- Published on Wednesday, 01 June 2011 22:04
- Written by Editor 1
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By Jeff Carr
Guest Writer, Dive News Network
Editor's Note: The first installment of The Oregon Coast ran in June 2010 and the second installment ran in October 2010. This is the third installment.
The third segment in The Oregon Coast series sites begins with the shore dives in Port Orford and ends on the reefs near Coos Bay/Charleston. Earlier installments of this series have taken us south down the Oregon Coast. We began in Newport and our trip will end in Depoe Bay at the end of the fourth installment in another Northwest Dive News edition later this year.
Most of the dives we cover here require a notch-up in experience. The boat dives on the reefs are more challenging and add elements that are not present in the dives in earlier installments. Divers should have a plan for surfacing without an anchor line, signaling the boat from the surface or, better yet, marker buoys to signal that divers are below and surfacing off of the anchor line. Also boat tenders need to be familiar with diving, piloting the boat, picking up divers near rocks, and all boat systems including radios and emergency equipment. Divers who frequent the Oregon coast already understand diving in the area can be more of a challenge because of the environment and currents. The catch phrase here is, "be careful."
In terms of dive sites, Port Orford offers more area than all the rest combined. Like Jupiter in our solar system, Orford Reef is the giant of them all. There is over two square miles of diving area on the reef. This is not a typo, I actually said "2 SQUARE MILES". Giant Island Rocks rise over 100 ft. out of the ocean and many smaller islands fill in throughout the reef. Wash rocks surround it on all sides and the terrain is as varied as the islands shapes. It begins about 4.4 miles off shore, 8.5 miles from Hells Gate, the gateway to the reef. It is far too large to explain the many individual dive sites with the exception of Fox Rock and Browns Rocks.
Orford Reef can be broken up into four main sections. On the north side there is a very large sea lion colony on the Large Browns Rock as well as some fantastic terrain. Underwater there are house sized boulders everywhere and around each corner is another pinnacle with caves, crevices and critters. Thousands of swim-thru sections are around each island. The east side of the reef tends to have less terrain and often has thick kelp beds. It is more sheltered than the North and South sides and is much easier to dive if you are just getting familiar with the reef. The south end has several wash rocks. The last section is the inside. Turbulent and rough, there are some dive sites in the midst of the islands, but be very choosy; it can be nasty in there and sea lion harassment is guaranteed.
Anchoring your boat near the wash rocks and dropping your divers close by them is the best plan. The terrain could keep you busy for a lifetime of diving. Your boat tender needs to be paying attention though because the reef is loud. Sea lions, crashing waves, and churning water make yelling to the boat tough.
Nellies Cove is a system of small bays to the west of the marina parking lot. You can scramble over the rocks to the waters edge and drop down to a dive site that has many open ocean features. There are rocks, crannies and places to explore to the west in numerous variations depending on how far you would care to swim. A kayak, of course, is a very good option here and there is beach access on the east side of the harbor jetty to launch from. There are not any great depth concerns in Nellies Cove, nor does it see high currents in the area, but weather from the south can make entry and exit tough as well as send a significant surge into the bays.
To the east of the boat launch pier are several rocks just off the beach. The depth is fairly shallow, in the 30 foot range, and these rocks can be accessed easily from the beach inside the harbor. Surprisingly, they are pretty interesting with scallops and other reef creatures on them not generally seen in abundance this close to a beach. It is an excellent spot to take beginning divers for practice in fish identification and one of the few places in Oregon where you can do any beach diving.
Hells Gate, the small opening separating Tichenor Rock from the mainland, is the gateway you pass through if you are going to Orford Reef. The east side of this rock is a good place to begin your Port Orford boat diving experiences. It is protected from all weather except a strong southerly wind and has some interesting terrain. The depths range from 10-75 ft. and can be reached easily. Some of the reef creatures you would see offshore drop in for a little vacation from busy reef life.
South of Port Orford a large round shaped island juts out of the ocean. A 360 degree circular dive site surrounds this rock offering any range of depths. The diversity of life it offers is what one would expect from an open ocean island. Boulders, canyons and crags await the diver who ventures out to it.
The lonely rock to the south west of the main reef is typical of the south side of the reef with the exception of diminished sea lion harassment. Since it is the western most rock of the Orford Reef system, it often has better visibility by a small degree than other sites. The trade-off is just after Fox Rock, China is the next land mass and the long ocean swell here can make surge a real issue. The upside is it's one of the best cold water dives on this earth. The reef is all around the rock but the best side to dive is just to the east. There you can hook an anchor and find terrain that is not too deep.
Large and Small Browns Rocks
Between the last northern island and the main reef there are a couple of wash rocks and two pinnacles that are 25 ft. deep at the top. In this area a dive crew can visit and revisit it a thousand times and still find new things. It is truly amazing.
Just outside the jetty system of the Coquille River mouth, near Bandon, Oregon, are dozens of small wash rocks, pinnacles and exposed rocks. Each of these is a dive site. Coquille Rock, further to the west by a mile and a half, offers exceptional diving but deep water surrounds it. Closer to shore and slightly south of the jetties are the other wash rocks. A short run in your boat or kayak makes this area a better choice for non-open ocean crafts. Divers can find their own dive sites all summer long and still swing into the marina for a sandwich between dives.
Like the Baltimore Reef to the north, this reef is carpeted with creatures. It has the wrecks of the Brush and the Acquarian. It is about 8 miles south of the Coos Bay South Jetty and you pass over Baltimore to get there. Simpson Reef runs north/south and can see the same diving conditions as its cousin just to the north, Baltimore Reef. It is further down the coast and if the weather comes up from the north it is a long haul back up.
Baltimore Reef is my favorite reef of them all. If you could see it all in one view, it would look long and thin stretching a mile from the end of the lighthouse cliffs to a large ocean buoy. Alligator-like in shape, it runs north/south although it seems to be east from your perspective on the water. It gets progressively deeper as you proceed further out. Before we talk about the good things the reef has to offer, let's talk about the bad. It is at times plagued with poor visibility; the Coos River rolls out of the jetty system and is pushed by the Alaskan currents right over the reef. It is also surrounded on 3 sides by deep water so any ocean swell can make surge a definite element in your diving, especially in the shallows. Wind, in the afternoon especially, can be a factor. It can whip up an ocean chop that makes seeing divers difficult. Lastly, the current can run across it both from the north and south; it tends to be from the north though.
Now the good stuff, the Coos River sends nutrients to Baltimore Reef daily in huge volumes. This reef supports an astonishing ecosystem rivaled by none of the other areas along the Oregon coast. There are sponges, fish, scallops, eels...small things, large things and everything in between. This is the most prolific dive site I have seen in Oregon and it is worth the effort to catch it on a good day. Don't let my earlier cautions deter you if you have the experience and are ready for diving here. The visibility can be exceptional, it can be calm and the current can be minimal. It can be the best dive you have ever done anywhere in the world. It was once for me. ■
The next, and final, installment of this series will be printed later this year and will cover the numerous Newport and Depoe Bay locations. Jeff Carr and Scott Boyd are authors of Northwest Wreck Dives. Jake Andreason, who provided photo support for this article, is an instructor for Eugene Skin Divers Supply.
Special thanks to our sponsor Astoria Scuba.