Bound across land and sea, Malibu’s coastal splendor resonates from mountain ridges to white sand beaches to a sprawling Pacific plain, hypnotic in its blue vastness. But just beneath the ocean’s surface lies a captivating and colorful world of its own, an underwater realm brimming with interactive sea life and accessible by one of the region’s signature pastimes: scuba diving.
More than a diver’s paradise, Malibu is reputed to be the birthplace of recreational scuba in the United States. Some residents say that one of the country’s very first recorded dives occurred just off Point Dume in 1948, when Jacques Cousteau (known as a pioneer of diving) used his newly-patented Aqua Lung to delve into the waterscape beneath the waves.
Today, those seeking to literally immerse themselves in the region should visit Malibu Divers, a prized local institution just two miles from Malibu Beach Inn that has offered expert-guided dives to locals and visitors for 50 years.
“Malibu has almost 30 miles of coastline, and as a result, we have a number of great areas to dive,” says Carter Crary, who, with his wife Barbara, has owned the diving service, school, and gear shop for over half its history.
“Barbara and I, and the staff that work here, just have a real passion for diving. We love sharing it with other people, and this is an absolutely fantastic venue to be able to do that,” says Carter, whose affinity for the sea surfaced early in life. Growing up near the beach in San Diego had him swimming by age 3, snorkeling by 6, surfing by 7, and spear-fishing by 9. “Diving was just a logical extension,” he explains.
As hobby transcended to passion, Carter eventually decided on a midlife career change, and 30 years ago he handed in his suit and tie to head for coastal L.A. to become a scuba instructor. He had no intention of staying for good, that is, until he met Barbara. “As a result, I said, ‘Maybe I’ll just stick around Los Angeles.’”
Since 1992, the husband-and-wife team have upheld the tradition of Malibu Divers as a local beacon and launching point for intimate explorations of the region’s aquatic wonder. There are a number of ways to experience diving in Malibu, and the options depend on whether or not someone is certified.
Those holding PADI and open water diver certifications can choose their own guided adventure or let the pros advise a promising spot. After their scuba gear is fitted by in-house experts, visitors can (depending on surf conditions) enter the sea locally from one of Malibu’s many beaches, or head offshore in one of the company’s dive boats before plunging into nearby depths or the pristine waters near the neighboring Catalina Island.
For others just getting their flippers wet with the sport, Malibu Divers’ services include introductory sessions in their pool or in the ocean from easy beach access points including Escondido, Corral Canyon Beach, and Old Malibu Road (just west of Carbon Beach). Ask Carter, and he’ll be happy to divulge some of his own favorite spots, like the waters surrounding the magnificent Leo Carrillo State Park, or Paradise Cove, a protected coastal pocket just east of Point Dume.
“Not only do you have facilities like restrooms and showers, but you have this beautiful protected area where people can’t hunt, so the marine life tends to be more prolific,” he says.
Known for its dense underwater kelp forests, the Malibu region is a bustling sanctuary for marine species who make their homes among the aquatic thicket. Unlike hiking in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains (where wildlife tends to evade its observers), critters of the kelp are inclined to make themselves known, mirroring the curiosity of their exotic human guests.
“The ocean is the one place you can literally interact with wild animals,” says Carter, including multicolored creatures such as kelp bass, perch, and the bright orange garibaldi (California’s marine state fish, which looks like half piranha, half goldfish). Closer to the ocean floor, lobsters and crabs scuttle about as stingrays and bat rays glide breezily by.
“If you’re lucky,” he says, “you will see a sea lion or two, which is really fun, because watching them is like watching underwater ballet.”
According to Carter, diving is in its prime in Southern California year-round. Spring and summer see massive migrations of black sea bass, which weigh from two to four hundred pounds and can grow up to six feet long. Autumn, however, provides the clearest conditions, especially September through Thanksgiving as the warm Santa Ana winds come sweeping in from the eastern desert.
“It gives us really amazing visibility,” he says, “up to 100 feet when conditions are just right, similar to Hawaii and Fiji.”
Now certified for 53 years, Carter has collected a lifetime of underwater adventures, and when he’s not diving himself, he’s sharing his knowledge to provide the best experience for others. For those cautious about getting started, he reminds that scuba is a remarkably safe sport. Not only is there an absence of sharks in the region (which puts many minds at ease), diving in general actually has a lower accident rate than bowling.
“It can be a life-changing experience,” says Carter. “It gives you a whole appreciation both for the ocean and the role that it plays in the health of the planet. My first breath on scuba was 55 years ago, and I still remember it. It can have that kind of an impact.”
All photos courtesy of Malibu Divers.