Not all of San Diego’s great parks are located on dry land. Spanning a 6,000 acre-wide area of ocean floor, tidal shoals, and coastal shoreline north of downtown San Diego off La Jolla, The La Jolla Underwater Park is a marine life preservation and aquatic recreation zone with multiple components.
An Undersea Marine Playground
The presence of two artificial reefs, sunk to attract marine life closer to shore, two underwater canyons, and a kelp forest make La Jolla Underwater Park a prime destination for kayakers, swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers. The Park’s ocean territory is split into two sections: the Ecological Reserve and Marine Life Refuge.
The Ecological Reserve, the zone with the most special protections, including a ban on all fishing and scavenging, makes up the vast majority of what is known as the Underwater Park. Here, buoys mark the Reserve’s perimeter, which lies between the grassy bluffs of Scripps Park to the west and La Jolla Shores to the northeast, extending out into La Jolla and Scripps Canyons offshore. Buoys also signal sections where boats are restricted from entering or must travel at no more than 5 mph.
The Reserve is a shelter for numerous species of oceanic flora and fauna, including spotted leopard sharks, sea lions, dolphins, and migrating whales. The easy slope of the ocean floor, in addition to the presence of the kelp forest and adjoining reefs, provides for what is usually a gentle current, and ocean visibility is frequently noted as excellent, owing largely to the protected status of these waters.
La Jolla Underwater Canyon
Within the Ecological Reserve, beyond the slope the bottom takes a sudden and 500-foot-deep plunge into the La Jolla Canyon. The canyon reaches depths of 600 feet within the park. The abrupt drop and abundance of marine life help to explain why migrating whales can often be spotted close to shore.
A 30-foot by 75-foot lithocrete map of the underwater park was completed in September 2008 at La Jolla Shores beach. It is located near the boardwalk between the restrooms and the children’s play area at the south end of Kellogg Park.
Marine Life Refuge
North of the Reserve, off La Jolla Shores, lies the Marine Life Refuge, an area used for research by the neighboring Scripps Institute of Oceanography for decades. In this part of the Park, which includes Scripps Pier, fishing and scavenging are permitted. Next to the refuge and pier is the scenic Scripps Coastal Reserve, a strip of beach and coastal bluffs.
Given that most of La Jolla Underwater Park’s sights lay below sea level, the question of how to reach them begs asking.
Just east of Scripps Park is La Jolla Cove, a small beach with a foothold between the surrounding cliffs. Although this route to the Ecological Refuge is the most direct, because La Jolla Cove is located within the Refuge, there are strictly enforced rules prohibiting beachgoers from using surfboards, boogie boards, and inflatable rafts and tubes. Furthermore, markers in the surrounding area restrict sections of the Cove as a boat-free swimming zone.
But for those only interested in swimming out from the shore, wading in the shallows, or simply lying on the beach, La Jolla Cove is a beautiful location with relatively calm waters and visibility often clear to the ocean floor. Again, as part of the Reserve, fishing and collecting is prohibited – that includes taking even the smallest of seashells.
Alternatively, the Ecological Reserve borders La Jolla Shores to the north, a mile-long stretch of beach inside the Marine Life Refuge that serves as a popular launching point for kayakers and scuba divers due to its more relaxed rules, easily accessible terrain, and the availability of nearby free parking.
The area containing both beaches is located roughly two miles west of I-5 and near the restaurants and shops of the Village of La Jolla to the south.