Best Underwater Treasure

Anyone with a couple of name changes, a history of drinking and prostitution, and memories of war is sure to tell a good story, and she’s no exception. The Star of Scotland, now a shipwreck and dive spot in the Santa Monica Bay, was commissioned in 1918 as the British navy’s HMS Mistletoe and was in operation for 24 years. She first served as a Q-ship in World War I to protect English shipping from German submarines; disguised as a merchant ship, the 263-foot vessel was actually heavily armed. Renamed Chiapas, she was then a cargo carrier traveling between Panama and San Francisco. As La Playa de Ensenada, she hauled fruit from Mexico to the States.

In the 1930s, under the moniker City of Panama, she sailed into the Santa Monica Bay and was anchored three miles offshore, where her lively onboard mix of alcohol, gambling and prostitution escaped the wrath of state laws. More names, a death and a few years later, the Star of Scotland was a party boat and fishing barge until 1942, when age and lack of maintenance caught up with her. When her time came, she went down in less than two minutes. As if the bay could handle any more like her, the stretch is a watery graveyard for about a dozen other significant shipwrecks.

Accessible by chartered dive boats out of Redondo Beach (see below), the Star of Scotland lies mostly intact in 80 feet of water, and draws repeat visitors not only because of her history but also because she’s become a viable reef. “It’s encrusted with growth,” says Patrick Smith, a diver and consultant for Submerged Cultural Resources (a unit that researches wrecks for state parks). He is also co-author of the book Shipwrecks of Southern California. “As a hard structure, it provides the basis of the food chain for just about everything else: Algae grows on the ship, bigger creatures feed on it, and so on, up the food chain.” Pink, orange and lavender corynactis anemones carpet the surface; yellowtail, mackerel, black sea bass — Smith has seen “everything but marlin and albacore” swim by.

“It’s an incredible treasure, an ecological one, not a monetary one,” says Smith, who’s logged 300 dives on the site — each one a new story.

Island Diver Rocky Point, 310 Portofino Way, Redondo Beach, (310) 374-9558

Pacific Star 181 N. Harbor Dr., Redondo Beach, (626) 716-1796

LA Weekly