California Marine Life
California has some of the most diverse marine life in the world. It's underwater reefs and kelp forests support thousands of species of fish and invertebrates. Divers and underwater photographers looking for California marine life will see seals, large schools of fish, colorful invertebrates and giant kelp forests. Diving underwater in the Channel Islands or Monterey is the best way to experience this amazing underwater marine life.
For a great selection of fun-reading articles on Southern California marine life, visit Bill Bushing's page, and for information on Monterey marine life see Clinton Bauder's site. We've also added information on California's Underwater Parks.
California Underwater Invertebrates
California Sponges & Anemones
Anemones and sponges are very common in California waters. Anemones are animals called Cnidarians, which also include hydroids, jellyfish, cup corals, sea pens and hydrocorals.
Tube anemone, Redondo Beach
Purple hydrocoral at Farnsworth Banks, a beautiful example of California marine life.
A wide variety of shrimps, crabs, and other crustaceans can be found in California, especially at night!
Mantis shrimp underwater
Sea slugs, snails, squid, and octopus are common at California dive sites. Octopus are best seen at night, and squid are seasonal, usually common in shallow water in the winter to lay eggs.
Squid mating underwater at Redondo Beach
Octopus are common on reefs, but more often seen at night.
Colorful nudibranchs are one of the most visible invertebrates underwater in California.
Navanax eating a nudibranch underwater
Janolus nudibranch underwater
Echinoderms include starfish, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins. All are common in Southern California waters.
California Sharks and Rays
Sharks are well-known examples of California marine life. Divers commonly see angel, horn, and swell sharks underwater in California. Bat rays, Stingrays, Thornback rays and Torpedo rays are also all common.
California angel shark, usually found underwater laying on the sand
Leopard sharks schooling underwater in Marina Del Rey
A pair of torpedo rays at Catalina Island.
California Bony Fish
Wolf eel, found underwater in cold, deep reefs. They are more commonly seen while diving Port Hardy, British Columbia.
Schooling fish at the Catalina Island dive park
Giant black sea bass are found at Catalina, Anacapa, La Jolla and LA county from July to November.
Even the Pacific Seahorse can be found in California, near San Diego, if you know where to look!
California Marine Mammals
Marine mammals found in California include harbor seals, elephant seals, sea lions, sea otters, killer whales, and blue, fin, humpback and gray whales. Sea lions are the easiest to see underwater.
California sea lions are common at Santa Barbara & Anacapa islands, and at Oil rigs.
Dolphins feeding on an underwater baitball, near Catalina Island
Humpback whale breaching the water near Catalina Island
California Marine Birds
Cormorant diving underwater for fish
Best dives sites for California Marine Life
- Monterey - beautiful reefs packed with life, but very cold water, and often decent but not great visibiltiy
- Northern Channel Islands (San Miguel, Anacapa, Santa Rosa) - cold water but incredible kelp forests, fish and invertebrate life
- Southern Channel Islands (Catalina, Santa Barbara) - giant kelp forests, schools of fish and more
- Redondo Beach for a night dive - great macro/ muck dive, many octopus
- Palos Verdes reefs - covered with invertebrates, lots of fish too
- La Jolla cove and shores - when conditions are good, almost all California marine life can be seen here
- Laguna Beach shore dives - shallow reefs with easy acccess
California Marine Life Underwater Photography Tips
- Use an external strobe to reduce backscatter
- Use wide-angle lenses to fully capture the beauty of giant kelp forests
- Best visibility is from August to January, and is much better offshore at the islands than off the mainland. Southern channel islands have better visibility than the northern channel islands.
- Avoid shore areas after heavy rain
- Wear proper exposure protection, deep water can be cold year-round
- Many species are only found at specific sites or are seasonal, check with the locals
- One or two day boat trips are usually most productive for underwater photography