This is the most frequently dived site in San Diego and the most used diving instruction site. There are, perhaps, two reasons for this: there is ample parking space and lots of grassy space for instructors to set up for their classes, and the underwater topography makes for good conditions here even when other places are washed out. For several hundred yards out from shore, the bottom is sandy and slopes VERY gradually from 0' to about 30' deep, after that the slope increases down to about 60' deep where the canyon and various walls begin. Dives at the Shores can be downright boring, when all you see is a bunch of sand and maybe a rockfish or two, or completely amazing when you see fleets of bat rays, millions of market squid, swarms of jellyfish or salp chains that float in, sea lions, bait balls, etc. You just never know what's going to happen at the Shores.
The Shores is a marine protected area. Please do not remove anything except floating plastic garbage (e.g., plastic wrappers, small plastic bags). Please do not disturb or kill any living things or remove/damage historical artifacts.
In summer or when there are a lot of beachgoers present, it's best to make the lifeguards happy and enter/exit in front of the bathrooms at Vallecitos Street (south of the main lifeguard tower). In winter or when there are considerably fewer people present, there are no regulations keeping you from entering/exiting at other places—such as out front of the main tower, which makes for a shorter surface swim out to the dive sites around the northern peninsula (e.g., The North Wall).
La Jolla Shores line-ups frequently refer to the palm trees on the north edge of Vallecitos Street and to how the west end of Scripps Pier (the end out in the ocean) lines up with various houses on the cliff behind the pier. Here are some photos to help you recognize these lineups:
Swim out on the surface straight from the bathrooms at Vallecitos Street. As you swim west, keep the palm trees on the north side of Vallecitos lined up (so that you can only see the first tree). When you get far enough west so that the end of the Scripps Pier (to the north) lines up with the middle of the salmon-colored house on the cliff behind the pier, descend. You should be in about 30' of water, just before the canyon begins. Drop down and swim due west for a short distance, where you will hit a 3-5' wall. Follow the wall north. The wall will get slightly taller as you go, and a second short wall will appear below the main wall. The wall is rocky, with a lot of holes. In the holes you will find burrowing clams, octopuses, starfish. All around the wall will be many goby, sheephead, rockfish, perhaps a scorpionfish. After 100 yards or so you will come to a point, below which a ridge runs down into the canyon. This is Vallecitos Point at the main wall at La Jolla Shores. Look in the holes in the vertical and horizontal surfaces of the point. On the plain above the point (well back from the point) you may find large halibut and/or visiting bat rays. Look for a large male sheepshead. Continuing north, the wall will gradually shorten until is disappears into a sandy slope. Return to shore on a compass heading of 90–120 degrees, depending on how far around the point you got.
Option 1: Enter as at the Main Wall, but turn south when you get to the top of the canyon. You will go through a sandy slope section before you get to the walls. Keep to 70 or 80' deep until you find walls.
Option 2: Enter the water at the bathrooms or from in front of the Sea Lodge. Avoid the boat launch lane. Swim out to the closest (least south) white 5 MPH buoy and descend there in 25' or so of water. Head 270 degrees for a short distance to the beginning of the canyon. Somewhere in the 80 - 110' deep range, level off and turn left (south-ish). You will go around several points and find walls varying from short to dropping off further than you can see (these tall ones are some distance south). The walls vary from the Main Wall and North Wall in that they are more like clay. There is less visible life here, but on good days it's like soaring over the Grand Canyon. Towards the end of your air and/or bottom time, you will find sandy slopes that may contain several types of large shrimp. Return on a heading of 60 degrees or less. When you surface, beware of boats.
Option 1: If it isn't summer or the beach isn't very full, enter in front of the main lifeguard tower. While some newer lifeguards may try to tell you that you cannot enter in front of the main lifeguard tower, there is in fact no regulation keeping you from doing so. That said, don't push it when the beach is full.
Option 2: If there are a lot of people at the beach, enter at the bathrooms and immediately start angling north towards the main lifeguard tower.
Either way, once you are more or less in front of the main lifeguard tower, look at the row of palm trees lining the sidewalk between the grass park and the sand beach. Look at the palm trees just behind and to the right (south) of the main lifeguard tower: from the tower running south you will see this pattern: tall, short, tall, short, tall. You are interested in the fifth three (the third tall one). Now look in the background at the houses on the hillside. Look above your marker tree. You will find a stark white, very rectangular house above your tree. Keep the middle of that house lined up with your tree. As you swim west, the house will move up to the top of the tree and eventually to a position well above the tree—this is OK, just keep them lined up.
Now, swim west until the end of the Scripps Pier passes the the salmon-colored house... passes some empty land... passes the white house. You want the end of Scripps Pier at the western edge of the earth-colored house above the road to Black's (supermarket billionaire Ron Burkle's mansion). Descend. You should be in about 50 feet of water, upslope from the beginning of the North Wall. Head south to the wall and turn right (west) once you find the wall or slope at 70 feet. The canyon runs west-east there. You should be at or very near to the short beginnings of a rocky wall. This quickly opens up to a 10–15' tall rocky wall, with lots of cracks and holes in which various critters can be found. Continue at 70–85' deep until you get to your pre-determined air or nodec limit turn back point.
For the more adventurous (and if you've got enough gas!), do not turn back... keep going. Far west on the wall, the wall peters out and you will find yourself at a 75' deep plain out near a west-facing point. If you swim north, you will cross over this northern peninsula and find the opposite slope down into the canyon—the Way North Wall. On the plain you will find many red gorgonian and evidence of bat rays. At about this point you may run out of usable gas and/or bottom time. If that happens, slowly free-water ascend to a shallow depth that you like (30–15'). Now you must decide whether you feel like blue water swimming. Your options are to take a heading of 120 degrees or so at a shallow depth and blue water swim a very long way over the canyon, or to safety stop at 15' and then swim back on the surface. If you blue water swim, it will take you perhaps 20 minutes before you find the bottom again, inshore from the main canyon wall.
If you are carrying a lot of gas and/or have phenomenal gas consumption and haven't run out of nodec time (or are willing to do the deco), you can cross over the plain on the top of the northern peninsula, drop into the opposite canyon, turn right, and work your way back towards shore along the Way North Wall. When you come back up out of this canyon and how you get back to shore depends entirely on how much gas you have and/or decisions you've made about decompression.
If you've dived the North Wall at La Jolla Shores enough to get familiar with it, you'll know that the North Wall is actually the south side of a west-pointing peninsula at 70–80'. If you go way, way out to the end of the North Wall, you'll come to a not very pointy point. Above that point is a plateau at about 70', with gorgonian and often bat rays and halibut. Crossing north over that plateau, you'll come to a east-west running wall that is the OTHER side of the peninsula (the north side). This is the Way North Wall, also long known as Steve Gardner's North Wall.
The line-ups for this one are also a bit complex.
Swim generally straight out from the main lifeguard tower, but a bit north. Look behind Scripps Pier at the houses on the cliff. Find the regular salmon-colored house (used for Main Wall line-ups). Now look at the houses to the right of the salmon-colored house. Next is a white house, then an earth-colored house, then a white house. The earth-colored house is directly above the point of land just up from the road down to Black's Beach. Put the end of Scripps Pier on the left edge of the earth-colored house.
Now look at the main lifeguard tower. On the hill behind the tower is a very large building—not the Hotel La Jolla at Torrey Pines and LJ Shores Drive, but the other tall building down there, a couple blocks north of the Hotel La Jolla. Put the left edge of this building on the "plus signs" on the main lifeguard tower (the red emergency services "+" on the tower).
You should drop into 40 feet of water very close to the canyon. If you can't see the canyon, head downslope (probably west, maybe with a little north component) until you get to the canyon. The wall will be in the 70' range. Turn left and follow the canyon wall west. Depending on your air consumption, you'll probably want to cross over the top towards the North Wall somewhere not too long after the corynactis-covered rope. If diving an 80 and you have fairly good air consumption, perhaps cross over somewhere in the 1800-2000 PSI range. Cross the plateau going south, find the North Wall and turn left, now heading east back towards shore. Be very conservative with you air, as it's a long way back to shore from the Way North Wall.
This dive site is left in this listing primarily for historical purposes. Things change over time, and this is one of those things that has changed. 15–20 years ago, people didn't dive the North Wall / Secret Garden / the draw below the North Wall as much as they now do, so the lesser draw to the north of Vallecitos Point saw more traffic. And at that time there were consistently many sarcastic fringeheads and colorful tube-dwelling anemones to be seen in Fringehead City. These days this is less true.
Fringehead City lies in the first draw north of Vallecitos at the main wall. Enter the water in front of the bathrooms, and swim west with a very slight northern component to your kick. Again, watch the palm trees that line Vallecitos Street. This time, however, do not keep the trees lined up, but keep slightly north so that the trees are just a bit separated. By the time that you get far enough west, you want the distance separating each tree to be slightly wider than the width of the trees themselves. Swim west until the end of the pier is at the eastern edge of the salmon-colored house. Descend into 35' or so of water. Head 270 degrees towards the sandy slope into the canyon. At 60' deep as you swim west, observe the slope of the sand below you. You want to be in the lowest portion of the draw that runs down from about 60'; so if the slope feels like it is running down to the right, then go a bit to the right to get to the lowest part. If the slope feels like it's running down to the left, then go a bit to the left. Go down the lowest part of the draw until you hit 90' deep or so, then look to your front right and watch for red gorgonian. When you find the gorgonians, turn right and level off between 90 and 100' deep. Head west-ish and look for 2-3" holes in the sand, particularly near the gorgonian. In the holes will be sarcastic fringeheads. Put your fingers in front of their faces and they will bite them... they are very aggressive/defensive. They are beautiful and aptly-named fish. As you work your way west-ish, look for a small rock mound with a bright orange anemone. The gorgonians continue only slightly past this point, and it is approximately where you will run out of bottom time. Find the ridge running upslope just beyond the orange anemone and follow it up to about 50' deep where the sand plateaus. Turn right (east) and look for a short, rock wall. Look in the holes and use a bit more air, working your way back east. Finally, leave this short wall and head towards shore at a heading of 120 degrees.
In the 1980's and before, the Secret Garden was in fact mostly a secret (not widely known) and was fairly garden-like: not beaten up by thousands of diver fin kicks and with a lot of life in it. Then the internet and the sharing of information happened... and bigger tanks and longer bottom times happened... and this site that had been protected by anonymity and being at the far reaches of bottom time became much more dived. It's long not a secret anymore, and also less garden-like... though still nice!
The Secret Garden is a rocky gorgonian patch maybe 20' wide east-west (up-downslope) and 100' or more long north-south. It sits on the shoulder of a slope, just above a short wall and then the flat bottom of a draw. It's between Fringehead City and the North Wall, at 100–115' deep. In years past it was sometimes referred to as "Far Gorgonians", as it can be approached by going to Fringehead City (aka, "Gorgonians") and then going a really long swim at 100' past those gorgonians.
An easier way to approach the Secret Garden, however, is to go out straight from the main lifeguard tower. You'll want the boxy white house on about the third palm tree (see photo with numbered trees above on this page) and the end of Scripps Pier on about the white house (see color-named houses in photo above on this page). Descend in about 30' of water, and head SW, perhaps SSW, towards the edge of the canyon. Once over the edge of the canyon, turn a little to the right and go down the draw, heading about 270 degrees. At about 80' there's an interesting little drop-off in the draw. If you stay on the right side of this draw at about 70', you'll eventually come to the North Wall. Instead, stay towards the left side of the draw. When you get to 100–105', go up the little shoulder on the left side of the draw and look for rocks and gorgonian on the north end of the Secret Garden.
When you run down to the no dec limit you've picked, head upslope from the southern half of the Secret Garden (at the south end will be a ridge line running up northeast). At the top of this ridgeline is the western end of the east-west running 55' deep short wall above Fringehead City. You can burn some more air and time on the 55' Wall, working your way east. Then continue east towards shore, taking a heading of 120 degrees or a bit more to end up back at the bathroom at Vallecitos Street.
All along La Jolla Shores (and the Marine Room), inshore of the canyon is a gradually sloping area that might be called the Sand Flats. From the shore out to 30–40 feet deep, the slop is very slight. It's a great natural safety stop when swimming back in from the canyon. If, however, you slow down and look around, you'll find lots of life hidden in the sand flats—from the huge swaths of sand dollars that are often present, to swimming crabs, sand anemones, sea pansies, various snails, stingrays, thornback rays, butterfly rays... nearshore you'll see (and hear!) various croakers, at night you may be dive-bombed by mackerel, you'll see several types of shrimp, several additional species of crabs. When the box jellies are in town, they're found in shallow water. The point is, the sand flats aren't just someplace to swim over in a hurry to get back to shore. Slow down and check things out!