Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas: Casino Point State Marine Conservation Area

Catalina Casino, and the adjacent Casino Point State Marine Conservation Area
CDFW photo

California offers some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world, thanks to its magnificent kelp forests. An underwater counterpart to the incomparable redwood forests on land, divers glide through kelp stipes and blades just as birds soar through forest tree branches and leaves. As you gaze down at the sea floor, sunlight filters through the kelp canopy illuminating a spectrum of color below. In southern California, dark red algae sway in the current, lively orange Garibaldi skirt around the edges of rocky crevices protecting their nests of eggs, sea stars of all colors cling to the rocks, and amongst all the vibrant colors the perfectly camouflaged California Scorpionfish hides in plain sight.

Sunlight filters through giant kelp.
photo by C. Wertz

One of the best locations to see this underwater wilderness is Santa Catalina Island, known more simply as Catalina. One of eight Channel Islands off the coast of southern California, Catalina offers some of the best and most accessible diving spots in the state. While many charter boats take divers around the island, a short ride either by ferry, helicopter, or private aircraft to Avalon (the only municipality on any of California’s islands) provides access to one of the best shore dives: Casino Point.

In 1965, the city of Avalon established the Avalon Underwater Park, commonly referred to as Casino Point Underwater Park by locals. In 2012, this same area was formally designated by the California Fish and Game Commission as a marine protected area (MPA) known as Casino Point State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA), a “no-take” SMCA. Casino Point SMCA is one of 50 MPAs in Southern California south of Point Conception, Santa Barbara County, and one of 124 MPAs that make up the Statewide MPA Network.

Casino Point State Marine Conservation Area (click to enlarge)
CDFW map by S. Hubbard

This 2.2-acre MPA lies adjacent to its land-based namesake, the Catalina Casino. Long before it was an MPA, the area was specifically designed to be diver-friendly. Divers can access the typically calm waters by walking down a staircase. Restrooms and lockers are a stone’s throw away from the staircase, and a scuba tank air-fill station is available to those looking to make multiple dives in one day. Once in the water, just a few kicks from the staircase will move scuba divers and snorkelers into a world-class underwater experience.

Renowned for its crystal-clear waters, Casino Point SMCA offers divers visibility of up to 80 feet depending on the time of year, with late summer to early fall typically offering the clearest waters. As snorkelers swim along the sea wall and scuba divers descend into deeper waters, they are surrounded by a beautiful kelp forest bursting with marine life. Kelp Bass, California Sheephead, Señorita, Garibaldi, Blacksmith, and Opaleye are not shy here, with many swimming straight up to you to investigate. Years of protection coupled with permission to feed the fish for viewing purposes means these fish aren’t afraid to get up-close and personal. If you’re interested in feeding the fish it is recommended to use frozen peas in a water bottle rather than feeding from a plastic bag; these fish are looking for an easy meal and won’t hesitate to rip the bag to bits in pursuit of the tasty treats.

For divers looking for a truly magical, once-in-a-lifetime moment, head offshore towards deeper waters where the kelp forest slowly transitions into a sandy bottom seascape. At around 60 feet deep, divers have one of the best chances to spot one of California’s gentle giants, the Giant Sea Bass. This king of the kelp forest can grow more than seven feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds. It was nearly hunted to extinction until 1982 when legislation placed a moratorium on its take in California, which remains in force today.

Giant Sea Bass
Three Giant Sea Bass cruise off the coast of Catalina Island
CDFW photo

While considered critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the population of this massive fish has been slowly recovering, improving the odds of seeing one outside of old fishing photos or aquariums. Even for the most seasoned divers, catching a glimpse of this apex predator is a rare, thrilling, and truly unforgettable event—just remember to keep breathing when you first see them; they are GIANT!

If you want to experience a great dive, with a good chance of seeing some pretty big fish, Casino Point SMCA is the place for you! Whether you have hundreds of dives under your weight belt or have never even snorkeled, exploring the fascinating array of marine life in every nook, cranny, and crevice of Casino Point SMCA will fill you with awe and wonder, and give you memories that will last a lifetime.

Casino Point State Marine Reserve is one of 124 MPAs that are part of California’s statewide MPA network. Please visit CDFW’s MPA website for more information about the state MPA network, and sign up to receive updates about the MPA Management Program.

logo post by Amanda Van Diggelen, CDFW Environmental Scientist


Learn more about MPAs by diving into the
Exploring California’s Marine Protected Areas series!