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One of the most exciting ways to discover the riches of the Golden State’s gorgeous coast is with a California snorkeling adventure. Swim into idyllic coves, around beautiful islands, and marvel at the beauty of giant kelp forests, where sea creatures conceal themselves.

From viewing northern California’s aquatic life to southern California’s unique rock formations, each region has something to offer snorkeling enthusiasts.

Dive into the Pacific Ocean and uncover some of the best snorkeling in California.

Diver’s Cove, Laguna Beach

Aerial view of Diver’s Cove, Laguna Beach

Diver’s Cove, Laguna Beach

Venture to beautiful Laguna Beach in southern California, situated between Los Angeles and San Diego, for some exciting snorkeling.

Appropriate for all skill levels, the sheltered Diver’s Cove offers an ideal option for almost anyone looking to experience the underwater realm that California is known for without having to swim too far from the shore.

As you peer through your snorkel mask, keep an eye out for purple sea urchins, starfish, garibaldi, rockfish, treefish, octopus, calico bass, and more. These are all quintessential species of marine life that can be spotted when snorkeling in California.

Soft sands of Diver’s Cove, Laguna Beach

Diver’s Cove, Laguna Beach

After your snorkeling expedition, soak up some of that Golden State sun from the sands of this well-loved beach. Or head into downtown Laguna Beach and refuel at one of the many delicious restaurants. Diver’s Cove in Laguna Beach is one of Orange County’s best snorkeling spots.

La Jolla Cove, San Diego

La Jolla Cove, one of the best snorkeling in California

La Jolla Cove, San Diego

With its diverse sea life and interesting underwater landscape, La Jolla Cove has some of the best snorkeling in California; in fact, it’s considered one of the best snorkel spots in the world.

La Jolla Ecological Reserve and Underwater Park includes 6,000 acres of protected underwater terrain with several different areas suitable for exciting snorkeling.

Sea lion swimming in La Jolla Cove, San Diego

Sea lion

Depending upon the currents and visibility, the general cove area, the kelp beds to the south of the cove, and the seven northern sea caves are all great places to venture beneath the surface.

If the conditions are right, you’ll have the opportunity to see schools of fish such as garibaldi (the state’s saltwater fish) and shovel nose guitar fish, starfish, urchins, leopard sharks, seals, sea lions, and sea turtles, all of which are attracted to the warm waters of the region.

Swim in the waters near Clam Cave, where marine life can often be seen in a more concentrated area, too.

To raise your chance of seeing leopard sharks, plan your snorkeling endeavor between the months of June and December, when they migrate to the cove to give birth to their young.

Casino Point Dive Park, Catalina Island

Man snorkeling along Casino Point Dive Park, Catalina Island

Casino Point Dive Park, Catalina Island

Visit Catalina Island, one of the Golden State’s gorgeous Channel Islands and a fantastic snorkeling destination. The clear waters offer great visibility while the protected marine reserves provide an ideal environment for marine life to thrive.

People relaxing in Descanso Beach

Descanso Beach, Catalina Island

Descanso Beach, located on the island’s rocky southeastern coast, is a favorite spot for swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, snorkeling, and kayaking in California. The white sand and azure waters are an idyllic backdrop.

Man snorkeling in Casino Point Dive Park, Catalina Island

Casino Point Dive Park, Catalina Island

Casino Point Dive Park on the right side of the cove is a popular spot for snorkelers and divers.

It’s known as the first dive park dedicated to underwater exploration and gained recognition thanks to Jacques Cousteau, who made one of his riveting documentaries here; there’s even a memorial plaque to the Frenchman 45 feet below the surface.

Swim within the two-acre protected area and marvel at senorita fish, opaleye, kelpfish, sheephead, calico bass, and the bright orange garibaldi.

For more snorkeling, hop in the water on the left side of the picturesque bay and discover a wide variety of fish and other marine life, including sea lions. If you don’t have your own snorkel gear, rentals are available at the beach.

Read: Unique Places to Visit in California 

Lovers Point, Monterey Bay

Rocky shore of Lovers Point, Monterey Bay

Lovers Point, Monterey Bay

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, located near Monterey, is by far one of the top places for snorkeling in the state of California.

Referred to as the “Serengeti of the Sea”, the protected waters span the central shoreline from San Francisco to Cambria. In addition to rich sea life and an impressive ecosystem, the underwater terrain is a delight to explore, with mystical canyons and kelp forests.

Rocky shoreline of Lovers Point, Monterey Bay

Lovers Point, Monterey Bay

One of the five regions in this peninsula area designated as a marine reserve is Lovers Point, which stretches from the Hopkins Marine Station at the point to the western side of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Humpback whale breaching

Humpback whale

Venture out during high tide, which allows you to glide over the grassy seabed with ease, on the lookout for harbor and elephant seals, bottlenose dolphins, squid, a wide array of crustaceans, sharks, and even humpback whales.

You may even be lucky enough to spot a playful sea otter swimming between the gently waving fronds of the kelp beds.

Read: Best Aquariums in the World 

Refugio State Beach, Santa Barbara

Soft sands of Refugio State Beach, Santa Barbara

Refugio State Beach, Santa Barbara

The point break at Refugio State Beach in beautiful Santa Barbara, California, lures surfers hoping to catch a thrill on the swell, but it’s also a fantastic spot to do some snorkeling.

From the mile-and-a-half-long stretch of sand, snorkelers and free divers will find a rich reef to explore at the end of the beach’s cove. Since the low-lying reefs are approximately 50 yards from shore, it’s possible to access the area by swimming.

Rocky shore of Refugio State Beach, Santa Barbara

Refugio State Beach, Santa Barbara

Here, you can spot starfish, sponges, anemones, and sea hares, as well as halibut, calico bass, and possibly sheepshead, a large, striped fish with strangely human-like teeth.

If you’re a strong swimmer, you can swim out to the western reef as well, where the kelp forests provide excellent hiding spots for rockfish, cabezon, and again, sheepshead in an area that’s remote enough to preserve unspoiled nature at its finest.

Read: One Day in Santa Barbara

Turtle Town, La Jolla

Sea turtle spotted in Turtle Town, La Jolla

Sea turtle

This thrilling snorkel endeavor is suitable for more advanced swimmers and snorkelers willing to have a scavenger-hunt-style adventure in the waters of La Jolla. “Turtle Town” might be tricky to find, but once you see the swath of red and green kelp forest, you’re in for a real treat.

Situated between the “Marine Room” and “The Cove” snorkel areas in La Jolla’s Marine Sanctuary, this spot is a lesser-known treasure, where you’ll have a good chance of spotting a graceful sea turtle gliding through the clear waters, as well as seals, schools of fish, and even small sharks.

If you enjoy venturing off the beaten path, Turtle Town might be the best snorkeling destination in California for you.

Mission Beach, San Diego

Long stretch of sand of Mission Bay Beach

Mission Beach, San Diego

The buzzing Mission Beach area is one of San Diego’s prime destinations for sun-fueled activities. Whether fishing off the pier, riding a bike down the boardwalk, or lounging in the sand, this stretch of sand is a popular spot for embracing the southern California Coast lifestyle.

Mission Beach is also one of the top snorkeling destinations in the state. Off the coast, snorkelers will find the perfect place for viewing marine life in the shallow, protected cove at Mission Point, known for its diverse marine life.

Look out for starfish, sea slugs, rays, urchins, kelpfish, moray eels, abalone, rockfish, and octopus as you swim.

Those looking to take it a step further and embark on a dive will find “Wreck Alley” an amazing option. Approximately half a mile from the sandy shore, it’s a series of shipwrecks that provide an artificial reef frequented by divers, rich in marine life and favored by sea lions, too.

Lover’s Cove, Catalina Island

View of the water in Lover’s Cove, Catalina Island

Lover’s Cove, Catalina Island Photo by Renee Silverman on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

On the southeastern coast of Catalina Island, Lover’s Cove is a favorite snorkeling destination and protected marine region near the town of Avalon.

With a wetsuit and water shoes, as the shoreline is rocky, jump in and explore the underwater ecosystem of the Channel Islands, which includes the eerie beauty of a massive kelp forest.

Sea urchin spotted in California

Sea urchin

You’ll feel as though you’ve entered a different world as you view starfish, sea cucumbers, lobsters, octopus, sea urchins, and fish varieties like the vibrant orange garibaldi.

Lover’s Cove is one of the best places to snorkel in California and a snorkel expedition here is one of Catalina Island’s top natural attractions.

Read: One Day in Catalina Island

Marine Room, La Jolla, San Diego

Leopard shark in Marine Room, La Jolla, San Diego

Leopard shark

Head to La Jolla Shores during the summer months to see the famous leopard sharks in their natural habitat.

Nicknamed the “Marine Room” after the restaurant next to the beach, this area on the eastern shore of the La Jolla Ecological Reserve is a migration spot for hundreds of leopard sharks.

These docile, harmless creatures are a delight to see and can be viewed from the shore, or while snorkeling.

Closeup view of a spiny lobster

Spiny lobster

Wade in the shallow waters and watch the dance of the spotted leopard sharks as they congregate here, or venture out further for a swim and snorkel in the reef area. Here, you’ll also have the opportunity to look for spiny lobsters, eels, sea urchins, and a variety of fish.

Snorkeling among the large number of leopard sharks, though, is a bucket-list experience particular to California, and an unforgettable way to spend part of your day in La Jolla.

Read: Best Small Towns in California 

McAbee Beach, Monterey

McAbee Beach, one of the best snorkeling in California

McAbee Beach, Monterey

With the popular Cannery Row and aquarium, the central Californian city of Monterey is a well-loved destination.

It also happens to be an amazing place for snorkeling and diving from McAbee Beach, named after John McAbee who bought the land here in the early 20th century with a view to developing the tourism industry.

A kelp forest and rocky ocean bottom are home to several species of invertebrates such as sponges and anemones, as well as rockfish, shrimp, kelpfish, and starfish. Keep an eye out for curious sea otters as well, which often appear, much to the delight of swimmers.

The long pipes that were historically used to pump sardines from the boats to the canneries run almost 40 feet in length from the shore and provide something of an artificial reef as well. Here, you might spot rockfish or halibut.

Snorkeling in McAbee Beach is great for all skill levels and perfect for those interested in trying some underwater photography.

Celebrity Millennium sailing in California

Celebrity Millennium

A cruise is a fantastic way to experience some of the best snorkeling in California. Browse our California cruise itineraries and book your coastal adventure today.

Free Vacation Planning Services

Free Vacation Planning Services