Jolla, California.

The park was created in 1970 by the City of San Diego to protect the marine life and is divided into two parts: Ecological Reserve and Marine Life Refuge. People spend the most time enjoying the former.

Ecological Reserve

The San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve spans from La Jolla Cove to roughly midway down La Jolla Shores Beach and includes the rocky shores and sea caves in between. The majority of the snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and general enjoyment of the underwater park happens across these 533 acres. Buoys outline the reserve perimeter.

Strict rules enforced by the State of California Department of Fish and Game prohibit disturbing marine life here. You may not fish, surf, boogie board, or scavenge in the reserve. The rules cover plants, animals, and inanimate objects. Yes, this means not even picking up that pretty shell on the beach. Keeping a look but don’t take mantra is the easiest way to abide by these rules. That is unless it’s trash. Please keep an eye out for and take any garbage and micro trash.

Marine Life Refuge

Aerial view of Scripps Pier in La Jolla.
Scripps Pier is used to study ocean conditions and marine biology.

The Marine Life Refuge covers the rest of the La Jolla Underwater Park. It extends a little further west into the ocean and north to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

It’s an academic research area that includes the Scripps Pier which means that of course, the refuge plays an important role in the work of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Recreation like surfing and fishing is okay in this part of the park (with a valid fishing license, of course).

DIKE ROCK TIDE POOLS

Just north of Scripps Pier, you’ll find some of the best La Jolla tide pools at Dike Rock. This part of the park has less strict rules, but it’s best practice to leave everything as you found it (with the exception of trash, of course). The animals use the shells and rocks as their homes.

Exploring the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park does not require a ticket. If you bring your own gear or simply want to see it from above water, the price is free.

The Geography of the Underwater Park

The La Jolla Underwater Park’s four habitats include rocky reefs, kelp beds, sand flats, and submarine canyons. The two canyons, Scripps Canyon and La Jolla Canyon, are among the most studied submarine canyons in the world.

Reefs Benefits: From Small Waves to Great Visibility

Because of the offshore reefs, waves typically break tamely on to La Jolla Shores Beach which is why it is one of the best places in San Diego to launch a kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and even learn how to surf. Two reefs are actually artificial reefs created to create marine life habitats. One is near Black’s Beach and the other is near Scripps Canyon (neither are in the Ecological Reserve).

Snorkeling in Southern California is typically an experience muddled by waves and choppy currents, but not here. Visibility here extends up to 30 feet in the clear water. It’s 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.

Sandy Bottom to Canyon

Surfers paddle out over clear La Jolla water.
Sandy bottom at La Jolla Shores Beach.

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 draw whales close to shore during seasonal migrations.

The largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world happens annually near The Marine Room restaurant on La Jolla Shores Beach. Pregnant females hang out in this warm, shallow water to speed up the incubation progress between June and December, with numbers peaking around August and September.

Two snorkelers swim with leopard sharks in La Jolla.
Really, you can do this. (Photo is courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps.)

Swimmers nearshore often have the opportunity to hang out with them (they are harmless) in knee-deep water. You can read more about the La Jolla leopard sharks.

Life in Kelp Forests

Swim out into the underwater park from La Jolla Cove to the kelp beds where magnificent strands grow up to 100′ 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.

A popular snorkeling and dive site in the Ecological Reserve is called Turtle Town. Why? Green sea turtles are known to feed on the red kelp here.

Visible Sea Life in the La Jolla Underwater Park

No matter how you choose to explore the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, you’re very likely to encounter marine life. I can pretty much guarantee it.

Orange Garibaldi (California’s state fish) are easy to spot swimming below the surface from above water as are dark-colored leopard sharks against the sand flats in shallow 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.

The list of sea animals who live here is quite long, but I’ll give you some highlights.

  • harbor seals
  • California sea lions
  • Garibaldi
  • leopard sharks
  • shovelnose guitarfish
  • bat rays
  • California spiny lobsters
  • Two spotted octopuses
  • sand castle worms
  • California moray eels
  • stingrays
  • kelp bass
  • California halibuts
  • sheephead
  • cabezon
  • gobies
  • sardines
  • rock wrasses
  • sea stars
  • abalone
  • sand dollars
  • zebra perches
  • horn sharks
  • market squid
  • senoritas
  • sheep crabs
  • sea urchins
  • wavy top turbans
  • sea turtles
  • opaleyes

Squid journey to the park to spawn in winter, planting what looks a football field-sized area of white eggs on the ocean floor.

Other fish like shovelnose guitarfish rays, perch, sea bass, and anchovies are common. It is the ocean so, of course, you never know who might swim into view. A hammerhead shark was spotted a few years ago.

La Jolla’s Seven Sea Caves

A kayak tour paddles in front of the La Jolla sea caves.
K Photo from my sea cave kayak tour with Everyday California.

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 reached by only kayak, swimming, or standup paddleboard with the exception of Sunny Jim cave which visitors can actually walk into via an entrance inside of The Cave Store on Coast Boulevard.

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

Scuba divers and snorkelers will obviously have an advantage when it comes to viewing sea life in the kelp forests and on the ocean bottom. However, I can tell you from personal experience that kayaking is also rewarding (and great exercise).

Take a Tour

A number of local businesses lead guided La Jolla Underwater Park snorkeling, kayaking, and scuba diving tours.

I partner with Everyday California to offer kayaking and snorkeling tours of the La Jolla Underwater Park at a discount. My readers love them and their reviews are stellar.

EXCLUSIVE EVERYDAY CALIFORNIA DISCOUNT

Use code lajollamom (enter code and click the green checkmark) for a 20% discount on kayak and snorkeling tours, lessons, and rentals. For 20% off clothes and accessories, use code LJM20. Shop and book now.

Going on a tour regardless of experience will lead you to the popular spots in the large Ecological Reserve more efficiently. You can read more about my sea cave kayaking tour.

Go on Your Own

Bring your own kayak, standup paddleboard, or snorkel gear (fins are advised) to explore on your own. Take advantage of gear rentals by the hour available at a variety of nearby merchants in the La Jolla Shores business district on Avenida de la Playa. Do wear a wetsuit if planning on swimming deeper into the reserve for both warmth and buoyancy.

Two lifeguard towers oversee activity in the park: one at La Jolla Shores and the other at La Jolla Cove. You can always ask a lifeguard if you’re unsure what water conditions are like.

The easiest entry point is from La Jolla Cove because it’s shallow and there are typically no waves. You can walk right in and swim over toward the sea caves passing some rocky reefs and kelp beds along the way.

Another easy entry point is over at La Jolla Shores Beach. You can walk down the access point on the south side of The Marine Room restaurant to where the leopard sharks hang out. If you swim south from here, you’ll reach a shallow reef called Devil’s Slide that is popular for snorkeling. It’s in front of a small crescent-shaped rocky beach near the seventh sea cave. Read my guide about snorkeling in La Jolla.

Enjoy from Land

You can observe and enjoy the La Jolla Underwater Park from these six above-water spots.

La Jolla Cove

The top La Jolla attraction is not only home to our sea lions and a picturesque beach, but it provides one of the best vantage points. You can stay on the boardwalk or perhaps sit on one of the benches here, to look out over the Ecological Reserve to La Jolla Shores Beach.

If no waves are crashing on to the beach, you’ll see how clear the water is. Read my full La Jolla Cove guide for parking information, directions, things to do, and more.

Coast Walk Trail

One of the most scenic ways to enjoy the La Jolla Underwater Park from land is on a walk along Coast Walk Trail between The Cave Store and La Jolla Shores. The trail winds along the top of cliffs along the perimeter of the park.

You’ll see the kayakers, sea lions, kelp, and even some swimming Garibaldi while getting some exercise and enjoying sea breezes.

Goldfish Point

People stand on the trail and viewing platform on Goldfish Point in La Jolla.
It’s best to stay on the viewing platform.

Near The Cave Store, you can walk out on the trail to Goldfish point. Its name stems from the fact that you can see orange Garibaldi swim in the water from viewpoints on these cliffs.

People do walk out on to the point which I don’t encourage for safety and erosion reasons. Take photos and enjoy the panoramic views from the platform. Clam’s Cave, pictured here under Goldfish Point, is the only La Jolla cave visible from land.

La Jolla Shores Beach

Look out into the Ecological Reserve when standing on La Jolla Shores Beach. It’s a lovely walk if you head north toward Scripps Pier along the shoreline. I walk my dogs here in the morning.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Head up to the public outreach arm of Scripps Institution of Oceanography to see fish, kelp, and invertebrates that live in the park. If you’re visiting San Diego with kids, definitely put the aquarium on your itinerary.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps also offers (during normal times) snorkeling with leopard shark tours and pier walks where the public can walk on the Scripps Pier to learn about what scientists are studying there. Tide Pool Plaza has touch tide pools where you can learn about sea animals that live in them but also a panoramic view of the Marine Life Refuge down to the Ecological Reserve.

THE MAP® of the Grand Canyons of La Jolla Educational Plaza (Coming Soon)

In 2008, a giant lithocrete La Jolla underwater park map was installed on the ground at Kellogg Park, near the playground, and steps from the sand. The map started to deteriorate and was removed. Its replacement is in progress but quite extraordinary (and substantially more durable).

THE MAP of the Grand Canyons of La Jolla Educational Plaza is a project between the Walter Munk Foundation and Friends of La Jolla Shores. It continues the legacy of Scripps oceanographer, Walter Munk, who both loved and studied the underwater park.

The 2,400-square-foot gorgeous map features life-sized mosaics of animals that live in the underwater park in addition to dive sites and surf spots. You can view photos and check progress by following @waltermunkfoundation on Instagram. When it’s finished, it will be on my list of things to do in La Jolla with kids as facilities like Birch Aquarium are planning to use it as an educational tool and field trip destination.

Whatever mode of exploration you choose, the La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve 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?

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