Wild Wet Playland : Catalina City Park Is the Only One in State That’s Under Water

Times Staff Writer

Rick Franklin awoke during a vacation in Avalon thinking he would be spending the day hiking. Celebrating his 32nd birthday in a Santa Catalina Island cottage with his wife, Patty, Franklin bounded out of bed early, drank a cup of coffee and began contemplating the day.

That’s when Steve Whittaker showed up at the door wearing a diver’s watch.

“The watch is what tipped me,” Franklin said. An hour later the young engineering manager from Chino and his wife were 49 feet under water with tanks strapped to their backs. Unknown to Franklin, his wife had arranged a birthday surprise that her husband had long dreamed of: a day of scuba diving under the close tutelage of an instructor.

“I’ve wanted to do this ever since I was a kid watching Jacques Cousteau,” admitted Franklin, who had never been diving before. In fact, he was doing something akin to what he had probably done many times as a child on vacation: taking a guided tour.


Welcome to Casino Point, California’s only underwater municipal park.

Weekend Attraction

On a typical summer Saturday, city officials say, as many as 300 scuba-adorned visitors test its depths to take photos, hone their underwater skills or just plain gawk.

“It’s a good attraction for the city,” said Avalon harbor master John Phelps, under whose jurisdiction the park lies. “It gives diving people something to do.”

Visitors pay no fees. And maintenance is minimal, Phelps said, with the city supplying only the buoys and rope to mark park boundaries while local divers supply the voluntary labor to keep them in place.

When the island’s famous Casino was being built in 1929, part of the process involved blasting away huge pieces of rock jutting out into the water at the city’s west end where a dance pavilion was planned. As a result, local divers say, tons of stone slid into the water, creating a huge reef of rocky ridges and pinnacles that formed a perfect habitat for marine life.

Along with the higher concentration of fish came a higher density of kelp attached to the rock. And because the rock cut down on the amount of silt in the water and the spot was naturally protected from storms, the site began enjoying average underwater visibility of 50 to 100 feet--a condition considered spectacular by mainland standards.

Merchant Started It

In 1962, Carl Koehler, then owner of Avalon’s only dive shop, began laying out the first boundaries of what he considered the island’s most accessible diving area. Two years later the city obliged him by declaring the site the nation’s first underwater municipal park. While other areas along the coast are state-designated underwater reserves, local divers say, Casino Point is the only city-dedicated diving area they know of except for one set up more recently near Seattle.


Today, the park--located directly behind the Casino within 50 yards of its ocean-side wall--is marked by the rope and buoys to keep boaters out. Although only 75 yards wide and about 270 yards long, the park features sandy as well as rocky bottoms, depths ranging from 10 to 90 feet and no fewer than seven shipwrecks, including a 70-foot metal schooner, glass-bottomed tourist boat, pontoon boat and an assortment of wooden pleasure craft.

“We consider them renewable resources,” Jon Hardy, owner of one of the island’s three dive services, said of the wrecks. Of the seven, he said, three sank naturally where they now sit, another three sank elsewhere and were later towed to their present locations and one was scuttled in the park as an attraction to divers.

Called a Natural

The park is a natural collection area for sunken boats, Hardy said, because one of the island’s major anchoring areas lies immediately outside its boundaries. Winds and underwater currents, he said, conspire to pull wrecks past the boundary. “As the environment destroys (the existing wrecks),” Hardy said, “new ones are swept in.”

But park visitors are expected to look and not take. A city ordinance outlaws spearfishing within Avalon city limits. And although lobster and abalone are not protected by law, local custom strongly dictates that they be left alone.

One result is an abundance of park dwellers who aren’t afraid of people. A 25-pound California sheephead fish named Oscar, for instance, has been nosing up to divers for at least three years.

“He’s the subject of many photos,” said dive operator Mary Stein. “We’re working on trying to develop some other friendships in the park, but I wouldn’t say we’re on a first-name basis with any eels yet.”


Because of the near-perfect conditions and easy access from a low service wall about 30 feet from the water’s edge, Casino Point is visited regularly by mainland dive classes out for their first checkout dives. To make things easier, one local dive company operates a weekend service truck equipped with a compressor. Stationed in the parking lot during high-volume days, the mobile dive shop provides air fills, equipment and snacks. Guided tours of the park can be arranged for $75 to $100, depending on level of experience and special interest.

The Franklins had no experience at all. After being fitted for gear, they received a few pointers in its use from instructor Whittaker. “I don’t swim in the ocean because I’m afraid of jellyfish,” a nervous Patty Franklin admitted before entering the water.

She didn’t have to worry.

Half an hour later she and her husband were happily tossing a sea slug back and forth, massaging the arms of a brittle star and feeding a group of fish. Later they explored the Kismet, a shipwreck outfitted witha full-length mirror on its deck for divers interested in their reflections.

“I could do this again tomorrow,” said a smiling Rick Franklin after it was all over.

Patty Franklin’s response was more direct. “I’m hooked,” she said. “I loved it. I’m never fishing again.”