Southern California isn’t lacking in interesting dive sites to check out, but if you have a soft spot for pinnipeds, there is no place in the world like Santa Barbara Island. Located within the archipelago of the Channel Islands, the smallest of these offers the unique opportunity to dive with sea lions in their natural environment for an experience that can only be described as free falling into a pool of eager, excited puppies that couldn’t be happier that you’re home.
This is not a dive for those who revel in the tranquil waters of the tropics — the water temperature averages between mid 50F to high 60F, and visibility can be spotty depending on the time of year. But for those whose interest lies solely in observing, photographing, and even interacting with scores of sea lions ranging in age from adult to pup, Santa Barbara Island is going to seem like a dream come true.
California sea lions, harbor seals, and northern elephant seals are all part of the cast of characters on this tiny island, and their curiosity lends to the crazy antics of barrel rolls, flips, test nibbles, and torpedo dives that each seem more than happy to perform for any willing onlooker. It is advised that you do not offer an arm or a leg if you are interested in interacting with them; after all, these are wild animals and they have no way of knowing the level of intensity you desire. Some divers have had pieces of gear, like snorkels and cameras, tugged off and spirited away, so it’s important that you understand what you’re getting into if you invite them to play. But there will be myriad photo opportunities when diving with these animated creatures, so settle in to a spot on the bottom, compose your shots, and enjoy the show.
Image via NOAA’s National Ocean Service