>Literally thousands of underwater enthusiasts sail right by the doomed flying boat into Avalon Harbor without any idea of its existence. Like many places around the world, there are often other stories just out of sight. Catalina Island is home to more than one of these surprises; while most of these sites qualify as beyond recreational limits, they can be well worth the effort to visit.
>The collision of several geologic plates, and the corresponding volcanic activity created the 75-plus-square mile "mountain ranges that are in the sea" as the Gabrielino Native Americans called Catalina. With Mount Orizaba and Black Jack both soaring over 2,000 feet high, it is easy to see why the early inhabitants named the island in this manner. The island is rugged with literally thousands of coves and cliffs plunging into the sea along its coastline. Igneous and metamorphic formations dominate the geology with much of the rock made up of soapstone, a valuable commodity to the early locals.
>The Island's Early History
>Native peoples had inhabited Catalina for more than 7,000 years before the Spanish arrived. With bountiful sea life and a mild climate, their culture was able to flourish. What they couldn't grow or obtain themselves, they traded with mainland tribes for goods. They regularly paddled in small plank canoes across the unpredictable channel to keep these trade routes open. Known as Pimungans (they called their island Pimu), these people were the first to greet Juan Cabrillo in October 1542, when his galleon dropped anchor in the lee of the island, which he promptly named San Salvador. He then continued north on his voyage. Further contact with Europeans was virtually non-existent until the early 1600s when another Spanish explorer by the name of Sebastian Viscaino came ashore and renamed it Catalina after Saint Catherine. The usual demise of native cultures after contact with Europeans didn't seriously affect the Pimungans until the late 1760s, when the first series of missions were built along the California coast. Spain needed lots of laborers to build their outposts and most of it was "supplied" by the native inhabitants, whether they wanted to or not. By the beginning of the 19th century, with the arrival of the mostly lawless seal and otter hunters, the fate of this peaceful people had been sealed.
>The rest of the 1800s saw many different squatters come and go along with smugglers, fishermen, miners and a few small ranchers. By 1867, James Lick had "ownership" of most of the island, and those that agreed to lease their land could stay. Catalina became a little-known landfall off the rapidly growing state of California. In 1887, George Shatto purchased Catalina from the Lick estate for $200,000 with the idea to turn it into a tourist destination. He soon ran into financial problems partly due to the lack of infrastructure on both the island and the mainland. The Banning family took control, and for nearly 30 years they promoted and built the village of Avalon into the main town on the island. A devastating fire burned much of Avalon down in 1915, and eventually the family had to sell. In 1919 William Wrigley Jr., of the chewing gum dynasty, purchased the island and built the famous Casino in Avalon. He and his wife became very fond of the island and pursued a number of projects to support a small full-time population without devastating the island's beauty. The Catalina Pottery plant that operated in the 1920s and 30s is one such example. The now-rare glazed tiles from this endeavor pepper many of the island's early construction, and the handmade tiles fetch a commanding price with collectors. In 1975, the Wrigley family continued with the preservation emphasis by donating the majority of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy. The for-profit Santa Catalina Island Company owns 11 percent with the final 1 percent privately held.
>Most visitors from the mainland arrive in Avalon harbor after a quick one-hour ferry ride from the Los Angeles/Long Beach area. Most of the sport diving from shore is done at The Casino, which has become a veritable diver's Mecca with walk-in stairs and air fills on the spot. In addition, scores of charter boats from the mainland drop divers off all over the island as well to about 80 commonly visited sites. Of course, we're also interested in the not so common.
>Beneath the Surface
>Another wreck toward the west end of the island is called the Tuna Clipper. She lays in about 165 of water. So again, technical training is required. This wreck appears to be an old wood tuna clipper fishing boat. Little is known about it or why it's sunk near shore. It's covered in fishing nets, including newer nets from illegal fishing operations. The boat is broken up, but there is considerable relief from the flat sands surrounding it to provide homes for many fishes and invertebrate life. Like the Goose, the clipper is resting in somewhat protected water and allows for relatively easy exploration. Though this old vessel is basically a wood pile, there are numerous points of interest. The bow section sits somewhat upright and is covered in colorful strawberry anemones. It's always fun to sweep the anemone congregations with your light and watch the scene explode in bright reds and pinks. Ling cod, bocaccio and olive rockfish have found refuge in the mass of timber. Bat rays patrol the sand and large schools of blacksmith congregate around the hulk. Since there are several distinct sections, multiple dives are required to fully investigate this site. There is also a lot of "stuff" that went down with the boat, so there's no shortage of bric-a-brac to check out. One must be careful, however, when nosing around the Tuna Clipper's remains because of all the fishing line and nets that drape over almost all of it. Entanglement is very possible and at these depths, it pays to be extra careful.
>To be sure, Catalina Island offers some fantastic West Coast diving. And you don't have to go beyond recreational diving limits to visit some awesome spots; Catalina has much to offer everyone beyond the commonly known. You could spend years not only exploring the quaint island above water, but also delving into some of the history and natural treasures laying on the bottom below.
>Click here to explore more diving opportunities off Catalina Island.