Catalina Fish Photography

Underwater Photography at Catalina Island

Guide to photographing fish

By Scott Gietler



Photographing fish underwater at Catalina Island, Southern California is a great day to spend the day. Here's some common fish and where to find them. I took all these photographs on October 23rd, 2009 with my 105mm macro lens, except for the wide-angle shots. Read more here about choosing an underwater macro lens, and Catalina macro photography.





Photographing Scythe butterfly Fish underwater


scythe butterfly fish

 F8, 1/125th


scythe butterfly fish feeding

scythe butterfly fish

F9, 1/125th


These scythe butterfly fish are at Crane point, also know as the rock quarry, just east of Sea Fan Grotto / Blue Caverns. There are large boulders cascading down a sloping wall that goes from 30ft to 55ft depth. look at 40-49ft depth. Don't get close to the boulders, hover far away so you can watch a large area and see if the fish come out. If you are in the right spot you won't have to wait more than a couple minutes. Approach very slowly or they will quickly swim back into the rocks. They are below an area on shore marked by a lone green bushy tree, and brown rusty metal boxes.


Rainbow Scorpionfish


rainbow scorpionfish

 F10, 1/250th



I found at least 4 rainbow scorpionfish at Sea Fan Grotto. Not be confused with the common California scorpionfish, Rainbow's are less common, rarely seen and distinctively red. From the "grotto" itself (ask the boat captain where the grotto is), swim west towards blue cavern at 40ft depth, you will pass a wall covered with gobies. A few minutes later there will be many large boulders with large crevices, spread out over a wide area. Carefully look in these crevices was you continue to swim slowly west at 40-55ft depth. The rainbow scorpionfish are hard to see, they will sit at the entrace to these crevices, slightly in the dark. When approached they will quickly dart back inside. A focus light will usually be needed to achieve focus on these fish.


Giant kelpfish


giant kelpfish

 F8, 1/125th, ISO 400


giant kelpfish

 F8, 1/125th, ISO 400


Giant kelpfish can be found throughout when diving Catalina island, especially at 15-20ft depth. Crane point/Rock Quarry had a large number of them, near where I saw the Scythe butterfly fish. Resting at 15-20ft depth around kelp, after a few minutes many giant kelpfish would swim by me. There are also many at casino point at 15ft depth, just to the right of the stairs if facing the water.


Moray Eels


california moray eel

California moray eel. F14, 1/160th


I found 4 moray eels at Sea fan grotto, in the same area I found the rainbow scorpionfish. See the directions above. the morays were all at 35-40ft depth. Go very slowly and look in the cracks and crevices around the boulders.


Juvenile Sheephead


juvenile sheephead, catalina island

Juvenile Sheephead. F11, 1/250th


This juvenile sheephead is very young and has not taken on the regular colors normally seen in juvenile sheephead. They can be found throughout the island whereever there is structure or gorgonians they can hide in. This was taken at sea fan grotto.



Juvenile Treefish


juvenile treefish

 F11, 1/250th

juvenile treefish

 F9, 1/125th


Juvenile treefish can be found around catalina island, usually at 25-75ft depth where ever there is structure for them to hide in. Go slowly and look in caves and crevices around boulders. Both of these treefish were found near the morays at sea fan grotto.


Blue-banded Goby


blue-banded goby, catalina goby

 F13, 1/250th

catalina goby photograph

 F16, 1/250th


The blue-banded goby is also known as the catalina goby. There are extremely common around the island. Gobies in the open are very skittish, try to find a group near urchins or on a dark wall. Usually one or two in a large group will allow a slow approach. I like to shoot from far away, move in a little shoot again, etc. Also keep your eye out for gobies with interesting backgrounds behind them.


Juvenile Kelp Bass, Blacksmith, Senoritas


juvenile kelp bass at catalina island

 F8, 1/125th


Other juvenile can have strong colors and can be beautiful to photograph. Having a long lens help, or zoom out your compact camera to the fullest. This small kelp bass was only 2 inches long, and was not too skittish. juvenile senoritas and blacksmith are common in the shallows at 20ft depth near kelp, but more difficult to approach.




jack mackeral

 F8, 1/125th. This photo is with my 105mm macro lens, try to wait until the fish are slightly facing you to take the shot.


Further reading:

Fish photography tips and tutorial



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