The Best Snorkeling Spots in San Diego

Last Updated: April 2021

San Diego might not be the first destination that comes to mind when you think of snorkeling.  However, hidden under the waves there are unique marine ecosystems to be discovered.

While snorkeling in San Diego may be a little trickier than your typical Caribbean location, there are still amazing spots for adventurers of all experience levels.

It's fitting that San Diego would be an ideal snorkel location as the snorkel itself was innovated in part by the early 1900's divers off of La Jolla Cove.

The "Bottom Scratchers" were famous for their daring feats and indulgent beachside barbeques touting freshly caught fish from San Diego waterways.  

If you are new to the sport, check out our Beginner's Guide to Snorkeling.

sea lions la jolla san diego

La Jolla Cove

What can you see in San Diego?

San Diego is home to a range of unique marine ecosystems that support a wide variety of species, including marine mammals, fish, and crustaceans.

The marine ecosystems are abundant with rock reefs, undersea grasslands, sandy flats, dense kelp forests, and submarine canyons.  

So you may be wondering where in San Diego you can find decent visibility, good water quality, and marine life? 

Keep reading to discover the top five snorkel spots in San Diego County.

5. Mission Point Park 

mission point park jetty san diego
  • Experience level: Beginner
  • Location: Map
  • Crowds: Expect crowds on the weekends during peak hours.
  • What you will see: Garibaldi, Opaleye, California Spiny Lobster, Calico Bass.

Follow Mission Boulevard as far south as you can to the South Mission Beach Jetty and turn east toward Mission Bay. Park in the public parking lot and enter the water adjacent to the rocks on the beachside.

Once known as False Bay, Mission Bay was originally a smaller sibling to the seemingly perfect harbor of San Diego. In the early 1900s, a flood rerouted the San Diego River from San Diego Bay to False Bay. Inspiring the designation of a California State Park and the development of what we now know as Mission Beach and Pacific Beach.  

While this part of San Diego is heavily influenced by human impact, Mission Point Park offers a glimpse into San Diego's pristine wildlife.

Hug the rocks, and you're likely to find an assortment of species including California's state fish: the Garibaldi. Known partially for its gender-bending adaptations and its fluorescent orange color. The Garibaldi is likely to be found in most rocky snorkeling areas in San Diego.

4. Sunset Cliffs

sunset cliffs san diego
  • Experience level: Intermediate
  • Location: Map
  • Crowds: Expect to see many surfers. At sunset, you're likely to see plenty a beachgoers up on the cliffs. 
  • What you will see: Calico Bass, Kelpfish, Skulpin, Harbor Seals, Garibaldi.

Better known as a surf spot, Sunset Cliffs is a safe haven for snorkelers looking for decent visibility even in windy or cloudy conditions. The cliffs provide shelter from the elements and support an abundance of rocky reefs. 

You're likely to find many decent places for snorkeling at Sunset Cliffs. We recommend driving to the southernmost point of Sunset Cliffs Blvd. to Lamont Street and parking in the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park parking lot. 

There are several ways down to the beach, but to minimize your impact, consider taking the stairs known as the access point for north and south Garbage Beach surf breaks.

Avoid low tide at these locations as you are likely to bump into rocks. For ideal conditions, search for windless days, high tides, and small surf.  

3. Bird Rock

bird rock san diego snorkeling
  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Location: Map
  • Crowds: Crowds can be found at this spot during ideal surf conditions, which indicates a poor day for snorkeling in this area.
  • What you will see: Cormorants, California Brown Pelican, Western Gull, Purple Sea Urchin, Kelp Forest.

Another common surf spot, this La Jolla location is typically teeming with life. You're likely to bump into your fair share of marine mammals, sea birds, and fish.

Why is Bird rock such a great place for snorkeling? The Southern California Marine Protected Area (MPA) was established to help preserve and protect the sensitive ecosystem supporting San Diego's marine biodiversity.

Today, La Jolla is home to a network of both state and federal marine protected areas to preserve our underwater environments.

To access Bird Rock, drive down to the end of Bird Rock Avenue. Walk down to the public access beach and hit the water to start snorkeling. There is a large shelf of rock reef that stretchs out well past a rock raised at least 30 feet in the air. The rock is typically topped by cormorants, seagulls, pelicans, and other sea birds. For ideal conditions, similar to Sunset Cliffs, keep an eye out for small swell, low wind, and high tides.

2. La Jolla Shores

la jolla shores san diego snorkeling

La Jolla Shores

  • Experience Level: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Location: Map
  • Crowds: Expect crowds during summer months particularly on the beach. The same is not always true for the water (the idea of swimming with sharks typically thins the crowds). 
  • What you'll see: Leopard Sharks, Stingrays, Bat Rays, Shovel nose Guitar Fish (and the occasional sea turtle)

La Jolla Shores is arguably the best place to learn to surf in North America. The beach is supplied with a slow and rolling wave that doesn't typically break over 3-4 feet, which is near-ideal for novice surfers. 

But enough about surfing, La Jolla Shores is also is home to some of San Diego's most beautiful and unique marine species.

More specifically, during the summer months from late June to early September, schools of Leopard sharks use this sheltered harbor as a nursery.

As a result, on the southern end of the beach (past the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club), you can enter the mixed rocky and sandy flats which make up the northern edge of La Jolla cove.

On a typical day, with decent visibility, snorkelers of all ability levels are likely to encounter Leopard sharks ranging in size from a mere 6 inches to as large as 6 feet.  

1. La Jolla Cove

La Jolla San Diego Snorkeling seals
  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Location: Map
  • Crowds: You can expect to see large crowds in the summer months and even diehard long-distance swimmers throughout the winter.
  • What you will see:  Kelp forests, rock reefs, and sand bottom ecosystems. 

By far, the best snorkel location in San Diego County is La Jolla Cove.

Situated at the mouth of a 3000-foot underwater canyon, the cold water rising from the deep ocean is filled with rich nutrients. Supporting the healthiest ecosystem in Southern California. 

The Matlahuayl marine protected area ensures the protection of the unique species which you'll find in La Jolla Cove. This MPA has been in effect for over a decade and has seen a lasting impact. As a result, you're likely to see a whole host of species in La Jolla Cove ranging from sea lions, brown pelican to moray eels.

You can expect to see most species which live in Southern California kelp forests, including kelp bass, sheep head, white seabass, and the occasional yellowtail.

To access La Jolla Cove, park adjacent to La Jolla Cove Park and enter the water via the main lifeguard station.

Keep your distance from California sea lions and harbor seals. They may appear cute and docile but are, in fact, wild animals and have been known to bite visitors. Strong currents in deep water make this location an advanced snorkeling destination. 

la jolla cove sunset snorkeling

San Diego is home to some of the last remaining kelp forests in Southern California. These areas still need your help and support by caring for your local waterways and respecting the laws of marine protected areas. 

So grab your fins, slap on some sunscreen, and don't forget your snorkel because you're in for an adventure at these 5 best snorkeling spots in San Diego!

This post may contain affiliate links. Read the full disclosure here.

Related Posts