I’m sitting on The Sarge, headed out to the Charleston Jetty. On the boat is Eric and Sherry Trapp, husband and wife duo and long time local recreational divers; Grant Herron and Elizabeth Seely, both young recreational divers; and their boat driver Ralph Penland, a retired fisherman. These are members from Outcast Dive Club, a local recreational diving club in the Coos Bay and North Bend Area. Eric and Sherry organize dives with the club almost every weekend. They are getting SCUBA’d up as we cruise along, looking for the best spot to dive.
By Maya Holiman, Volunteer Coordinator, Redfish Rocks Community Team
We scootch close to buoy 7. “The kelp follows the rocks, which is where the fish hang out”, Sherry says. “[The rocks] are what we dive around; where the fish are.” Their mission today: Spearfishing. It’s slack tide, and the current is looking swift. Oregon has phytoplankton blooms caused by upwellings bringing cold nutrient rich waters from deep parts of the ocean, but today seems to be clearer: about five feet. The group decides that buoy 1 is the spot. Eric and Elizabeth are dive buddies today. It’s Elizabeth’s first dive out in the jetty, and Eric walks her through the dive plan. “If I want to get your attention and you’re ahead of me, I’ll give a little tug on your leg”, Eric says. When everyone is strapped into the gear, with “goodie bags” clipped onto their sides, and spears in hand, we drift slightly ahead of buoy 1. They flip themselves backwards over the side of the boat, first Sherry and Grant, then Eric and Elizabeth follow. I watch as their neoprene heads bob in the water, and soon their neon flippers disappear below the surface.
The Charleston Jetty is one of 15 dive spots in Coos Bay, Oregon. Most dives on the southern Oregon coast tend to be boat dives like the one I’m on with the Outcast Divers. The jetty is common for spearfisher divers. In the surrounding area is the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) kelp bed, consisting of shallow sandstone filled with juvenile fish. Interested in catching Dungeness Crabs without a crab pot? The sandy bottoms around the jetty make it the perfect spot to catch a feast. If you are looking for walls of marine invertebrates, Aaron Galloway, OIMB’s assistant professor of Biology, says the Baltimore Reef is THE spot. The reef extends about 71 feet deep, but the top of the wall is about 9 feet below the surface. Brilliant colors of an invertebrate community make their home on this wall. If you don’t have a boat, don’t worry! Excellent shore dives include the Cape Arago Lighthouse, Sunset Bay, and Norton Gulch. All of these are accessible by foot with some hiking and swimming. You will find incredible 20 foot kelp beds, concentrations of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, also known as the Purple Sea Urchin, and many schools of rockfish. Sunset Bay has low visibility, but it’s easily accessible from the shore. Galloway suggests launching a sit-on-top kayak, and kayaking to the reefs farther from shore. “You can dive any of those spots without a true boat” Galloway says. “It makes it a lot more feasible”.For more information about licenses needed to fish, shellfish or scallop hunt, check out this link: https://myodfw.com/articles/oregon-hunting-and-fishing-licenses
About an hour south, and nestled on the Western most point in the lower 48, is the town of Port Orford. At first glance, the town has clear wear and tear, the wooden buildings showing their age from the sea salted wind. The five minute drive through the tiny settlement on Highway 101 barely scratches the surface of this Southern Oregon coastal community. The biggest draw to this stretch of the coast is the congregation of biodiversity that is hard to find elsewhere on the West Coast. There are five rocky islands emerging out of the water give the illusion that you have landed on a Star Wars planet. This feeling of synergistic energy is precisely the draw for curious, adventurous folks. “[Port Orford] tests your abilities as a diver, and the rewards you get are beyond great”, says Jim Bourquin, a local recreational diver. Jim has been diving for almost 10 years, and prefers diving in Port Orford to diving anywhere else in the world. This is a common trend coming from the divers on this part of the coast. Many have experienced a wide range of dives across the world, but all have said they favor their Southern Oregon Coast dives the most.
There are about five dive locations around Port Orford. The emergent rocky islands that visitors see as they stand onshore at Battle Rock Park is number one. Port Orford is known for its fishing fleet, making up about one third of the town’s economy. Because of the significance of the fishing industry in Port Orford, the community wanted to ensure an investment bank for future fishing generations. After lengthy discussion of boundaries, the Port Orford community reached compromise and thus created the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. This was Oregon’s first marine reserve to exist, followed by four more traveling north up the Oregon coast. This reserve is 2.7 square miles of no extraction territory, but research and recreation is allowed and encouraged. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is responsible for monitoring this coastal gem, and Oregon State University supports in data collection relating to juvenile rockfish populations and lab based classes. Kevin Busch, OSU’s safety dive officer, supports in the lab based research happening in Redfish Rocks. “The fish populations are one of the main reasons the marine reserve was established”, says Busch. “Many signature fish make an appearance in the MR and not usually anywhere else.” There are over thirteen different species of rockfish that make their home in the Marine Reserve. The China Rockfish, a black fish with beautiful yellow speckles covering its body, are a rare sight beyond its borders.
Port Orford Jetty is the hub for access to the dive spots in and around Port Orford. You can explore the Port Orford Reef, which hosts many creatures including Giant Pacific Octopus. Orange Cup Coral, and two species of sea cucumber. You can also dive around the Jetty rocks. This is Jim’s favorite place to dive, and the spot he dives most frequently. He likes to take a flashlight and discover what hides out in the cracks of the rocks. “Down in the rocks, you never know what you will see”, Jim says. The east side is typically calmer, and divers can descend about 45 feet under the surface on the east side of the jetty. You can also use the jetty to reach Tichenor Cove and Nelly’s Cove, both breathtaking sights for species observation. Option to launch a kayak to explore the coves and Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve is also available. More information about hoist fees, operating, and contact information for the port can be found at: https://portofportorford.org/
There is another option for non boat divers on the dock, but it is not for the faint of heart. Located on the West side of the Dock is “The Chute”, as Linda Graves calls it. Linda is also a member of the Outcast Dive Club. They helped Linda get her SCUBA certification, and are always looking for more divers to join. “Me and Sherry are kind of enablers”, Erick says. “We want to keep the community diving.” This access point on the jetty should always be entered with a dive buddy for safety’s sake. It’s called “The Chute” for a reason. The water enters a narrow channel when the surge comes in, and then you are pulled out of the channel as the water recedes. The entry is not ideal for beginner divers, and should never be entered alone. The entry does capture the spirit of the South Coast, though. Bravery, adventure, and teamwork are all required for this bold dive spot. The Port of Port Orford has plans to improve this diver access.
After exploring the underwater structures and variety of fish and invertebrates in the area, SCUBA divers can get their tanks filled at the Port Orford Field Station (located at 444 Jackson St. in Port Orford) by contacting the Station Manager, Tom Calvanese at 541.366.2500. The air station is operated by Oregon State University’s Diving Safety Office. Tank fills are available for certified divers with current tank inspection for a $5 suggested donation and funds are used to support OSU’s dive program. Call ahead to plan for your tank fills, as Tom is often in the field. Link to Port Orford Field Station website: https://research.oregonstate.edu/port-orford
Back on The Sarge, I watch as Sherry and Grant pop up after about 50 minutes. They climb aboard and empty their goodie bags to show us what they caught. Friendly competition ensues as they count their creatures. Four black rockfish for Grant, a large black rockfish and a scallop for Erik, and six gleaming black rockfish for Sherry. They all inform me that Sherry comes out on top every time. There is a lighthearted air as we make our way back to the shore.
“That’s definitely the most sea life I’ve seen here” Elizabeth says in awe of her first dive in the Jetty. It is clear the group takes pride in diving in the area and are most welcoming to newcomers and interested parties alike. If you are wanting to try your skills at diving on the South Coast and are looking for great stories and even better dive buddies, contact the Outcast Dive Club! You can find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/nonmetrodivers
Thank you to: Scott Groth, Aaron Galloway, Jim Bourquin, Will Fennie, Kevin Busch, Tom Calvanese, Oregon State University, Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Redfish Rocks Community Team and members of the Outcast Dive Club: Eric and Sherry Trapp, Linda Graves, Grant Herron, Elizabeth Seely, and their captain Ralph Penland!
The Redfish Rocks Community Team (RRCT) was established in 2009. The team convenes to serve the scientific, educational, social, and economic needs of Oregon’s south coast communities and the Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve. Members represent a wide range of stakeholder groups, including social and ecological sciences, commercial and recreational fishing, recreation, education, conservation, local government, local business, watershed councils, and more. The team works in collaboration with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a wide array of other partners. RRCT develops recommendations for Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve in consideration of biological and socioeconomic information, as well as serving as a liaison between ODFW and the local community.