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Diving the Catalina Islands

Destination: Flamingo

This morning, I was thrilled to dive the Catalina Islands with Aquacenter Diving in Playa Flamingo. The Catalinas compose an archipelago of volcanic and sedimentary islands just a few miles offshore from Flamingo. Due to soft coral and fragile sea fans, these islands are normally, but not exclusively, reserved for intermediate to advanced divers who can navigate deep and drift dives (where divers are transported by tidal currents) without a problem. Today, visibility was decent -- between 20 and 30 feet -- and our hopes of seeing exceptional marine life were high.

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A small speedboat taxied our group of four to an enormous, two-story cruiser that can hold up to 18 scuba divers. Conveniences like a bathroom -- no more peeing in your wetsuit! -- and running freshwater (for rinsing salt off your mask or waterproof camera case) made the trip particularly comfortable and carefree. Our gang ascended to the top deck for better views and a briefing from the dive master.

Twenty minutes later, we were wriggling into our wetsuits at Los Sombreros, a dive site composed of two rock islands that look like wide-brimmed hats sticking out of the sea. I noticed the water around the Catalina Islands was considerably bluer than at Playa del Coco. I also noticed a stronger surge, which is dive-speak for the push and pull of the tide. There seemed to be more chilly thermoclines (layered temperature changes underwater) than in Coco.

Frenzied fish caves were a common sight at Los Sombreros, with giant schools of king angel fish, barberfish, moorish idols and cortez angelfish all competing for the same algae. It was fascinating to watch how quickly thousands of creatures pecked and gnawed at the rocks. I had seen similar vibrant species in much smaller numbers at Playa del Coco, and was stunned to see them in such huge quantities just 20 miles south.

Our second dive was at El Elefante, or The Elephant. This dive was a bit deeper, but for the same 40 minute time frame. We spotted everything we had seen previously, plus a number of octopi and green moray eels. Spiky scorpion fish sat so perfectly camouflaged that they looked as if they hadn't moved a muscle in decades. Once finished, we returned to the dive shop.

Next, I was off to Hotel Conchal in Playa Brasilito, just ten minutes south of Flamingo. The owner gave me a short tour of the property and offered some suggestions about the area. I was impressed with his warm and caring demeanor, which perfectly matched the ambiance of the hotel. Pleased to feel so at home, I cranked up the air conditioning and took a five-minute nap before preparing for my afternoon horseback ride.

Santana Tours, located just across the street, took me on a private tour along Playa Brasilito all the way to the end of Playa Conchal. My mild-tempered horse named Payaso, or clown, was in fit shape. We galloped about half way down the beach, past Conchal's open-air souvenir market and down to the sparkling aquamarine waters. The moment we arrived, the skies darkened and threatened to downpour -- so we took this as our cue to head back.

I'm not really sure why I torture myself the way I do. Every time a horseback ride gets thrown into the mix, I convince myself that I don't need long pants to ride -- which never fails to result in excruciating pain. Today was no exception -- by the time the excursion was over, my exposed legs were scraped raw from the saddle.

To distract me from the burn, I ordered a delicious mahi mahi and avocado pizza from the hotel's Papaya restaurant. After a quick walk on the beach, I was ready for bed. That night, I drifted off to sleep thinking about how much I love the Gold Coast.

Diving the Catalina Islands in Pictures

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