Scuba Diving in Laguna Beach, California

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Scuba Diving in Laguna Beach, California

Sam looked out over the shoreline assessing the wave sets as they came in one after the other on Memorial Day. There were no stairs or parking meters like you see today. Sam had climbed down a "cliff" to arrive at this beachhead. The visibility was about 10 miles across the ocean. Catalina island was barely visible in the distance as he looked over Diver's Cove. The heat was climbing towards 75°F by mid-day, but Sam was weathering the low 60's at this moment. He knew the water would be chilly, so he donned a government issue sweater he nabbed from a surplus store to use as thermal protection. Up to this point, Sam was an avid goggler for almost 7 years. The water was his sanctuary, the exploration; his passion. Strapping on a mask and fins (WWII surplus items), he saddled his borrowed "lung" and prepared to dive this super popular site in Laguna Beach, California. It was 1951. It was also Sam's first dive.  

California is well-known for its bountiful harvests of seafood. In the early days of development of California's shoreline, fisherman would search up and down the coast on trawlers or armed with a Hawaiian sling to take advantage of this vast food supply. In 1948, James Dugan wrote an article in science illustrated called "The first of the men fish"; this would open up American eyes to a new type of sport. Men searching for a tactical advantage against fish, were now privy to an entirely different method of fishing. Others would take up photography, establishing training organizations for the public or dedicate their life to exploration of a world beyond; right in their backyard. The United States scuba divers could now crawl the shorelines and take boats to explore areas of Laguna Beach and beyond in California. Even in those days, many scuba divers created their own contraptions to make scuba diving possible. Sam wasn't the first diver to breach the waters of Diver's Cove, and he wouldn't be the last. Men and women like Sam would go on to grow the Orange County diving community and literally create a sport right here in the waters we dive everyday. 
 

Rapidly following, EDCO would produce its first wetsuit in 1953 and business owners like the legendary Ron Merker would take to the scuba scene in Orange County with an unparalleled passion for the sport. One of Ron's stores, the Aquatic Center still stands and is operating in Newport Beach under the ownership of Beach Cities Scuba. 

Pioneers and legends of the Southern California dive scene spans among explorers, boat captains, business owners, photographers, writers, actors/actresses and founders of some of the largest scuba training organizations of today. Dottie Frazier, Roger Hess, Sam Miller (and son), Ralph Erickson and John Cronin are just a smattering of names who explored Laguna Beach and the surrounding areas of Southern California. More importantly, they contributed to the sport and subsequent growth of the scuba industry.

The entire sport that you see today was born right here. Many of today's dive sites are named by these individuals and found on websites or the famous Franko's map of Orange County. Young, enthusiastic divers these days are able to enjoy the sport thanks to pioneers who dived these same waters and developed the tools, training and safety procedures of yesterday.  

For those in the know; Southern California was, and still is, one of the greatest areas in the world for scuba diving adventures. Travelers often marvel at the amazing sunsets along the 900 mile stretch of the Pacific coastline. For Laguna Beach divers, their beaches face generally south allowing for beautiful sunrises and sunsets all along the shoreline. The real beauty resides under the lapping water. Home to some of the most prolific kelp forests, Laguna Beach provides a amazing backdrop for capturing photos and videos of this underwater forest. 

Diver with Kelp and reef

These waters are a part of the California current traveling from British Columbia down to Baja California before turning back towards Australia. These waters are cool to the human skin and require something more comfortable than a GI-issued sweater for most explorers. Today, divers will sport a 7mm dive suit or a drysuit for comfortable dives as they watch some of the most beautiful ocean life pass before their now manufactured and tempered glass lens. With these opposing currents and changes to tide and weather, it isn't rare to have a wandering visitor from warmer waters arrive. Turtles, whales (passing from Baja to Alaska - like a fairweather traveler), dolphins, porpoises, rays and much more are among the passerby.

whale in southern california

In 2010, the third phase of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative joined the Laguna Beach State Marine Reserve (SMR) and Laguna Beach State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) to protect approximately 9.7 square miles of oceanfront property. This action created a no-take zone for the entire coastline of Laguna Beach. With no one allowed to fish or take items out of the ocean, the ecosystem of Laguna Beach experienced a major comeback and drastically changed to what we see today as divers. In addition to the kelp forests, we have massive populations of fish, crustaceans and pelagic families coming through all year around. 

In just a few years, Laguna Beach and the surrounding coastlines began to look as they did for Sam on that Memorial Day in 1951. A coastline full of marine life is why a visit to Laguna Beach for any diver, snorkeler or water enthusiast is a must. With specialized equipment and developed safety procedures from the dive legends before us, scuba divers from all over the world can take a dip into our cool, beautiful waters to enjoy a dive or many!  

About the contributors:

Samuel Miller III  was a major contributor to the article through emails and phone conversations and told many amazing stories about the early days of diving in Southern California. He has been an avid scuba enthusiast of over 70 years. He began as a goggler when he was just a teenager and never stopped looking below the waves. Sam is one of the pioneers of scuba diving in Orange County and received the California SCUBA Service award in 2013. Today, he lives the happy life in Pismo Beach and after traveling the world over during 70 years of diving, he told me that he still dreams about diving in Southern California, where it all began! 

D.J. Mansfield is a PADI Course Director who dives Southern California and has done so for 23 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 @djmansfield7or contact him at dj@beachcitiesscuba.com.   


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