California snorkeling is a great adventure for water lovers and ocean explorers. Grab a good mask, a snorkel, and some fins and you’re set for your journey into the sea. The beaches near Santa Barbara offer exquisite spots to see kelp forests and sea lemons, one of Southern California’s most commonly seen nudibranchs. Snorkeling at Santa Barbara Beaches is often incredibly different from beach to beach, so this post will help you decide on the perfect spot to suit up and swim around!
Keep in mind that Santa Barbara will not be a typical tropical snorkeling experience. Our snorkeling destinations are in cooler water so a wetsuit is recommended. The sea life is also much different than in the tropics; we have minimal coral reefs and instead offer more rocky reefs. That isn’t to say that you will not see an abundance of sea life at many destinations, your experience will just be very different surrounded by Giant Kelp that often grows longer than 100 feet.
North Goleta Area Snorkeling In Santa Barbara
Refugio State Beach and Tajiguas are adjacent sites about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara. You’ll find them off of highway 101 as you follow the coastline west out of Santa Barbara toward San Luis Obispo. There are numerous beaches along the coastline that are accessible via parking along the 101 freeway.
Named after a Chumash Indian village that used to be near the Tajiguas creek here, this undeveloped beach with free parking offers great photo opportunities in the water. You won’t find as many fish in the inshore reefs at Tajiguas as you will at Refugio, but the anemones and nudibranchs cover the rocks and will delight your eyes. This is a great spot to relax on the beach away from the crowds of downtown Santa Barbara Snorkeling Beaches.
Refugio State Beach
You will find a lot more fish if you decide to snorkel at Refugio. The beach is 1.5 miles of beautiful sand and surf. This is a great Santa Barbara snorkeling site only about a mile and a half south of Tajiguas. The calico bass, opaleye, or sheepshead are prolific but can easily be spooked by lots of bubbles so you may choose to do some free diving to really get in and amongst the fish. Thankfully there are more snorkelers than SCUBA divers so you will have a lot of space to yourself.
At each end of the cove at Refugio beach, there are reefs you can easily reach by swimming. Snorkeling at these locations is great fun. The sporadic low-lying reefs to the east are only about 50 yards out. This is a great halibut hunting ground. If you’re looking for sea hares, anemones, sea stars and sponges you’ll also find them there. The western reef is a bit further out and more remote but still easy to access if you’re snorkeling. These kelp forests are a great spot for sightseers and photographers looking for rockfish, sheepshead, and cabezon. This is a spot the divers are not likely to visit often, leaving the marine life virtually undisturbed.
Unlike Tajiquas, Refugio is a developed site with showers and restrooms, campsites, and beautiful hiking and biking trails. And if your traveling buddy is more of a fisherman than an avid snorkeler, this spot will make everybody happy. A beautiful right-hand point break often breaks here that is super fun for longboarders and beginner surfers alike.
If you want to take your Santa Barbara snorkeling seclusion to the next level, you can rent a kayak from Cal Coast Adventures to get out to some more untouched beaches without road access! This will also allow you to explore some more offshore reefs that may entice you near Coal Oil Point.
Isla Vista and UCSB Area
Campus Point State Marine Conservation Area (SMPA) is a great option because of easy access, wide-open beaches, and nearby amenities. This SMPA is designed to protect and preserve sensitive sea life that inhabits this area from Campus Point past Coal Oil Point. This 10 square mile area is a no-fishing area.
Coal Oil Point
At Coal Oil Point on the Northside, you will find a wide-open beach known as Sands Beach. This is not a great spot considering that there is often swell coming into this beach. There is a beautiful reef that I often surf over on the Southside of the point. This spot is not recommended when there is a lot of swell in the water because of the surfers in the water and the waves that may sneak up on you. This spot is much more protected than Sands Beach so the swell often will not make it into the cove.
Along the outer stretch of the point is best for exploring the reef. However, if you are interested in searching for leopard sharks, then moving closer towards the sandy shore more inside the cove is the best place. My girlfriend and I often surf, then wade into only waist-deep water and become surrounded by them.
Offshore from Isla Vista a little closer to UCSB from Coal Oil Point is a surf spot that I refer to as Dreamies. It breaks over a reef and kelp beds that I would love to go out and explore more in-depth. This is a spot where having a kayak may help with ease of access. Although swimming out towards the kelp beds is not unreasonable.
Campus Point is another popular surf spot, especially for beginners. This spot has some kelp beds offshore to the southeast, as well as some reef and rock bed spots ideal for near-shore snorkeling in Santa Barbara County. Be careful here with other beachgoers and stingrays often populate this beach during the summer months. Remember the stingray shuffling of your feet when you are getting into the water!
Santa Barbara Proper
The Santa Barbara area has quite a few beaches that offer snorkeling and even spearfishing as well. These beaches will typically be more crowded than the other spots I have mentioned above, although the further offshore you go the more the crowds will thin out, obviously.
Mesa Lane to Leadbetter
Mesa Lane will take you to a long staircase down to a beautiful sandy beach lining the cliffs. There are often surfers directly offshore, but a little to the left and offshore you will see a large kelp bed. I come to this spot often and it was actually the first place I snorkeled in the area! When I first moved to Santa Barbara I checked the surf here and it was flat. The water was crystal clear and glassy so I called my friend and we grabbed our snorkel gear and swam around for an hour just for fun.
From here you can move south towards Leadbetter Point, also known as Santa Barbara Point. There is an abundance of seagrass lining the seafloor closer to shore, with bladderwrack along the rock outcrops. The further out you go the more Giant Kelp you will see, at around 15-20 feet depth. There are many spearfishermen that frequent this area, but there is plenty of room to spread out if you don’t want to be near them.
Leadbetter/Santa Barbara Point is another surf spot so closer to the point will tend to have a lot more swimmers in the water. Just be careful and be aware of your surroundings and you shouldn’t have an issue. There are often leopard sharks and stingrays here as well!
Snorkeling is a relatively easy hobby to start. You do need a couple of pieces of equipment to begin! Snorkeling requires at the very least a mask, fins, and a snorkel. If you are planning on snorkeling in Santa Barbara then a wetsuit is highly recommended as well due to the chilly water. Let’s talk about how to choose the right gear for yourself.
Mask and Snorkeling In Santa Barbara
Both the mask and the snorkel I consider to be a part of the same system. The snorkel breathing apparatus is typically attached to the mask by a clip through the mask’s head strap. This is the most traditional form of mask and snorkel setup on the market. Choosing the right mask is kind of like getting a new pair of running shoes; everyone has their own preferences. Sometimes my shoe sizes are smaller or larger depending on the brand and type of shoe. Masks are similar in the sense that the fit of the mask is most important. Trying a few different masks in a local dive shop is a great way to find what will be most comfortable for you.
The snorkel apparatus is also important, you know, so you can breathe! At their most basic form, a snorkel is a tube leading from the air above the water into your mouth allowing you to breathe. They usually have multiple filter systems that prevent water from coming into the snorkel. You also don’t want to get the longest snorkel on the market because this actually makes it harder to pull air into and down through the tube. A good mid-length tube will help keep the water out and the air coming in easily.
There are a few new options where the mask and breathing system are integrated with each other. These masks are typically made to be easier to use and not always the best for breath-hold dives.
Your fin choice depends on a variety of factors. There are some people who snorkel only from the surface of the water, while others enjoy doing breath-hold dives. Breath-hold snorkeling is most commonly associated with spearfishing. There are different fins that are specifically designed for each type of snorkeling. Freedivers fins are most easily discernable from normal snorkel fins because of their longer length and more flexible construction. This flex actually offers a rebounding production of thrust that will make them swim faster and further with ease. More “normal” snorkel fins are more firm with channels that are designed to increase the flow of water. Fins can definitely feel like a high-priced purchase, but investing in a good pair of fins will go a long way for making your snorkel experience easier. If you are not ready to make that purchase, then renting some fins is an option as well.
Snorkeling In Santa Barbara Summary
The Santa Barbara coastline from Refugio State Beach to Santa Barbara proper offers a lot of options for snorkeling. The coastline is as diverse as it is accessible. You may even find a spot north of Santa Barbara that is completely empty. I always recommend snorkeling with a buddy, and diving with only a friend and nobody else can be an incredible experience. I never know what I will see when I go snorkeling in Santa Barbara, but I always enjoy myself.