California Marine Life

Southern California Marine Life
By Scott Gietler

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 photo

Tube anemone, Redondo Beach


purple hydrocoral, california marine life

Purple hydrocoral at Farnsworth Banks, a beautiful example of California marine life.


California Crustaceans

A wide variety of shrimps, crabs, and other crustaceans can be found in California, especially at night!


Mantis shrimp underwater photo

Mantis shrimp underwater


California Molluscs

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, california marine life

Squid mating underwater at Redondo Beach


two spot octopus

Octopus are common on reefs, but more often seen at night.


California Nudibranchs

Colorful nudibranchs are one of the most visible invertebrates underwater in California.


navanax eating a nudibranch underwater

Navanax eating a nudibranch underwater


Janolus nudibranch underwater photo

Janolus nudibranch underwater


California Echinoderms

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 underwater photo, california marine life

California angel shark, usually found underwater laying on the sand


Leopard sharks schooling underwater

Leopard sharks schooling underwater in Marina Del Rey


Torpedo rays

A pair of torpedo rays at Catalina Island.


California Bony Fish


Wolf eel underwater photo

Wolf eel, found underwater in cold, deep reefs. They are more commonly seen while diving Port Hardy, British Columbia.


Schooling fish at Catalina Island

Schooling fish at the Catalina Island dive park


Black sea bass

Giant black sea bass are found at Catalina, Anacapa, La Jolla and LA county from July to November.


pacific seahorse

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

California sea lions are common at Santa Barbara & Anacapa islands, and at Oil rigs.


Harbor seal underwater photo

Harbor Seal



dolphins feeding underwater, california marine life

Dolphins feeding on an underwater baitball, near Catalina Island



Humpback whale breaching

Humpback whale breaching the water near Catalina Island


California Marine Birds


Cormorant diving underwater for fish

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


Related Articles

Marine Taxonomy

Marine Life Behavior

Diving Catalina Island

Diving the Channel Islands


Guide to Catalina Fish Photography

Field guide to Southern California underwater life

Navigating the Kelp Forest Safely and Still Getting that Great Shot


Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Santa Monica, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.


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