Underwater Park ready for summertime viewing

La Jollans are fortunate to live year-round next to one of the greatest underwater menageries of wild ocean animals in the country - and there may be no better time to see it than now.

With water temperatures moving up to comfortable ranges in the high 60s and the big winter swells that wreck visibility months away, summer is a great time to take advantage of the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve. The reserve stretches from La Jolla Shores to La Jolla Cove and is home to a wide range of rare sea animals that enjoy the governmental protection the reserve provides. Scuba diving is the best way for humans to enjoy the full extent of life in the reserve.

“It’s probably one of the best dive sites on the California coast,” said Jesse Casellini, general manager of OEX Dive and Kayak Center in La Jolla Shores.

Casellini said people come from all over the country to scuba dive in La Jolla, some even coming from abroad.

“It’s pretty cool and definitely one of the best as far as a shore dive is concerned - just hopping into the water without a boat,” he said.

The strong scuba tourist draw in La Jolla is matched by a large and dedicated local scuba community. Casellini said two main dive clubs, the Dive Animals and the Dive Bums, are fixtures in the waters off La Jolla.

Most dives in La Jolla are done off La Jolla Shores, with the underwater La Jolla Canyon as the main destination. Canyon divers generally descend to depths between 60 and 80 feet and enjoy countless species of fish, rays and sharks. Some of the highlights include the giant black sea bass, a gentle fish that can live for decades in the same patch of water and grow to up to 200 pounds.

Other highlights include the red-colored California sheepshead. Casellini said a big group of sheepshead, octopus and eel can usually be found near the northern tip of La Jolla Canyon.

The La Jolla Cove portion of the underwater reserve is also a popular dive site, though not nearly as popular as La Jolla Shores. The bottom at the Cove is rock, as opposed to the sand bottom off the Shores and around La Jolla Canyon.

“It’s a pretty different set of animals,” Casellini said.

Perches, garibaldi and other, more colorful fish are common sights around the Cove, where divers generally descend to a depth of about 50 feet. The rock bottom is also home to huge California spiny lobsters who live in safety in the reserve.

“They’re up to 8 or 9 pounds,” Casellini said. “They can’t be taken, so they’ve been out there forever, just getting bigger and bigger.”

Kayak dives at the kelp beds on the edge of the underwater reserve are becoming increasingly popular, he said. Scuba divers paddle out to the kelp beds in kayaks, then toss their gear in the water and suit up.

“The kelp forest is a great place to dive,” he said. “That’s where the food chain starts, so that’s where an abundance of animals is going to be. We go check out the kelp forest and there’s seals and sea lions and fish swimming in and out.”

The average visibility in the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve is generally around 20 feet, Casellini said. That’s clear enough to take in a great show but still leave something for next time, Casellini said.

“You don’t see everything every time,” he said. “In Hawaii, you can go once and see everything. Here you can do 100 dives and always see something different.”

Scuba certification courses are available at a number of locations in La Jolla Shores. At OEX, a scuba student won’t get into the ocean until their third session. The first two sessions involve academic study and pool training.