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One of my favorite aspects of diving is the sheer diversity of terrain that is encountered depending upon where you happen to be. Whereas Indonesia offers some truly mind-blowing vertical walls and the Solomon Islands boast some of the most colorful reefs in the world, California's Channel Islands will always rank near the top of my list. Rarely have I ever felt the sense of sheer majesty that I've experienced swimming through the Channel Islands kelp forests.

Hypsypops rubicundus

In one of these underwater forests, kelp grows vertically from its holdfast on the seafloor to the surface, often extending 60 feet or more. Commonly, there are thousands of these plants in a very small area, giving the illusion that one is travelling through a dense terrestrial forest. Few things that I've experienced underwater can compare with swimming through a kelp forest, weaving in and out, never sure what I might next encounter. I have frequently come into contact with playful California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus), who will not only curiously follow you around, but will often playfully tug on your fins.

Bat Rays (Myliobatis californica), measuring four feet or more, are another common occurence. I'll never forget a night dive I did a few years back. After about 45 minutes of
Opalescent Nudibranch
Hermissenda crassicornis
cruising through the kelp, observing dozens of California Spiny Lobsters (Panulirus interruptus) who had come out of their holes to forage, I decided to end the dive by breaking open and feeding a Sea Urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) to one of the many California Moray Eels (Gymnothorax mordax) that I'd found. Upon finding one who was interested in a late night snack, I planted myself on a pile of rocks and began to feed the urchin to the Moray. After a few minutes of interacting with the eel, what I assumed was another diver swam up behind me and hung out about three or four feet off my shoulder.

After another few minutes of feeding the eel, I decided to hand the remainder of my urchin to the other diver. I assumed he must have been interested since he hadn't yet swam off. When I turned to hand him the urchin, I almost jumped out of my wetsuit! In fact, it wasn't another diver who had been waiting so patiently, it was the the largest Bat Ray I'd ever encountered, at least five or six feet across...
Hilton's Aeolid
Phidiana hiltoni

Whereas in the Pacific Northwest, one tends to encounter a great number of large, rather pale-colored, bottom-dwelling fish, the Channel Islands offer some amazingly colorful aggregating species. Certainly, the most noticeable is the bright orange Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus). As Garibaldi are protected from underwater hunters, they are extremely abundant, especially in the Southern Channel Islands. Two other commonly encountered species include California Sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher) and Senorita (Oxyjulis californica).

In addition, the Channel Islands offer some very beautiful nudibranchs. Among the most visually stunning are three of the
California Sheephead
Semicossyphus pulcher
most commonly encountered species. These include the Spanish Shawl (Flabellinopsis iodinea), the Opalescent Nudibranch (Hermissenda crassicornis), and the Hilton's Aeolid (Phidiana hiltoni).

Another of the appealing aspects of diving in the Channel Islands is the disparity found underwater when diving the Southern Islands versus the Northern Islands. The Southern Islands, consisting of Catalina, San Clemente, Santa Barbara, and San Nicolas, tend to offer species not nearly as commonly found in their Northern counterparts, and vice versa. For instance, whereas California Spiny Lobster and California Moray Eels are rather
Spanish Shawl
Flabellinopsis iodinea
abundant in the Southern Islands, in my experience, they are much rarer in the Northern Islands. On the other hand, the Northern Channel Islands, consisting of San Miguel, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Anacapa, tend to offer a greater density of invertebrate life, in particular nudibranchs and especially sea anemones.

Certainly, the best way to experience the magic of the Channel Islands kelp forests, and diving in general, is via one of the numerous liveaboards that operate out of Southern California. An excellent resource is California Diving News, which offers an up-to-date schedule of all the liveaboards offering trips to the Islands.

Because of the affordability, proximity, and especially the magic of transcending through the underwater kelp forests, California's Channel Islands will remain a regular destination for the remainder of my diving and underwater photography career.