Snorkeling Catalina Island Lover’s Cove and Avalon Underwater Park, California

By Bob – (Southern CA)
I wanted to share our experience with snorkeling Catalina Island, California, specifically Lover’s Cove and Avalon Underwater Park.

Garibaldi fish at Avalon Underwater Park on Catalina Island, California
Garibaldi at Avalon Underwater Park

Living near the cold waters of southern California my wife and I have only snorkeled a few areas such as La Jolla Cove, Sandy Beach and La Jolla. Often I have read that Lover’s Cove on Catalina Island was a must do on any snorkeler’s list. So we planned a three day visit with the intent of snorkeling both Lover’s Cove and Avalon Underwater Park. It is located 22 miles offshore from Long Beach.

The first day at Avalon was spent with the usual check ins and scouting out the locations. Swells were small and water clarity was great from what we observed from the shore, Kelp Bass and Garibaldi were plentiful.

Day two we grabbed our gear and headed for Lover’s Cove, an easy walk from almost any hotel in town. Swells were noticeably larger this day but water visibility was still good. There are picnic tables at the road which are good to use to gear up before hitting the beach.

Entering the water is via stairs down to a very rocky shore. You will need sandals or shoes to enter the beach area which at best consists of a few feet of river rock before the water line, no sand to be found. The cove is designated as a snorkeling only site but the fine print is the cove belongs to the glass bottom boat tours and they have the right of way so be aware of this as you are swimming.

As for variety of fish we saw Garibaldi, Bass, Sheep Head, and maybe one or two other small common fish. What was the most exciting is that you get swarmed with them. Each tour boat that comes through the cove feeds the fish to draw them in for the tours. Consequently the fish figure you are there to feed them as well, which makes for great swimming and pictures. Also abundant was plant life including the kelp forest, sea fans, eel grass, and many others that I have not yet learned to identify. Water depths start shallow and go to around 20 feet in the cove.

Day three we went to Avalon Underwater Park which is also an easy walk from almost any hotel. Swells were even larger this day and water clarity was greatly reduced but visibility was still a good 50 feet or better.

Entering the water is done by a stairway located behind the Avalon Casino with plenty of areas to gear up. Walk down the stairs using the hand rails, the last few steps are slippery. At the bottom of the steps you can slip on your fins and kick out.

The fish and plant life were the same as what can be found in the cove. Water here is much deeper. The depths start at around 15 feet and quickly drop to around 100 a mere 30 feet from the stairs. Our map shows wrecks and other objects at the bottom in the deeper areas but due to the visibility we were not able to locate them.

Overall impressions were good but for our first snorkel at Catalina we did not see the variety we expected and the attitude of the locals was hit and miss. We would still recommend this trip as part of a vacation but not sure it would be worth it as a one day trip with the cost of the boat required to get you there at $75 per person round trip.

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Nicole & Galen – Sep 9, 2013 – Thank You!

Bob, thank you for taking the time to write this report for us. It’s great to have information about water entrances, water depths and what creatures and plants you can see there.

This was a summertime trip, in August or September, correct? So the water conditions are for that time of year, for anyone planning a visit.

For more information on snorkeling in La Jolla Cove or La Jolla like Bob and his wife have done, read our Snorkeling in California page.

Bob – Sep 9, 2013 – Water Temperatures

Thanks guys, and yes this trip was the first week of September right after Labor Day. It is my understanding in talking to many locals that water temperatures only vary about 15°F. Winter temps are supposed to average around 58°F give or take a few degrees both ways and summer temps around 68°F with the same variation.

Pat from San Diego – Sep 4, 2014 – Snorkeling Catalina from Hamilton Cove Villas

Catalina snorkeling is chilly, so you want to plan short excursions or wear a wetsuit (I only had a rash guard and leggings) but it’s SO worthwhile! There was a good healthy forest of kelp, and literally thousands of baby fish, schools of them. We did see a Leopard Shark, sting rays, Bat Ray, Brittle Stars, Garibaldi, Kelpfish, Senorita Fish, Opaleye and schools of little goldeny fish and some sort of bluish tiny fish, and larger schools of hunters! FUN. Oh, and a yacht with its own helicopter was there, too.

We researched where to stay, which ended up dictating where we snorkeled. My husband’s co-worker recommended the Hamilton Cove Villas. We couldn’t have been happier. The views are so totally amazing, you’re looking down into the private beach cove, (all rocks, no sand) and can even see Garibaldi in the water. We were the only people snorkeling in that private beach cove and it was AWESOME. Next time (yes, good enough for there to be a next time) we will snorkel around to the casino, which we could see around the corner from our cove.

Pat – Sep 8, 2014 – Additional Comments on Catalina/Avalon

I should have mentioned, this was a summer June 2014 trip. If it were any colder, I would have HAD to wear a full wetsuit.

Also, for me, shoes were a must to enter the water, the beaches there are mostly all rocky, though the rocks are pretty smooth. Because of that, I just used fins that could slip over my shoes.

Gel anti-fog for your mask is also critical, as the water IS colder, and you’ll fog up faster without it. Our favorite is Sea Gold.

Joe – Aug 5, 2016 – Does Avalon Still Have Good Snorkeling?

I haven’t been to Catalina Island since June of 2010.

Then, the snorkeling was phenomenal at Dive Park and Lover’s Cove as well as on the other side of the island the boats take you to.

The kelp forests were then in full bloom.

I have heard however that over the past five years an invasive Japanese seaweed has more or less destroyed the kelp forests that now so far as fish are concerned it’s basically barren.

What a tragedy.

That place used to be exploding with fish.

So, how bad is it? Is it really now kelp-less with few fish?

Karen – May 3, 2017 – Hey Joe…

Did you ever get your question answered? I’m planning on going this August and would love to know too. Thanks.

MikeB – Jul 18, 2017- July 2017

I have snorkeled Catalina from the 1970s to the present. This time I took my children and grandchildren for a summer vacation.

I have always enjoyed Lover’s Cove. When I first went there I had to watch out for the seaplanes but now it is the glass bottom boats and “subs”. My kids and grandson were literally blown away by their first experience at snorkeling. This is a great place to go snorkeling in California.

I used to go off the coast at Woods Cove in Laguna Beach but this was back in the 60s and 70s. It may still be good.

The Catalina Park off the casino can be a great experience if the conditions are right. I have been there when it is a beautiful wonderland but there have been times that it is not so good. I didn’t have a chance to see it this time but it looked good from the shore.

My grandson is seven years old and he did not want to go home. He’s hooked!

I’ve snorkeled Hawaii, Belize, and Mexico. They are a different experience being tropical but Catalina is a favorite.

Robin Benson – Aug 23, 2018 – The Island Has Great Underwater Landscape

Catalina has a beautiful underwater landscape for the underwater photographer. New snorkelers will love it!

Crunchers – Mar 3, 2019 – Catalina and SoCal Snorkeling

I have snorkeled off Avalon several times, with the most recent trip back in 2009. It was July, so I wore a full wetsuit and booties, but not gloves, which I wish I had.

I spent only about 30 minutes in the underwater park at the casino. There were lots of scuba divers, with several classes taking place, so the water was a bit crowded.

As the original poster said it gets deep very quickly, but there was enough kelp there at that time to provide safe places for even the tiniest of fish to hide. I mostly saw Garibaldi and Calico Sea Bass, both of legal size, one of which decided to bite a finger on my left hand. Not sure if it was going for the light on my camera or my dive watch, but it, and several other fish, seemed aggressive. Probably due to being fed by people. Here’s my video.

I always get excited to see kelp fish that try to hide by pretending to be a kelp leaf. One second they’ll be swimming along like a regular fish and the next they flip on their side and pretend to be a leaf!

I also like to snorkel at my local point break, Topanga Beach, when the waves are flat. There is usually a bit of current and the visibility is never great, but it’s amazing that I’ve seen sand, horn and leopard sharks, rays, wrasses and huge schools of tiny fish just off the beach in LA County.

The water there only warms up to short wetsuit temperatures in the late summer, from about the middle of August until the middle of September.

1 Comment

  1. I found the snorkeling at Catalina Island to be extremely underwhelming. I’m sure scuba diving is entirely different, because you can go down to the depths (which start immediately, whether you are behind the casino or at Lover’s Cove). I felt like there wasn’t a large surface area that you could cover to see anything while snorkeling, and you basically had to stick to the coastline. The fish are large, many, and beautiful, but that’s about it, and not a whole lot of variation.

    It would be a good first snorkeling experience for someone who just wants to try it and see some fish, but if you want to see a large variation of sea life snorkeling at the surface and a large area to cover, you might be a bit disappointed. If you want amazing snorkeling, go to Hawaii, parts of the Gulf of Mexico off of Cozumel, or the Mediterranean. It’s not worth the day trip to Catalina to just snorkel.


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