Cruising along Highway 1 through Santa Barbara County you can’t help but look to the sea in wonderment. The Channel Islands are on the horizon, beckoning, but patches of kelp, near shore, will inevitably catch your eye. Santa Barbara County is blessed with numerous nearshore reefs and kelp forests, but perhaps the most beautiful is Naples Reef.
Naples Reef lies about 13 miles west or up the coast (remember: the coast runs east-west here) from the city of Santa Barbara. The reef lies offshore from an old orchard inland from Highway 1. One mile offshore, the reef gets the blessing of clear waters from offshore currents. Visibility averages 20 feet, with days of 40 feet not unusual. Another advantage of being far offshore is the increased chance of unusual encounters. On one of my dives, a mother gray whale and calf passed right over me (but I missed it, concentrating instead on photographing a tiny nudibranch).
But because it lies so far offshore, this is not a beach dive. Still, many approach the reef from shore using kayaks. Kayak divers will find turn offs along highway 1 where they can then scurry down dirt paths to an entry along a narrow sand beach.
While kayak diving is possible, power boats are better. Larger boats can launch from Santa Barbara Harbor. Smaller boats, such as inflatables, can be launched at the Goleta pier, about three miles down the coast. Camping and shore launching of inflatables can also be done at El Capitan and Refugio State Beaches. Truth Aquatics will occasionally run open boat trips to the site, or you can always charter the boat for special trip.
Locating the reef is easy with kelp growth returning to the area. If you can’t see the kelp from the surface, a strong current may be running. A GPS will help locate the reef, but is not a necessity. A number of good line-ups are ashore. Line up the tip of the long oil pier to the northeast (about 240°) under the white buildings with pink roofs. To the north (directly ashore) line up the small white water tank on the hillside with the a metal power pole below. Also ashore, due north, line up the small “V” canyon in the bluff with the abandoned orchard to the east of the large solitary home. A depth finder will help pinpoint you over the reef.