Things to Do on Catalina Island

Tours: Ocean & Undersea Tours

Exploring the Island's Undersea Life from the Comfort of a Boat

More than a century has passed since Santa Catalina Island's first glass-bottomed boat debuted, the clever invention of an Avalon fisherman who thought that tourists might pay for a ride if he inset a pane of sturdy glass into the bottom of his rowboat.

Down through the decades, and in a succession of ever larger, more sophisticated (and far safer) vessels, glass-bottomed boat rides have become a signature Catalina experience, the first tour most visitors think of booking, the ideal way to get a glimpse of the rich and colorful life teeming just below the surface of the island's waters. The attraction was even immortalized in the title and an early scene of a 1966 Doris Day movie, The Glass Bottom Boat.

Today, undersea tours of Catalina go far beyond a one-size-fits-all tourist attraction. As well as the traditional boat rides in which visitors sit around the perimeter of the boat, looking down at the thick rectangular waterproof pane, there are also bigger boats with more comfortable seating and optimized viewing.

You also have the option of gazing upon undersea life in a semi-submersible craft–in effect, a submarine-like vessel that, while remaining at the surface, allows you to sit below the level of the water to look not down but straight out at the fish and plant life surrounding the island. More dramatic still, many operators conduct nighttime tours in both glass-bottomed boats and semi-submersibles, shining high-wattage lights mounted below their hulls to illuminate the undersea world, including creatures like sharks and lobsters that are less likely to be visible during the day.

All such tours, by the way, send fish food out into the water, the better to attract a rich diversity of life for you to view. Some boats even include tubes through which you can personally drop food for the fish to start a feeding frenzy whenever you like. Underwater viewing trips typically take less than an hour, allowing ample time to concentrate on the safeguarded ocean life of Lover's Cove, just east of Avalon Harbor.

But glass-bottomed and semi-submersible tours aren't the only way to appreciate the ocean life surrounding Catalina. Tour operators also conduct nighttime boat rides dedicated to the flying fish that live in the island's waters, shining high-wattage beams across the water's surface to both attract the remarkable fish–which do actually leap from the water and glide through the air on winglike fins–and make it possible to view them clearly. Still other tours take you to Seal Rocks at the island's southern tip, to view the colonies of playful sea lions that live there, as well as possible sightings of bald eagles and dolphins. During the year's first three months, whale watching tours provide close-up views of migrating gray whales. Rafting tours give you the invigorating opportunity to skim across the water's surface, as close as you can be to the water without actually being in it! Even more ocean-going tours leave from Two Harbors, at Catalina's Isthmus. And then, of course, there are many options to actually immerse yourself in the undersea world through snorkeling and scuba diving.

There are so many ways to view Catalina's ocean life that, whether you're visiting for the day or staying for a week or more, there's simply no reason not to take a closer look!

Viewing Catalina's Undersea Life
Several operators offer a wide range of tours to view Catalina's ocean life. It's highly recommended to book these in advance–particularly the highly popular excursions involving glass-bottomed boats or semi-submersibles, as well as flying fish excursions. To reserve, telephone individual operators or visit their booking offices in Avalon or at Two Harbors.

Shorter tours, which visit Lover's Cove close to Avalon, take place in generally tranquil waters. For longer tours that go farther out to sea, passengers who are not accustomed to boating or who are at all prone to motion sickness would be well advised to use a precautionary seasickness remedy before departure. It's also a good idea to wear hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen for daytime tours.

Time to Allow: Half-hour to half-day.
Reservations are required.
Prices and availability are subject to change.