When I first took up snorkeling about five years ago, like many I was dreaming of far-off locales in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, daydreaming about long, sun-drenched,(somehow magically affordable) vacations to Greece and Barbados and the Antilles.
And of course, I was already mentally planning my trip to Australia to see the legendary Great Barrier Reef.
When I thought of the things I wanted to see under the water, they were colorful tropical fish, reminiscent of those in Finding Nemo; gorgeous, almost fluorescent coral reefs in a million fractal structures that seemed to evoke the existence of both the deepest oceans and the deepest reaches of space at the same time; and, of course, up close encounters with sharks and dolphins.
While I did eventually manage to make some of those trips — and many others — and snorkel in some of the most beautiful places in the world, seeing all of those things I had dreamed about and many more I had not even known existed, I also discovered a lot of other beautiful snorkeling locations, many of them closer to my home in the United States and all of them, though (or maybe because) less frequented by tourists and casual day trippers, equally as astounding and otherworldly as the tropical paradises the snorkeling community is primed to romanticize.
Perhaps my favorite of these destinations was Santa Barbara, the “American Riviera” in Southern California. Instead of the oft-photographed coral reefs of my early fantasies, the coast of Santa Barbara features rocky reefs, which are perhaps less spectacular on their own than their living counterparts, but just as fascinating and, more importantly, still provide a fantastic habitat for all sorts of interesting and beautiful fish and other sea creatures. Perhaps more impressive, at least to me, were the massive kelp forests that thrive off the coast, growing more than 100 feet long and creating an atmosphere that is impossible to truly describe but can perhaps best be approximated as otherworldly. These kelp forests are of course also excellent habitat for fish and other animals looking to hide from predators, prey, and interloping snorkelers, making it inevitably prime ground for all three.
The snorkeling grounds off Santa Barbara are rife with sea anemones, rockfish, and sea stars, among many others, but they are also home to rarer creatures, including many you are unlikely to find elsewhere in the world. Your friend with a home aquarium may be boasting about having just gotten in a new cherry shrimp, but they will be unable to top a photograph or even a story about some of the truly unique creatures that live off the coast of this seemingly unassuming stretch of California coast.
The leopard shark may not seem like the most spectacular shark to snap a picture in the water with, especially to experienced snorkelers used to swimming with the leopard’s more intimidating cousins, but they are a unique and gorgeous animal in their own right, with the added advantage of being much too small to rip anybody’s arm off. Leopard sharks are identifiable by (and named after) their distinctive multicolored markings, a black patch like a saddle on their backs accompanied by other spots and stripes. Leopard sharks only live along the North American Pacific Coast, and so offer a great opportunity to find a creature that is not the most difficult to spot once you get into the right water, but it is pretty much impossible to find anywhere else in the world.
Like the leopard shark above, the cabezon will not necessarily be elusive for anyone snorkeling off Santa Barbara, but it’s one of the few places to see this beautiful bony fish, which ranges only along the middle stretch of the North American Pacific Coast (approximately Alaska to California). The cabezon in some ways resembles a catfish, with the large head the Spanish origin of its name suggests. They come in a wide variety of colors, generally mottled with greens, reds, and browns, and average about three feet long.
While there are a few different species covered by the laymen’s term sheepshead, the California sheepshead in found only along the Californian and Mexican coasts, and is so beautiful that it is baked into the taxonomic name for the species. Sheepshead can be found in both rocky reefs and kelp beds (making the waters off Santa Barbara prime habitat), and are active during the day, making them an attractive target for snorkelers.
This jellyfish is notable, as the name suggests, for the striking dark purple or maroon stripes that decorate its bell. In addition, its long, frilly tentacles and large size (Some specimens have bells more than two feet in diameter!) make it a truly beautiful creature. Purple-striped jellies are only found along the California coast, mostly off Monterey, but they have been known to venture to Santa Barbara as well. Anyone lucky enough to encounter this spectacular beauty in the wild would do well to keep their distance, as the sting of their tentacles is extremely painful, though rare. While not much is known about purple-striped jellies or their feeding habits, they are more likely to be active in water where they can be propelled and assisted by the current in their hunt for food.
Now we come to fish so rare I almost feel bad for putting it on the list. Oarfish, the likely origin for legends of sea serpents, are so rarely seen by humans, dead or alive, that next to nothing is known about them, though they are believed to dive more than 3,000 feet below the surface. However, at least three have been found off the Southern California coast, including off Santa Barbara, so you never know.
Snorkeling in a new place is always an adventure, full of discoveries you were expecting and, perhaps more often, those you were not. One of my favorite discoveries I have made while snorkeling, though, is the unique beauty of the too-often-overlooked marine habitat in Santa Barbara.
David Thomas is editor-in-chief at Everything Fishkeeping.