Most of the county's coast isn't known for convenient snorkeling or scuba diving from the shore. For precisely the same reason that, say, Huntington Beach is good surfing territory, that same stretch of beach is inhospitable to divers. For even if you manage to drag yourself and your gear through the shore break, the water will probably be clouded with sand kicked up by the surge, so you will see nothing.
But there are protected spots where the waves are tolerable, the water is often clear, the conditions accommodate most levels of skill and the underwater sightseeing is definitely worth the plunge.
They also easily accommodate the indecisive because they are all located roughly within a mile of Laguna Beach.
Crescent Bay, Shaws Cove, Divers Cove and Picnic Beach (in order from the north) are among the best diving beaches in Southern California, particularly for novice scuba divers and snorkelers (sometimes called free divers).
In calm weather, all of the locations can be negotiated by divers with minimal experience, said Greg Heit, head diving instructor at Laguna Sea Sports, a dive shop in Laguna Beach above Shaws Cove.
The main attraction at most of the spots is the network of reefs in the area that play host to varied marine life. From an offshore rock called Splash Rock in Fishermans Cove and moving northwest, divers are permitted to spear game fish that are listed on signs at the points of coastal access--or just to watch them strike at bread crumbs.
However, from Splash Rock southeastward to Bird Rock off Laguna Beach's Main Beach, divers are in a marine preserve where no marine life may be disturbed.
Throughout the area, dangers are minimal, and, particularly at Shaws Cove, many novice scuba classes make their first ocean dives.
Here are the characteristics of each dive spot, as described by Heit:
Crescent Bay: There is a shallow reef system on the northwest side of the cove where eel grass and kelp grass are abundant. An offshore reef, called Dead Man's Reef, is a quarter-mile offshore. An offshore rock called Seal Rock is home for dozens of local marine mammals, who, Heit said, "are very familiar with divers and will come in the water and play with you." However, Dead Man's Reef and Seal Rock involve a long surface swim, so divers laden with gear should be in shape.
Shaw's Cove: Fascinating dives, particularly for scuba divers who can swim within a crisscrossing series of submarine channels in the reef, some of which are tunnels and others of which are open to the surface. One open channel, Heit said, connects Shaws Cove to Crescent Bay. The sandy beach makes entry into the water with heavy gear relatively easy, but the cove "can be a little hectic" in periods of high waves and low tides, he said.
Divers Cove: The reefs on either side of this cove are colorful but too deep for snorkelers. There are also offshore kelp beds.
Picnic Beach: This area and an adjacent area known to some as Rocky Beach features a wide variety of marine life, but entry into the water can be tricky because of rocks in the surf line. Snorkeling is excellent in the shallow reefs, but scuba divers can explore deeper reefs farther offshore.
Crescent Bay: Access--1300 Circle Way and 1300 Cliff Drive.
Shaws Cove: Access--1000 Cliff Drive at 100 Fairview St.
Divers Cove: Access--Stairs south of apartments on 600 Cliff Drive.
Picnic Beach: Access--100 Myrtle St. and 500 Cliff Drive.
Rocky Beach: Access--Stairs behind 455 Cliff Drive.
Parking for all beaches: Limited residential street parking, some metered parking on Cliff Drive.