Exploring the Underwater Splendors of Oregon
The need to explore is baked right into a diver’s DNA. We slake this thirst by sipping compressed air to experience the unparalleled aquaverse. Compared to the thousands of tanks drained diving Washington and British Columbia, I have hardly touched underwater Oregon. Surprising, embarrassing really, considering how many times I —with scuba gear in tow—have driven along Oregon’s spectacular seaward edge on the way to and from California from my home in Washington. Vowing to redress this oversight and better balance my Pacific Northwest dive portfolio, my wife, Melissa, and I embarked on a summertime road trip to America’s underdived 33rd state.
To me, Oregon represented opportunity. Ripe for exploration, it added a new dimension to my local diving scene. A breath of fresh air.
Runs the entire 363-mile length of Oregon’s picturesque coastline, from Astoria in the North to Brookings in the South. We will keep salt water on our right, Terra Firma on our left. Drive, dive repeat. The geospatial orientation is easy enough, but Oregon’s diving can be anything but. The next week or two will unfold according to whim and weather. It is the weather and capricious ocean conditions which ultimately decide the where and when of subversive endeavors along the seashore. Mellow one day, ago the next. The Oregon diver must exercise care and patience. Go with the flow. Retreat and replan as needed.
Thankfully there are jetties. Many of Oregon’s most frequented dive sites are at least partially protected from surf, surge, wind and waves by man-made breakwaters. Even though brisk 25-knot westerly winds are currently clawing the North Coast, we still have solid, sheltered diving options in Tillamook County. Rather than blowing off the day and drowning our sorrows in cheese curds on a tour of the famous Tillamook Creamery factory, we head to Netarts Bay for a two-tanker. Entering at the boat ramp and working to the right along the jetty’s rocky slope, we discover red spiky sea cucumbers, black-eye gobies, pink-mouthed hydroids, and yellow sponges. This shallow reef is positively crawling with nudis—opalescent nudibranchs laying egg ribbons, sea lemons dining on sponges, and some of the largest orange polka-dotted clown dorids I’ve ever seen.
Visibility is just 7 feet— fairly average for Oregon inshore sites— but focusing on the abundant macro critters, I happily shoot away for two and a half hours of total bottom time. A third tank is spent at Whalen Island, back up in Sand Lake estuary. I spy five reclusive monkeyface prickleback eels in only 12 feet of water—I have waited years to photograph this rubbery-lipped, lumpy-faced fish that would give Quasimodo a fright.
A colorful coastal tidepool.
Reduced wind and swell the following day encourage us to drive to the northern end of Tillamook Bay, through the little town of Garibaldi and out to the dive spot known as Three Graces. Entering during high slack tide during a small tidal exchange on a weekday improves the shore entry, minimizes swirling currents and decreases the number of fishermen trolling near the sea stacks that give this site its name. We park beside the road and drag our fully loaded gear cart 200-odd paces east along the railroad tracks to the entry point, reached by a short climb down some rocks to a sandy beach.
Visibility is almost 15 feet, and the 47-degree water seems tropical(ish) thanks to the shafts of warm sunlight playing over boulders sparkling white with a snowlike dusting of delicate plumose anemones. Kelp greenlings glide past.
A northern kelp crab clings to a stalk of bull kelp.
Juvenile rockfish hover undercover. Painted anemones and large green surf anemones fill the valleys in between the boulders. Down and out toward the channel’s center we hit 35 feet over a mud and sand plain. Dungeness crabs sidestep nervously at our approach. Two red rock crabs, locked in an amorous embrace, have better things to do than flee. Also holding their ground are the Dungeness and red rock crabs wrestling each other over a gaper clam. We watch in fascination as four strong claws pry open the clam’s valves and snip out tasty bits of the hapless mollusk’s flesh.
The viz deteriorates as the ebb tide builds, so we head back to the shallows, around the base of the Graces, to poke around an eelgrass patch and disheveled mats of sea lettuce algae. Out snakes a suckered tentacle. Then an eyeball appears, then the mini kraken in its entirety. A photo session with this curious, fist-size red octopus is the perfect way to finish the dive at this brand-new (at least to us) site.
Sixty-five miles south in Depoe Bay, Melissa and I join a whale-watching cruise to see resident gray whales. Most of the action is unseen; below the waves in the murk, the 30- to 45-foot-long baleen whales dive down to scoop up mouthfuls of tiny mysids (shrimp-like crustaceans) near the muddy bottom. Luckily, between feeding-dives we are gifted with waves of their tail flukes at the surface and the occasional spy hop as they poke their heads above water.
Thousands of gray whales migrate along this coast each year, often so close that you can see them from land. They move north in the spring on their way to feed in the Bering Sea, and south in the winter to mate and calve in Baja’s Pacific lagoons. Approximately 200 individuals hang around here between June and October rather than continue north on the long trek with their brethren.
A gray whale delights whale-watchers.
Years ago, we survived an arduous boat dive offshore Newport in washing machine surge, navigating by feel on a ridge heavily encrusted with creatures. There are no regularly scheduled commercial dive charters here currently, so we must save a redo for a future trip when I bring my own boat or a friend’s. No worries, because the popular shore dive Newport Fingers is right at hand. Here, five rock pile breakwater structures, the “fingers,” protrude perpendicularly from the main south jetty into the waterway connecting Yaquina Bay to ocean proper. Finger No. 1 is closest to the bridge, Finger No. 5 closest to the sea. We explore 3 and 4. Though not the most colorful site, there is a fair amount of life on the rocks: sea stars, jingle shell oysters, hermit crabs, sculpins, nudibranchs, and a few skittish fish. One highlight from our dives is a smiling lingcod at 30 feet that has miraculously managed to evade spear-fishermen and resist traditional anglers’ lines. Another is the bed of neon-green aggregating anemones with purple-tipped tentacles just below the waterline.
Don’t expect stellar visibility at the Fingers, but do expect a moderately tricky entry. Reaching the water requires a scramble across boulders stacked pellmell, so caution is a must. We find the safest way to manage this traverse is to shuttle gear to the water’s edge in two or three trips rather than attempt it all in one go while you are top-heavy and totally overloaded with both hands full.
A school of black rockfish swims past a covered reef.
Laura Tesler, a good friend who is a fisheries biologist and accomplished photographer with hundreds of Oregon dives under her belt, suggests we look inland to salvage our next day or two, which are forecast to be blown out. “When it’s raging on the coast, real live victory at sea stuff with waves exploding against the headlands and therefore patently unsafe, I point my Subaru into the state’s interior,” advises Tesler. “Clear Lake is clearly a winner.”
If you’re not up for Newport’s boulder-hopping entry, drive down 101 to the North Jetty Dive Park in Florence. A concrete-walled channel with stairs makes access painless. This spot is a favorite for dive training and collecting crabs. Marine life is mostly of the mucky variety, and depths can exceed 50 feet east of the site.
Diving at many Oregon sites is at the mercy of Mother Nature. What to do if she’s serving up monster swells and howling winds? Storm watching, obviously. Surfing, if you have the skills. Brochures mention hiking, river rafting and lounging in a hammock at a campground. There’s also scuba diving, with a freshwater twist.
Right she is, as in 150-foot, gin-clear clarity. A three-hour scenic drive east from Newport into the Cascade Mountains, Clear Lake opens our eyes to an entirely different side of Oregon diving— fresh water. Testament to Oregon’s violent, volcanic geologic past, Clear Lake formed approximately 3,000 years ago when nearby Sand Mountain erupted.
Northern opalescent nudibranchs prepare to mate.
Flowing lava cooled upon reaching the McKenzie River and solidified, creating a natural dam, behind which river waters backed up to create a lake. The forest surrounding the lake was submerged. Fast-forward three millennia to the present and here we are, 15 feet under, gazing reverently at dead, algae-bearded trees still standing upright while a few trout saunter casually past. It is cold—really cold. I’m transfixed by the whorls and empty branch sockets on the trunk of one ancient whose roots disappear into what looks like Bahamian white sand but is actually a layer of ash on the lakebed. Looking above, through the mirrored surface, we can clearly see live evergreens stretching skyward into the blue. Somehow, we last 84 minutes. Perma-tingly fingers and toes and the burn of 39-degree water against one’s cheeks is a small price to pay to swim among prehistoric trees in forever visibility. Hours later, when she regains the power of speech, Melissa shares her logbook entry:
I won’t forget this dive anytime soon. An otherworldly experience swimming through the ancient, frozen-in-time forest. Some trees with wispy amber tufts of algae, others dripping bright green like moss. Icy (<40F, brrrr!) water but it’s tropical blue. Sunbeams dancing on the lake floor. Shadows from kayakers overhead remind me of birds flying. Not too shabby for a Plan B dive!
The frontier beckons. Some of Oregon’s reportedly best dives await along the rugged, remote stretch between Florence and the California border. Before moving south, however, we take advantage of fortuitous cosmic forces, visiting the Cape Perpetua intertidal zone. Tide pools chock-full of colorful sea stars, urchins and anemones are on display for a few precious hours, and more easily accessible than usual because of the super-low “minus tide” water level today. Not content to merely peer into these microcosms of the vast Pacific, I lug my full underwater camera setup (complete with heavy strobes) down to the tide pools to create rare “half in, half out” split shots of a rainbowed constellation of spined and tentacled life forms. Great fun and unique images, but hard work.
The Fingers, a popular Newport dive site.
Port Orford is home base for the last few days of our Oregon discovery tour. Historically a hardscrabble fishing town, it is now diversifying into a destination for adventure and ecotourism, including diving. Rigorous is often the descriptor du jour in the deep south. My first dive is at the Port Orford Jetty under less-than-ideal conditions. At 15 knots, the north-westerly wind isn’t a problem because of the protection afforded by the tall headlands looming at my back and extending west. But the 6-foot swell promises an energetic aquatic experience. I am still determined to dive, however.
A scouting mission if nothing else. The entry is sporty, a rocky descent better suited for agile crabs than my clumsy self, burdened with bulky drysuit, 40 pounds of lead, steel tank, my boat anchor of a camera, etc. The giant stride down into the surge channel is OK, if you time it with an incoming swell’s rising water to cushion your freefall. Once underwater, I am thrown into a knock-down-hold-on-drag-sideways fight against the powerful surge. After 25 minutes I call it quits. Getting out—and back up the craggy escarpment—proves rigorous times two. I will sleep well tonight and regroup tomorrow.
Exploring the Port Orford coast.
Sea conditions improve overnight, along with our strategy. We launch Moon Jelly, our 14-foot inflatable kayak, and proceed to dive the jetty and a nearby pinnacle in style and relative comfort. Everybody is happy, including the sharp-nose crabs, strawberry anemones, and scalyhead sculpins we meet. The following day, we paddle farther out to Tichenor Rock for a splash into deeper, fishier waters off its southeast corner. At 85 feet are some small red gorgonians I’ve never seen before in the Pacific Northwest. Just like that, I have a new favorite Oregon dive site.
Fame is short-lived. Redfish Rocks takes the title less than 24 hours later. Dave Lacey, owner of South Coast Tours, deftly maneuvers his Black Pearl (a real inflatable boat, 27 feet long and built for business) into the drop zone. We’re tight up against the northeasternmost of five dramatically sculpted islets in the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve, about 5 miles south of Port Orford. “Everyone seems to like this dive, and I think you will too,” Lacey begins the briefing.
After back-rolling over the side, we see why. A lovely stand of bull kelp sways hypnotically—gold glowing against a dreamy teal backdrop. Kelp is under siege in Oregon these days, victim of too many hungry purple sea urchins. My spirits soar as we glide through the healthy forest, then bank down the wall to commence our counterclockwise circuit. Huge plumose anemones sprout from the vertical. They also carpet boulders 50 to 75 feet deep on the bottom, over which schools of black rockfish drift on the sea breeze. Fissures and surge channels are decorated with living tapestries in green, orange, red, purple and yellow. Male and female kelp greenlings, decked out in their handsome, sex-specific wardrobes, flare and perch on substrate painted flamingo-pink with coralline algae. We stop to stare at a China rockfish, the first of its magnificent kind spotted on this trip. Then a big lingcod stops its lazy, serpentine swimming to stare boldly at us. Elsewhere, most lings have bolted upon first sight. Protection in this reserve is obviously working. This is the most marine life—in biomass and species diversity—that we have witnessed yet.
My mind is racing during the safety stop. I want to dive all the rocks in the reserve, starting immediately! Then the legendary Port Orford Reefs far offshore. And Cape Arago up the coast. Ditto those pinnacles off Bandon. Cape Lookout. Mack Arch down south. So much Oregon territory to explore, and all new, new, new!
I force myself to calm down, take slow, deep breaths. My inner voice counsels, All in good time. Weather permitting, of course.
Diver Melissa Cole, the author’s wife, observes a sunken tree covered in bright-green algae in Clear Lake.
Need To Know
When To Go: Oregon doesn’t have a clear “dive season.” Weather, sea surface conditions and visibility are highly variable year-round and very difficult to predict. Generally speaking, winter’s frequent storms and bigger swells make it tough to reliably plan dives at most exposed coastal sites. Spring through fall is a safer bet.
Dive Conditions: Cool water, limited visibility, rough surface conditions, strong current and surge, and rigorous shore entries all contribute to the challenge of Oregon diving. Some sites are suitable for beginners, but many require much more experience. Sea surface temperatures average 47 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit depending on location, season and upwelling. Ocean clarity is normally mediocre. Near-shore visibility usually ranges from 5 to 15 feet. Offshore reefs are sometimes better, up to 40 feet on a very good day.
Large swells can generate very strong underwater surge. Strong winds often cause dangerous breaking waves in exposed areas. Current may also be strong, especially during large tidal exchanges and in areas like river mouths. A good rule of thumb in current-sensitive areas is to target high tide during the slack window on days with small tidal exchanges. High tide can also make shore entries at sites such as Three Graces safer and more comfortable since you can swim right over submerged, ankle-twisting rocks in the shallows. When diving areas frequented by fishermen, be alert for boat traffic above and both active and derelict fishing lines and lures below. Carry a knife or line cutter, and avoid surfacing too far away from the rocks when boats are present.
Clear Lake temperatures hover between 37 and 40 degrees year-round, with consistently excellent viz. Snow may close Clear Lake during winter, so call ahead. Avoid touching or hovering close to the bottom because it is stirred up easily. At an elevation of 3,012 feet, this should be considered high-altitude diving. Adjust your computer, ascend very slowly, and avoid driving over high mountain passes (or flying!) until you’ve properly off-gassed.
Operators: South Coast Tours offers scuba diving, whale-watching and kayaking in the Port Orford area from April to October. Some Oregon dive shops occasionally arrange special charters at various locations along the coast. Beyond this, boat diving in Oregon is usually a DIY affair. Having your own boat (inflatables and even kayaks can work well for many nearshore sites when conditions permit) facilitates venturing beyond the range of shore-accessible sites. Though dive shops are sprinkled throughout the state— Eugene Skin Divers Supply is a personal favorite—options are very limited on the coast. Plan your tank-filling needs accordingly. Fills (air only, no nitrox) are available at Oregon State University’s Field Station in Port Orford. Call 541-366-2500 in advance.
Travel Tips: Flexibility is the key to an enjoyable Oregon experience. When the stars align, be ready to dive whenever and wherever conditions allow. If bad luck strikes and diving doesn’t pan out, there are many other activities well worth doing and sights worth seeing. Bring your mountain bike, surfboard and snow skis. Go whale-watching, kayaking or tide pooling. Sleep in a tent, or splurge on a beachside bed and breakfast with spa treatment. Oregon is outstanding above and below the waves.