Cortes Bank is a chain of underwater pinnacles and plateaus located 137 nautical miles (nm) South by Southeast from Santa Barbara and about 40 nm Southwest of San Clemente Island. Bishop Rock is one of the peaks in the underwater mountain chain that rises to within 6 feet of the surface and is marked by a nearby warning buoy. It was named for the clipper ship Stillwell S. Bishop that struck the rock in 1855 and with a patched hull limped its way back to San Francisco. Nine Fathom spot is about 4.5 miles Northwest of Bishop Rock and also rises to about 60 feet below the surface. Both are noted scuba diving locations featuring clear water and abundant sea life.
This lobster on a full size scuba tank shows why Cortes Bank is a popular site with lobster divers.
Photo: ©Dave Burroughs
Scuba diving Cortes Bank is a truly unique experience. It is an open water seamount where currents sweep clean ocean water over the spot and invertebrates cling to the rocks. Palm kelp fixed to the rocks provides shelter for smaller fish and sealife that hide amongst its fronds. Large clusters of purple hydocoral can be seen throughout the area as well as tuna, yellowtail, large schools of baitfish, sea lions, and occasional sharks. Large black and white sea bass are common sights as well California sheep head. Lobster divers continue to make this spot a top priority to visit during season and free divers frequent the area in the spring and summer for yellowtail, white sea bass, and tuna. Wreck diving can also be done at this location on the Abalonia.
Diving at Cortes Bank can be spectacular but anyone who ventures out there needs to be mentally and physically prepared. On any open ocean dive location one needs to understand that ocean swells and currents are normally present and a flat calm day is rare. When you get good conditions at “The Bank” it will be a dive you will not forget. Sometimes it can be frustrating to get to the bank, but when you do, it can be well worth the effort.
In 1969 a group of promoters bought the World War II surplus troop ship SS Jalisco, renamed her USS Abalonia, and sailed her to the bank intending to sink her in shallow water to form a tax-free island nation and shellfish processing plant. But during the sinking, rough seas broke a mooring line and pushed her into deeper water. Another company planned to build a platform on the bank and form a nation called Taluga, but the US government declared that the bank was part of the continental shelf and was US territory. The wreck of the Abalonia today lies in three pieces in about 30-40 feet of water and scuba divers frequent it often.
On November 2, 1985 the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise struck Cortes Bank about one mile east of Bishop Rock during exercises, putting a 40-foot gash in her outer hull and damaging a propeller. She continued operations then went into dry dock at Hunter's Point Shipyard in San Francisco for repairs.