Monterey, California
Story Summary
Having no idea that Monterey, California had what was considered one of the hardest shore dives in the USA, I had no choice but to check it out first hand.
Jan 8, 2022
12 min read
Written by
Andi Cross

“Nope. Absolutely not. I’m not going,” our dive guide named Sam said after hearing our plan. He was an important member of the community and knew his way around land and sea—having decades of diving experience under his belt. Even He wasn’t down for what we were proposing.

“Why not dude? We have to! We only live once!” My crew sang, in what felt like perfect harmony. Minus Sam, of course. There were three of us: myself (the navigator & untangler), Marla (in charge of content capture) and Tessa (focused on depth). We each had assigned roles for this dive because it was just that gnarly—or so the rumors said.

Earlier that week we had made our way up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to the town of Monterey, California. It’s a sleepy seaside town south of San Francisco, mostly used as a stop along the PCH road trip to Los Angeles. You might also recognize it from HBO’s Big Little Lies. But besides the murder and mischief portrayed there, it’s actually also known for some of the best diving in the USA. And there was one spot in particular we wanted to check out. 

Being this was no ordinary dive spot, we first needed to make friends with the locals to figure out exactly how we’d make it there. That's when we met Sam. Booking a guided dive around some of the more chill sites in Monterey, he took us out to look for sea lions, mola mola, and the fattest jellies we had ever seen. And just like that, we became fast friends. We watched sea lions eat the fins off tiny mola molas, we froze to death in ripped 7mm wetsuits in 54°F (12°C) water, and we had a lot of laughs. 

(Fun times with sea lions in Monterey, California)

Sam, now our best friend, was our Monterey guardian angel. He was perched atop our right shoulder, telling us that we definitely should NOT go to Monastery Beach. But Sam didn't realize that it was actually ME, perched atop the group’s left shoulder. 

And I was screaming, “C’mon…DO IT!” 

Why was Sam so concerned about our plan? It’s because Monastery Beach is considered pretty dangerous for any and all divers for about a dozen reasons. To put it most simply, it’s the perfect storm of circumstances that make for highly unpredictable diving. First, the beach is located on the edge of a deep submarine canyon, which makes for powerful underwater currents, both unpredictable and difficult to anticipate. Second, the waves break close to the shore, making it challenging for divers to safely enter and exit the water. Third, the beach is exposed to the open ocean, which means that all these conditions can change rapidly and without much warning. Ok cool, so let’s go!

The real prize of this dive though is the kelp, believe it or not. It was in fact the whole reason we were there in the first place. Marla and I were sent on an expedition to seek out seaweed and kelp for a business we were working with. The startup had figured out how to replace single-use plastic using the more ocean and climate-friendly alternative: seaweed. Now, all we had to do was get into the water and capture content of California seaweed and kelp in its natural habitat. But there was a big problem with swimming among the fronds. The aforementioned chaotic ocean conditions—paired with century old, dark, dense and thick kelp forests—was a perfect recipe for tangling and capturing unsuspecting divers. 

You might be thinking to yourself at this point, “Kelp? Of everything you’ve told us about this dive…You’re most worried about kelp?” Well, that’s because it can grow up to 53 meters, making it one of the largest and fastest growing plants in the world. Hence kelp being no joke and one of mother nature’s wonders to not mess with. 

After every dive shop in town (and of course, Sam) told us they wouldn't take us out, we were on our own. How I tend to like it! 

We read up. We did our research. We went every day for a week to check the conditions. We failed to get better wetsuits for the California winter and agreed to suffer through diving with holes together. And on our last day in Monterey, we gave a good old fashion "fuck it" and decided it was time to seize the day.

(The holes in our 7mm wetsuits were so real.)

With not a soul in sight at Monastery Beach, we kitted up, freezing our asses off, and began charting our dive plan. We realized that if we swam straight out from where we parked, the kelp forests were going to give us everything we needed and wanted. We actually didn't even have to go that far. But regardless of where we go or how far out, we still had to get INTO the sea from the shore—first and foremost—which would prove to be the real challenge of our day. The beach was covered in little, sharp rocks, so if you got pulled back onto the beach, it was going to hurt really bad. The sandbank also dropped down aggressively, and it was a steeeeeep way down. And the waves … they were huge and it wasn’t even that “big” of a day. We needed to wait for a break and sprint to get in. Otherwise, we'd be getting tossed and pummeled with all of our gear on us. And once we got in, we had to immediately adjust our buoyancy so we didn't sink to the bottom and chill at 40m. In this instance, that would be very uncool.

With my compass set, we stood on the rocky beach, mask on and regulators in, waiting for our big break. Suddenly, the set died down and off we went ... running into the sea. We attempted to swim as fast as we could past the break line, but there she came. A big whopper wave that clobbered us head on. Disoriented and tumbling a bit, the three of us eventually managed to pass through. Although a little shook, we survived level one of the Monastery dive video game we were living in real time. 

We checked and secured our buoyancy, and finally reached the notorious, crazy steep drop off. Managing not to sink into the winter’s ocean, we’d passed level two! Off we descended into the jungle of Monastery. It went from bright sunshine to dark very quickly as we entered this enchanted forest. Rockfish, lingcod, garibaldi and sheephead fish swarmed us, but the kelp … the kelp, was better than I could’ve dreamt! Big, tall, thick and canopying at the top. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had underwater. I could feel the cold water penetrating my skin through the rips and tears in my old wetsuit, and my body temp was slowly approaching “cold overload” as I like to call it. We stuck together, executing our various roles on the team in tandem. Marla stopped every so often to take the shots we were out there for, while I opened up pathways for us to explore by gently moving the dense kelp.

We encountered a family of sea lions. They were playful and fun, navigating us through the kelp, as if to show us the way. At this point, I studied my compass, only to realize that we were going way off my chartered course. The sea lions were pulling us further and further, and the kelp was becoming a bit too dense for comfort. There was a sinking feeling in my stomach telling me to stop. I gathered the group and we agreed it was time to turn back. We were good on air, but all very cold and cautious with every turn. At the end of the day, diving means knowing your limits, and we all had firmly hit ours.

(Enchanted California kelp forests are spectacular.)

As we turned around, the fresh path the sea lions had cleared for us was fully gone. We were IN the kelp, literally. The last thing I wanted to do was cut our way out of the forest. But as the navigator, my job was to untangle us and bring us home in the safest and most practical way. But as the three of us moved through the kelp, it felt like the sea was actually granting us passage. As if realizing we weren't there to hurt it, but just to observe. Once we got the hang of it, pushing our way out wasn’t all that difficult and it ended up being non-invasive to the species.

However, this fleeting moment of relaxation was brought to an end when we realized we’d been tricked by the weightlessness and darkness of the forest. We weren’t exiting it, but rather going deeper under —the exact thing Sam warned us about. Tessa instructed the group to rise slowly. We all realized it was time to get out of here or we’d be taken by this enchanted forest for good. Laser focused on the exit, we moved away from the kelp and managed to get to a safe spot for our ascent. When we finally popped our heads from the water, we checked on the breaking pattern, as THIS—we were told—would be the hardest part of our expedition. We passed level three of the enchanted kelp forest, but now it was time for level four. 

Getting back onto the beach required precision. We’d have to either A) wait for the swell to dwindle and make a dash for the shore, or B) ride those sucker waves home. We went with plan B here, as there seemed to be little opportunity for a break in the action. We decided to go simultaneously, but with some space between us in case of a wave toss. After mentally preparing ourselves for what could’ve been the dump of the century, we said our goodbyes and off we went! I spread my limbs out like a starfish to slow my speed, but the waves still ripped me onto the beach, sharp rocks digging into the front of my body and face. Tessa got fully tossed, spun around like she's in a washing machine. And Marla waited in the back, watching our beatings and questioning which option she should choose per our aftermath. 

Bleeding from the legs, arms and face, I fully understood why people wouldn’t want to do this on a typical Tuesday. It’s important to acknowledge that what we did was risky, even with our best efforts at safety and preparation. We debriefed after our respective beatings, and talked about our limits, what we did well and what we’ll do better next time. But at the end of the day, I appreciated that we did it because it was truly something special to see that magical forest. Flawless, untouched perfection doesn't come around often. And I know I’ll relish that memory for the rest of my life. 

(Post Monastery Beach dive day, celebrating all things life has to offer.)

And you know, being told we shouldn’t seek out Monastery Beach … maybe that was the Biggest Little Lie of them all? Ok, I’ll go now.