Southern California Beach

Scuba Diving In Orange County, California – The Top 3 Spots

David Mansfield3 comments

Southern California is home to amazing scuba diving, topside attractions and much more. Everyone who visits our area realizes that there is so much to do, it can seem overwhelming! One visit wouldn't do for an adventurist traveler. We understand that many folks scuba dive throughout the world and would love to welcome them to our beautiful SoCal waters all year around!

If you’re looking for some great scuba diving in Orange County, California, then you need to consider three spots at the top of our list.

Shaw’s Cove

Shaw’s Cove is located near 989 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, CA. It is best known for the protective aspects of water movement (like large swell and wave activity), which make it one of the best areas to dive all year around.

The author has about 350 dives at Shaw’s Cove, and is always excited to visit this little Southern California gem.

The favorite part is the fact that the kelp has returned, and the cove and surrounding areas have been deemed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

This means that the fish population has boomed and there is a greater opportunity to see garibaldi, horn and leopard sharks, halibut and many other fish species.

My favorite thing to do in Shaw’s Cove is explore what are known as the “cut-outs.” These areas are carved from the rocks and appear like large hallways devoid of a ceiling.

You can explore so deeply that they allow you access to Crescent Bay (the next cove to the west).

These crevices are rarely transited by divers, and during peak conditions they provide a nice hiding area for larger animals and excellent opportunities for interaction with other divers.

My favorite route is to head south to the first “cut-out” and go due west. When you get to a large rock, you’ll see a left turn that will take you south. This gets you through a nice crevice that is teeming with fish.

Many lobsters and eels enjoy homes in this area and you will eventually come out the east side of Crescent Bay.

As you head south, and keep the reef on your left, you get the opportunity to enjoy many marine animals as you go to the outer reef.

This outer reef gets down to about 52 feet on a high tide day.

Round the corner and head North back into Shaw’s Cove, and you can slowly enjoy the sites as the light current takes you back into the surf area for your exit.

The temps here range from 52 degrees in the winter to 72 degrees in the summer. Depths are from 0’ to 52’, and there is a wide range of sea creatures to see. The reef area is literally covered with life.

The visibility ranges from 5’ to 40’ on a nice calm day, and waves range from 0’ to 8’ depending on swell height and weather conditions.

It’s a treat every single time I go diving, whether with students or just for a fun dive. Experience levels for this cove range from beginner to expert.


Wood’s Cove

Wood’s Cove is located near the corner of Diamond and Ocean Way in Laguna Beach, California. It’s best known for its unique rock formations and abundance of sea life.

Access is by way of the stairs, and I typically take a southerly heading and maintain it until I’m ready to turn around.

I have about 75 dives at Wood’s Cove and I really enjoy it because it’s a very short beach walk, and the homes nearby are absolutely beautiful to look at.

This cove is a little more on the intermediate level for divers because of the fact that its exposure can bring in very nice wave heights when the surf decides to come up.

There are numerous entry points at Wood’s Cove, so if you plan your subsequent dives out correctly, it’s almost like you are in a completely different cove for each dive.

The rock formations are oriented in an east/west fashion with small groupings of rocks throughout. You can be tempted to follow these formations, but they will throw off your navigation because there are so many of them.

I’ve often seen bat rays at this cove, and the abundance of fish is maybe the most I’ve seen throughout my years of diving SoCal.

The other cool thing is the opportunity to see the occasional dolphin pod swimming by.

Considering that Wood’s has a very close pattern that can get you to good depths quickly, it’s not uncommon to see larger pelagic animals come by as they cruise the depths of the ocean.

I have watched numerous dolphins swim by, and I’ve even seen a small whale meander by while I was on my surface swim back to the beach.

This Marine Protected Area (MPA) has temperatures that range from 52 degrees to 72 degrees with depths of 0’ to 45’ on the main reef system.

Visibility can range from 0’ to 40’ on a good day, and waves can reach heights exceeding 10’ if the weather is bad.

Considering the amount of sea life, and the incredible night diving, you can have quite an experience diving Wood’s cove any day of the week.

Salt Creek Beach Park

Salt Creek is located in the vicinity of 33333 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, CA.

The park area is associated with the Ritz Carlton cove area and is a large stretch of beach where many tourists come to enjoy their Orange County experience.

There is a convenient parking area that charges about $1 an hour unless you have a Beach Parking Decal from the city.

I enjoy diving Salt Creek, and what I really like most about it is the spear fishing.

This area is best known for its large animals and the fact that it is outside of the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which affords a good hunting ground for avid spear fishing enthusiasts.

There’s plenty of large surf here, and many surfers enjoy the area because of its easy beach access and the excellent, consistent waves.

For those interested in scuba diving in Orange County, Salt Creek Beach Park is a very cool kelp dive and it has the potential to get some prime fish. You have to be careful here because some of those large fish are protected, like the giant black sea bass. This behemoth is one of the greats of the underwater world, reaching lengths and weights that exceed an average human.

My favorite method to dive Salt Creek is to enter the kelp forest and commit to a search pattern. Whether I’m diving for fun or for fish, this search pattern keeps me oriented and allows me to enjoy the many kelp formations around the area.

Temperatures will range from 52-72 degrees and depths can reach up to 60’ if you are interested in deeper depths for classes or larger animals.

The visibility is a little lower than other coves because of the substrate composition, but I’ve seen it reach into the 25’ range.

The wave heights can crest at more than 10’ on bad weather days and surge is typically cyclic, so you can time your entry and exits here with a little more ease than other coves.

There are many places for scuba diving in Orange County, and when I was stationed close by with the Marine Corps I was really happy about it. I enjoy scuba diving all year round whether I go south into San Clemente or all the way up into Long Beach.

The prime spots are usually reachable by shore and boat, and the best known sites are all located within the Dana Point and Laguna Beach areas. These spots have provided me with over 23 years of scuba diving enjoyment.

After traveling to over 30 different countries and diving in many places around the world, I still enjoy putting on my 7mm wetsuit and seeing some of the most diverse marine life on the planet right in my own backyard.

About the Author:

D.J. Mansfield

 D.J. Mansfield is a PADI Course Director who dives Southern California and has done so for 22 years. He is currently the Director of Operations for Beach Cities Scuba and is a committed ocean steward and trainer for divers all over the world. Follow him on Instagram @djmansfield7 or contact him at   



tony edd
tony edd
Some of the best advice and description of dive sites I’ve read. I’ll be down and try to connect…..thank You
Please don’t pick up the sea life !!! Don’t interrupt their habitat ! Don’t touch !
Dr. Sam Miller, 111
Dr. Sam Miller, 111
Dave, Great description of Shaws, Woods and Salt creek. Re Shaws cove…this was the site and origin of the Laguna Beach "dive ordinance. The third home on the left (south). Was owned by Glen Vetter who was on the city council and who wanted to close Laguna to all Aquatic activites, especially recreational diving.. At that junction of diving the divers were the only well organized opposition…the surfers were still in the hodad stage ,so it was dependent on the diving communiy to oppose Glen and his backers . The battle for Laguna diving was on… And what a battle it was ! Eventually we reached a comprise…if you use F,M&S you are a diver, if tanks are used you are a scuba diver..and you must have a buddy… now the modern late model tube sucking bubble blower often dive in violation of the ordinance FYI a number of movies were flimed at Shaws.. Re Moss Street Cove There was a WW11 airplane that crashed just pass the surf line . The wreckage was visible up to about 1970s then slowly began disappearing. I strongly suspect portions are still there Millers reef…I discovered a far series of three reefs. Several hundred yards out from the cove…it was a very closely guarded location until Sheckker included it in his beach diving guide. But as Sheckler stated it is just too far of a swim for the modern diver to swim …seems as if so many don’t or can’t swim that distance Re Salt Creek…your discription iscreight on! Always a great area for fish. ________ FYI In 1970s the late Ron Merker and i wrote the first dive guide to OC in book titled Diving West…still available in the used book market. From 1965 to about 2000 I did a Beach diving location tour. First via LA Co ADP & UICC, later as an advanced dive instructor at OCC and finally as a dive community obligation…the final tour was photographed by john rice formally with sports chalet..might Want to locate John and check out the tour . Good luck and keep up the great work

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