Two tourists snorkel at Casino Point Dive Park at Catalina Island Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

By the time Lisa Beach first explored the world below the ocean’s surface, she wasn’t sure a career in diving was even possible for her.

While Beach’s grandparents purchased homes on Catalina Island that she often visited as a child, she never envisioned herself spending much of her time underwater. It wasn’t until well into her adulthood, after years on the mainland working as an IT technician, that she got in the water to explore the secrets under its surface.

“I was 50 when I started and I was in terrible shape,” Beach said over the phone. “I was a total desk jockey and had no muscles, and the whole idea of exercise [sounded terrible].”

She did not start her life in love with the ocean, but her son was a different story. He decided to pursue a career as a dive professional, which led Beach to move to Catalina, where her son could have as much exposure to the water as possible.

Still, it took a decade of her son trying to convince her before Beach finally agreed to go on her first dive in November 2019. It was a moment that would drastically change the trajectory of her career and her life.

She now works for Diving Catalina, where she takes people on guided scuba and snorkeling dives.

Diving Catalina is one of several shops that make up the overall diving scene on the island, and the biggest place to dive is also its most unique, thanks not only to its history, but also because of its status. The Casino Point Dive Park is the country’s first nonprofit underwater dive park, established in 1962. It spans over 2.5 acres just off the harbor that the Catalina Casino building overlooks in Avalon.

Two island visitors gear up to snorkel at Casino Point Dive Park on Catalina Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The idea for a park was first discussed in the ‘50s, when the area’s lack of safe accessibility for divers started becoming clear. People had come to the area to dive, but it wasn’t the easiest task to actually get into the water.

“Early on, divers just had to walk down the rocks and jump in the water,” Jon Council, who is the head of the Avalon Diving History Exhibit and President of the Historical Diving Society, said. “It was a little bit risky.”

As a nonprofit sponsored by the City of Avalon, the park doesn’t charge to allow people to dive. The lack of cost is one of several reasons the park is considered one of the best places for new divers to get started. There are other places to dive at the island, but they require a dive boat taking people offshore.

Divers will find life of all kinds, including macrocystis pyrifera—the fastest growing kelp species in the world. Council says that in ideal conditions, which generally occur when the water is cooler in winter, the kelp can grow up to two feet a day.

Of course, fish and other types of sea life can also be present, depending on the season you are diving in. Yellowtail jacks, barracuda, small tuna, and giant sea bass are just some of the species seen in the abundant ecosystem within the park during the summer and spring seasons.

For greater visibility, divers who come in the winter can see up to 100 feet in the water, when the cooler temperatures prevent kelp from shedding organic particulates. That time of year also offers wildlife sightings that include the two-spotted octopus, moray eels and even sea lions.

“It’s just really gorgeous down there,” Beach said.

Shipwrecks are also present at the park to be explored, each with its own history. One of those is the SueJac wreck, considered one of the most accessible wrecks in the world by diving communities.

“The problem we often run into is that these hulks are often difficult to reach, either through horizontal distance from shore or vertically in terms of depth,” an article on California Diving News said of shipwrecks. “But there are exceptions. Perhaps the best is the easily accessible wreck of the sailboat SueJac.”

It sank on Nov. 4, 1980, after a strong offshore wind blew the sailboat hard enough for its anchor to slip, sending it crashing into the rocks and settling on the ocean floor on the southeastern tip of the park. At depths ranging from 60 to 90 feet just offshore of a harbor, the SueJac provides ideal conditions for an exploratory dive.

As a whole, the park has been held in reverence for years by locals and visitors alike. While it was not considered a marine protected area until January 2012, there was a general understanding of respect at the park.

“It would have been super, super frowned upon if you went in there with a spear gun,” Council said. “Everybody diving there would have given a major stink eye. It was sort of an unwritten thing.”

Improvements to the park, however, are a different story. One of the most notable additions, for example, has been the installation of stairs in 1998.

Ease of access to the water has made it an ideal choice for many diving students to complete some of their certification training, Beach said.

“Almost every Southern California … dive shop brings their students to the park, particularly for the open water components of their certification,” she said.

Another man-made addition to the dive park is a memorial to an important figure in both diving and Catalina Island history. Jacques Cousteau was a French explorer who helped invent the Aqua-Lung, which was the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus—or scuba for short.

“That changed diving overnight,” Council said. “It was like somebody opened the floodgates of what is now an $11 billion industry in the United States.”

In addition to this key contribution to underwater exploration, Cousteau was an advocate of Catalina Island, receiving international recognition for his documentary on the squid of the island. About 40 feet deep in the park is a memorial to Cousteau, which was originally placed there following his death in October 1997. It was recently replaced with an updated plaque in October 2020.

Two snorkelers enter the water at Casino Point Dive Park to join their group off the Catalina Island coast Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Several shops on Catalina allow divers to explore the park. The biggest is Catalina Divers Supply, which recently moved into a newly built dive shop in the Catalina Casino building.

Others, like Diving Catalina, are smaller operations without a brick-and-mortar location. Even though these operations are mobile and don’t have some of the resources, there is no shortage of customers for them to attend to.

Despite Beach’s recent start, she says she is closing in on having done 1,000 dives for various purposes, many of them being with customers at Casino Point.

For Beach, diving has become more than just a new way to explore. It has been a place for her to exercise and get back into shape, which she says she enjoys doing without sweating through diving. It has become a place of empowerment, where she can look to help all sorts of families experience something special.

But mostly, it has become a place for her to escape the busy world above the surface and dive into a new one that is peaceful and quiet, yet so full of life and beauty.

“It’s the experience of just being completely without care and being able to engage in an environment that nobody else really knows is there,” Beach said. “There’s no drama, no politics…[it’s] such an immersive experience where you can just let it all go.”

“I still find joy in it everyday.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.