One of the most delightful and surprising benefits of developing, testing, and deploying OpenROV—and later, Trident—is discovering that some of the best dive spots are right in our backyard. There’s a lot more to see close to shore than you think. Just because nobody has thought to start a shore diving trip or opened a SCUBA shop nearby doesn’t mean these local places aren’t worth exploring. The new class of remotely operated vehicles or underwater drones like Trident makes them far more accessible. This is our list of our ten best shore dive locations in the US for underwater drones.
It was difficult to narrow down the places to list, but we created some requirements to help:
There’s gotta be some great things to see, like interesting wildlife or a sunken car. At the very least the dive should be rewarding.
The visibility needs to be good most of the time. As with all underwater exploration, it’s unreasonable to assume perfect conditions all the time, but to make the list, we needed to be reasonably sure of a good dive on any given day.
Easy access to the site ensures you won’t need to climb a cliff or jump a fence. Plenty of parking is a big bonus.
It’s a place where you can safely and responsibly dive an underwater drone. Rules change, and it’s on us to check out the situation prior to diving. Don’t assume anything, and always ask first.
Without further introduction here’s our list.
1. Phil Foster Park (Blue Heron Bridge), Riviera Beach, Florida
It’s hard to imagine one of the best snorkeling, diving, and underwater ROV exploration spots in the country is right under the freeway on A1A in Florida’s central coast.
The BHB is one of our favorite spots because of the sheer number of surprising species of fish, sharks, and invertebrates that you can see right from shore. There’s a snorkeling trail on the southern side (just beyond the bridge’s supports) reachable via drone, where you can see some sporadic artificial reef structures such as shark statues, a shopping cart, and a small shipwreck. The fishing pier on the west and docks on the east side also offer excellent opportunities to spot some passing species curiously wandering in the river from farther out at sea.
This dive is heavily dependent on the tides, and it’s best to go one hour before or up to one hour after high tide. Check in with the dive shop for the latest conditions. There’s plenty of parking in the area and a pro tip from the locals is that the night dives are particularly exciting.
Thanks to our Florida local and underwater explorer, Joey Meier for the suggestion to visit this sweet spot! You can check out his OpenExplorer expedition here.
2. City of Avalon Dive Park, Santa Catalina Island, California
Okay, so you do need to catch a ferry to get to Catalina. That’s why it’s not the number one spot, but it is one of the best underwater drone dive sites we’ve been to.
The Channel Islands are considered the Galapagos of North America, and a shore dive from the park on Casino Point in Avalon will immediately confirm this. Fish species from the coastal regions far north and south of Catalina congregate in huge numbers along with the occasional pelagic species. The charismatic and easy to spot garibaldi can be seen here in larger numbers than perhaps anywhere else; maybe it’s the regular glass-bottom-boat feedings. Colorful invertebrates crowd the rocks close to shore, and farther out there are truly epic kelp forests to explore (make sure to keep your tether from wrapping around the stalks or you’ll have to get a diver to help free you). From the tip of Casino Point you can also see the wreck of the Sue-Jac.
With such diversity of life and the remote feeling, it’s hard to imagine that you’re less than 100 miles away from the millions of people in Los Angeles. Because Avalon has been a popular tourist destination since the early 1900s, an added bonus is the great restaurants, shops, and accommodations you’ll find within walking distance.
The primary way to get to Avalon is to book passage on a ferry leaving San Pedro. Plan far in advance as accommodations and ferry reservations book up quickly in the summer months.
For further information, check out https://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/
3. Seacrest Park, Seattle, Washington
A simple and easy place to dive, Seacrest Park offers outstanding views of Seattle across the water as a backdrop to a fun little dive.
A sharp drop-off just under the ferry dock and fishing pier offers a sand and pebble bottom with glimpses of colorful invertebrates between the red and green vegetation. Starfish, recently hit badly by sea star wasting syndrome, are starting to rebound. With good visibility and enough depth, and some detritus to offer a variety of different hiding places, local divers have reported octopus sightings.
Puget Sound and the entire Salish Sea provide endless opportunities to dive from shore with your drone. Even when the visibility is bad, it’s still good enough to enjoy, so this spot gets extra points from us for its proximity to other great dive sites.
Seacrest has ample street parking along Harbor Ave SW. There’s a great restaurant there as well. If you’re coming from downtown Seattle, you can catch the West Seattle ferry.
4. Lake Tahoe, California
Back to California again? Yes--until we get over just how beautiful Lake Tahoe is both above and below the surface. It was tough to pick an exact spot for the best dive. We could have simply written “Lake Tahoe comma all” but we settled on three of our favorite spots: Hurricane Bay, Emerald Bay, and Sand Harbor.
Hurricane Bay has a sunken sailboat within tether length of shore. It’s a popular dive site for dry-suit diving. You can park right on the side of the road and deploy from the beach. Emerald Bay offers a variety of neat dives, mostly in boulder fields and rocky drop-offs. Shipwrecks along the newly established Maritime Heritage Trail are tantalizingly close to shore. Sand Harbor has some of the most interesting underwater landscapes in the lake, with large boulders and protruding rocks interspersed along a sandy bottom. It’s a little farther out from the other two sites but can be worth it for practicing transects or testing new equipment or techniques in similar environments as shallow seas or mangroves. Note that on windy days, it can get choppy here as it’s west-facing.
These sites are a bit barren compared to kelp forests and coral reefs, but you’ll find the clearest of clear water and a bite-your-lip beautiful backdrop for your high-altitude dive. Our team at Sofar are very familiar with Lake Tahoe since most of the Trident testing and development was done here on weekends. It’s only a few hours from headquarters in the Bay Area, and the clear freshwater is unbeatable for ensuring good data. We’ve spent countless hours here and we’re still not bored.
If you haven’t already taken a look at our expedition to the sunken steamship SS Tahoe, you really should.
5. Crystal River, Florida
Central Florida’s ribbons of clear, spring-fed rivers are beautiful, primeval, and chock full of life. Many of these springs are great SCUBA spots and a few offer a variety of good diving for ROVs and underwater drones. Crystal River alone is large enough to keep you busy for days.
The main attraction for most people are the manatees. It’s important to keep your distance and follow the same posted rules and regulations that apply to swimmers or kayaks. There’s a ton of fish and bird life as well, and the closer you get to the source of the springs, the clearer the water.
The sheer magnitude of flowing water is remarkable. The always 72-degree spring-fed waters flow from a series of springs at about 100 cubic feet or more each second. Nearby springs such as Rainbow and Manatee Springs offer great tours and trips above and below the water, which we highly recommend. Careful where you bring your drone, though, as some of these springs at the source are carefully protected. Check first before diving, and if you can’t dive at the source you can usually find a good site just downriver.
A good place to start at Crystal River is Hunter Springs Park, where you can rent a kayak, or the nearby Redfish Hole trail for a good shore dive. It’s hard to go wrong in this area, but don’t forget to pack sunscreen and bug spray.
To help plan your trip, check out this helpful website: http://www.floridasprings.org/.
6. La Jolla Underwater Park, La Jolla, California
This playground for divers and kayakers is also a prime spot for underwater drone dives. It’s a little tough to get out past the breakers to some of the better structures and kelp forests, but on calm days the inter-tidal zones are outstanding.
The park is pretty big. Twenty-four square kilometers big. Its deep canyon lures a lot of interesting fish close to shore. Eelgrass patches and sandy shallows are home to leopard sharks and guitarfish while deeper rocky areas are full of perch, sea bass, and garibaldi.
Just nearby is a series of 75-million-year-old sea caves. One of them is accessed by land via a tunnel dug by smugglers. You can reach this from the café on Coast Blvd.
Finding the park is easy as it’s right on Coast Blvd., but parking can be a challenge. Deployment from the La Jolla Cove is your best bet but on calmer day, access via the rocks is possible.
Thanks to our local SoCal friend Coop D. for the suggestion. You can chat with him and other legends on the Trident Pilot’s Facebook Page.
7. Lake Mead, Nevada
Lake Mead was created to supply power to Las Vegas as it passes through the astounding Hoover Hydroelectric Dam. It’s not as big a tourist destination as Vegas or the dam itself. But 700 miles of shoreline and hundreds-of-feet-deep, clear freshwater will give you a lot to think about. Add to that the sheer number of sunken stuff there: abandoned construction equipment from the dam, train tracks, clusters of boats, a private plane, and a B-26 bomber, and you’ve got our attention.
There are plenty of fish to see, but the real draw is the strange and creepy finds here. Wreck Alley, located near Sentinel Island, is also called the “Bermuda Triangle of the Mojave” because of the vast number of sunken ships in the area. Some are close to shore, too. Visibility isn’t as good as Tahoe, but that’s almost a plus as it adds to the jump-scare-prone nature of a dive here.
In terms of creepy: There’s a trove of Youtube videos and SCUBA sites that list enough things already found in the lake to give you nightmares...but we’re underwater drone pilots, we want to go deeper and find new terrifying stuff when crowding around a small screen in the middle of the desert...or do we?
It’s hard to recommend a specific spot for your dive since the level of the lake has dropped substantially in the last few years, causing the access areas and locations of interest to change. But if you’re going to check out the Wreck Alley area your best bets are Boulder Beach and the Hemenway Fishing Pier.. But I recommend cutting out on your own and seeing what you can find…if you dare.
8. Bar Harbor, Maine
Bar Harbor is subject to wildly big tides that can be challenging but allows for vastly different dives in the course of a few hours. It gets its name from the sandbar that creates a land bridge to Bar Island at low tide. The harbor often has very clear water and abundant life for interesting and exciting dives.
Some of the most interesting things to see are sunken cars whose drivers didn’t realize the land bridge they were using would soon be six feet underwater. From the rocky shore along Bar Harbor you can easily spot lobsters and crabs, which are usually pretty curious about underwater drones. If you’re lucky, you may see the whales that frequent the harbor and can come in quite close to shore. The tidal change does present a big challenge for deployment locations, so make sure to note the times and plan accordingly.
There’s plenty to see on the surface too as Bar Harbor is the entrance to Acadia National Park. There’s some great clamming / shellfishing here if you’re interested in getting a license and foraging.
The good dive sites are fairly accessible, and no specific spot is better or worse than others, but the numerous piers in the area offer great deployment locations. We didn’t get a chance to see it ourselves, but we’ve heard that the ferry terminal has a lot to offer in terms of life on and around the pylons.
9. Commercial Wharf, Monterey, California
The commercial wharf in Monterey is another great, easy, and fun dive spot. Because of the plentiful buildings in the area and parking spaces on the wharf, you can find some shade.
It’s a great place to see large schools of bait fish and all the things that like to eat them. Cormorants, pelicans, and other birds can be seen from underwater along with the occasional sea lion or harbor seal. Visibility is consistent during calm days, and the bottom is covered in patchy seaweeds and vast sweeps of living sand dollars. At night we’ve been able to run into a sea hare and other invertebrates like rock and dungeness crab.
At the end of the commercial wharf is an abalone farm. It’s unique because they grow the abalone right under the pier in vertical nets. If you’re very lucky, you might get them to give you a peek under one of the floorboards in the shop.
It can get busy on the marina side, so we recommend diving on the north side of the wharf. Try to stay clear of the pylons, as it’s easy to get stuck on them if you draw a figure-eight or something.
10. Bahia Honda Railroad Bridge, Big Pine Key, Florida
The Florida Keys are chock full of great dive spots, and really anywhere off the Overseas Highway (A1A) is usually a good bet for a Trident dive. We picked this one because it’s got a few nearby spots that are pretty cool as well as some decent wildlife coming through between Big Pine and Bahia Honda.
The current can really get flowing between the old railroad bridge, but shore and sidewalk deployments here can spot fun tropical fish coming up to find a bite from the deeper waters midway along the bridge. We’ve seen fishermen pull up sharks here but haven’t yet seen them with the Trident. It’s fairly shallow, so make sure to keep off the bottom as much as possible, especially where there are grasses between long stretches of sand. Horseshoe Beach and Calusa Beach are nearby; both are on the Gulf side and a better bet if the current or wind is up. Big Pine and No Name Key have some really fun mangroves that are accessible via kayak.
The railroad bridge here opened in 1912. It was built and funded by Henry Flagler as part of his Overseas Railroad that extended from the mainland all the way to Key West. (author’s note: Bahia Honda is where me and my younger brother, at 7 and 5 years old, saw our first barracuda while learning to snorkel on spring holiday. We screamed so loud and swam so fast the rest of the beach cleared out thinking there was a shark or something. That experience may be responsible for my current preference for using drones to explore some of the more dubious dive sites out there.)
Parking can be found at Bahia Honda State Park or just across the bridge on the side of the road. There are any number of good shore dives just off the A1A, and the Overseas Heritage Trail markers are dotted the whole way along it.
If you get the chance to drop in on REEF.org headquarters in Key Largo make sure to check it out. They are working hard to preserve environments like the reefs off the Florida Keys.