Diving Oregon

It is impossible to speak for the motivations of others. But I think it is safe to say that few people undertake a career diving in Oregon because they expect to find relaxation in a dreamy tropical paradise. Most seem to be seeking raw natural adventure, which can test the conditioning, skills and patience of the best divers. Most seem to be seeking something well outside the safe limited world of modern shore life.

A close friend says my opinion is so much nonsense and that we do it because it's fun.

Whatever the case there is a difference between excitement and foolishness. I feel this difference lies more in skillfully anticipating situations than in merely surviving them through reliance on personal prowess or luck. This book is intended to assist those who lust after raw excitement but are also wise enough to prepare to enjoy that excitement safely.

This day in November was all steely gray with a low overcast and a sort of hanging gloom over middling swells which all seemed crouching in anticipation of a coming storm. When I crossed the bar the going was fairly easy clear out to sea. I made a modest dive inside the jaws and returned to the shop after reloading the boat in a strangely empty parking lot. I looked at the Coast Guard storm flagpole and they were running the orange square flags with the black square in the center which indicate winds up to 75 miles per hour coming in soon. There may be no offshore diving tomorrow.


Dive Boating

Personal Preparation

The Boat

Navigation Equipment

Depth Finder


Lines and Anchors

Hunting Gear

Safety Gear

Dive Conditions

Locating the Site

At The Dive Site

The Dive


Dive Boating -TOP-

Oregon Offshore Diving is boat diving. Good boating and good diving require different skills. Boating issues are so important to Oregon offshore diving that they need to be well understood before considering offshore diving. It is marginally possible to shore-dive a few Oregon offshore sites. But few divers have the conditioning or desire to swim to these sites from shore. Certainly these hardy souls will not attempt to shore-dive these sites on a frequent basis. While diving in Oregon is rigorous and requires good skills and preparation many more people encounter far worse trouble over boating than diving. Oregon boating conditions can be harsh on both boats and boaters. So let's talk a bit about boats.

Navigation can be very simple or very difficult off Oregon. Conditions can quickly change from smooth clear motoring to a very rough blind survival test. The failure to prepare realistically for navigation problems probably accounts for most boating disasters in Oregon. Situated in the North Pacific, Oregon is often exposed to spectacular rough seas, significant tides, cold weather, wind, rain, ice and fog. This can all be very beautiful from shore. But these same conditions can be deadly at sea.

Captains may often have no visual point of reference at all. Visual landmarks can easily be occluded between ocean swells. While the coast is easily accessible by automobile, shore access from the sea can be very limited. Once at sea it is crucial one be able to locate shore access before limited fuel supplies run out. This can quickly rise to the level of emergency in rough conditions. The Coast Guard is very skilled at rescue. Assuming rescue is even possible. But if the problem was your fault you may end up paying a fine as well as risking your life or loosing your boat.

A few years ago the Coast Guard lost four men off Washington after one of there best surf boats rolled at least four times. This accident occurred within sight of the bar as they tried to rescue a demasted sailboat. There are often times when no one should be offshore.

One should never turn his back on the open sea. Statistics indicate that a significant number of waves every day may top 2.44 times the size of the average. Waves from vastly different areas of the sea may suddenly combine to make huge waves. Unanticipated large swells are sometimes called "sneakers". Large sneaker swells may break unpredictably as they move out of deeper water onto diving reefs. Oregon saw two storms in September 1997 producing thirty-foot swells. These waves are bigger than the depth to some reefs. While no one would attempt to dive these conditions some do successfully dive with swells between eight and twelve feet.

Oregon offshore diving requires a "live boat" plan. This means a plan where there is always a competent operator in the boat. Anchors may be pulled loose. Even a slight breeze can move the taller boat away faster than a surfaced diver could ever swim. Often breezes and currents move independently. Even a great swimmer will find it impossible to hold up much speed in such a situation.

So to dive offshore Oregon, one needs to locate a suitable boat and experienced operator who understands safe boating in Oregon.

Personal Preparation -TOP-

Going offshore means leaving behind the comforting security of socially organized security. Seeing to safety must fall upon those going outside across the bar. Sometimes nature gives the test before the lesson. All preparation for diving offshore must fall upon first the individual and then the captain. If something falls between the cracks there can often be no easy solution. If a preparation can be made it should be made. Failure to provide for some difficulty will be one's own fault. Failure to carry and use appropriate dive gear is the diver's fault and failure to check such issues as nautical charts is the captains fault.

All offshore divers should be completely ready to dive upon leaving the dock. This means equipment preparation must begin well before the group heads for the launch. This planning should include the night before the trip. A regularized routine can be useful here as long as the diver also individually checks that each item of his personal equipment is present and working correctly. The odds of something turning up missing on a dive boat early on a cool morning must be large. It happens very often. It is helpful to keep personal gear such as masks, fins, hoods, and knives in a dive bag of some sort. Most dive gear sinks on it's own. If it gets tossed overboard it is gone.

Load balancing is very important in an offshore boat. It is often difficult to keep the bow down in rough seas. The captain will generally prefer that weightbelts be stored under close control forward in the boat. Tanks too should be secured. It is difficult enough to deal with people bouncing around in the boat. If tanks and weight belts are left unsecured they will almost always work their way back in the boat into a bouncing piled up mess. As the bow gets lighter the swells tend to loft the boat dangerously while the captain fights not only the helm but also the bouncing dive gear. It is very difficult to restore organization to a boat once at sea. Often the captain will need to keep moving to maintain control and it will be very hard for others to gather up loose stuff.

While all divers should prepare for cold water diving conditions the real chill may be caused by wind chill in motoring to and fro on the surface. Personal gear should include appropriate foul weather gear as well as dive equipment. Hats or other headgear can make the difference between being comfortable and miserable on an open offshore dive boat. Rain gear, which can break the wind chill, is also very handy if conditions become miserable. It can be helpful to wear your mask in the boat. Often the spray will hit only some of the passengers on a boat. Divers need to be prepared to deal with their own chill problems.

Wear your foul weather gear early and you may not get into an exhausting hypothermic situation later. All divers should carry and use hats. Remember that hypothermia usually comes on slow and can take several hours to set in and several hours to reverse. The key is prevention. If one is shivering hypothermia has already completely set in.

It is possible that the boat will be reduced to slow progress into a spraying wind on the return trip after diving. While the choice to continue out will have been made in decent conditions the changeable aspect of offshore conditions in Oregon may turn the surface into a choppy mess upon the return. As a general rule the mornings can be quite calm until ten o'clock or so when winds often begin. It is often the case that the trip out is much more pleasant than the trip in.

Dry suit divers should be zipped up before crossing the bar. Rescuing a diver who has been tossed out in a flooded dry suit may be difficult or impossible. Divers have died off Oregon after accidents in unzipped dry suits.

Several Oregon divers have been pitched clear out of their boats in rough seas. Divers have also been tossed out crossing the bar. This can be a very difficult place to maneuver a boat for pickup. Obviously divers need to be ready to handle themselves for a bit until they are picked up. Problems can cascade. It is often the case that a single rescue situation escalates until it involves others in the boat in serious difficulty.

Seasickness seems to be a constant companion on offshore dive boats. It seems to get everyone at one point or another. There are drugs available. Many are not a good idea as they affect performance. The better varieties require a doctor's prescription. Good advice includes avoiding alcohol the night before, sleeping well, and keeping breakfast small. The onset of seasickness can be very sudden. I have seen a whole boat full of divers doing just fine while beating into waves only to all become violently sick thirty seconds later after changing to a course which produces sloshing sideways action. It takes a special diver indeed to remain dignified under these conditions. But it hits us all at some point or other and you just have to deal with it.

The Boat -TOP-

Good offshore diving boats are easy to get in and out of. Their sides are close to the water allowing diver access without any other sort of equipment such as ladders. They will allow a single diver to deal with heavy weight belts and other gear on his own if required. Many Oregon divers will choose dry suits and may require forty or more pounds on their weight belts. Few divers can simply throw their weight belt in the boat from the water. Rough conditions can make re-boarding the boat very tough without help. While all divers should be prepared to assist each other, each diver should be able to maintain control within his particular situation until pickup and also board the boat unassisted once rid of his weight belt.

Good offshore dive boats are also excellent rough weather boats. They should be virtually unsinkable and self-bailing. They must move quickly but idle down reliably to climb swell after swell at low throttle settings.

Most Oregon offshore divers prefer either fabric inflatable boats or the new simulated aluminum inflatable boats. Inflatable boats are very low to the water and sit flat. They tend to refloat even if swamped.

Other boats will do but are not as well suited by nature. Conventional aluminum or fiberglass pleasure boats tend to be very difficult for a diver to re-enter at sea. They are also more difficult to refloat if swamped. Rough conditions can quickly exhaust a diver trying to come across the side of a tall rocking conventional boat. Ladders can be useless in rough weather.

Inflatable boats do very well in heavy weather. Small boats may actually do better in large swells. Big boats tend to straddle swells increasing the chance of becoming pooped or pushed round and rolling over. In many cases large swells may be topped with random seas or chop. These seas can break into the boat swamping it. While an inflatable boat may be able to recover from being swamped the conventional boat may stay down once flooded. The air-filled tubes of the inflatable will merely raise the boat till the water runs off the sides and out the back. Eventually it will clear completely. Of course this assumes you avoid any further swamping while getting under way again. It should go without saying that the motor and other running gear must be reliable. All mechanical equipment should be well secured. Outboard motors should be bolted to the transom and safety chained to the boat.

Many offshore dive boats will have large rubberized fabric fuel bladders. Whatever the fuel container one should never leave the bar without a large safety margin of fuel. Situations may arise which prolong the trip and lots of fuel for the motor will be needed to maintain control. Running out of fuel after being forced to wait out a rough bar is not a healthy experience. Nor is running out of fuel in fog while motoring about looking for the entrance to the bar.

Navigation Equipment -TOP-

Depth Finder

All dive boats should have navigation equipment. Navigation equipment is needed for both dive site location and general navigation safety. It is very difficult to locate diveable reefs in Oregon without a depth finder. Obviously one does not want to run into objects in shallow water. It is a bad idea to cruise over shallow water where large swells may suddenly break. It is very easy to get into shallow water while ocean boating in Oregon. While you may spend all day in water a hundred feet deep there are plenty of shallow spots closer in and within bays which have not been maintained. Only a few bars are dredged and many apparently wide river openings are very shallow at low tide. Entire sections of jetties have been moved by storms. Smaller rocks can be unexpectedly pushed about.


A modern Geographical Positioning System or GPS is also invaluable. These systems are amazingly accurate and simple to use for both locating dive sites and finding the way home. These systems are getting better every day. They are now under $200. There is no excuse for going to sea without one. They are essential for safety and they help locate dive sites as well.

Lines and Anchors -TOP-

The boat should have ample lines to tie up either end at the dock or on the open sea. Another attribute of a well-equipped dive boat is a buoy supported anchor system, which may be used independently of the boat. Usually this will consist of a large orange floating ball attached to one hundred twenty feet of anchor line, fifteen feet of quarter inch chain and a blade anchor. The line and buoy will generally have loops for attaching other lines. The whole mess can be deployed at the dive site while the boat is then free to move about picking up divers or avoiding potentially threatening swells. Larger swells may mount up right over the reef being dived. It is good for the boat operator to be free to move about in the boat while the dive anchor remains fixed for the divers.

Hunting Gear -TOP-

Many Oregon divers are interested in hunting. This means dealing with sharp objects. Also the fish around here all have sharp spines. This means one must protect the inflatable boat. Fish boxes or bags can help with this. Hunting equipment should never be armed out of the water. Pole spears can be organized to keep points away from the tubes or covered.

Safety Gear -TOP-

Oregon Boating regulations also require life jackets and/or other items. Dealing with the law on Oregon waters is every boater's responsibility. I won't cover legal issues here as the boater should look those up for himself. Boating shops can easily help with this. Make sure you get it right!

There is a limit to how much a small boat can store. But it is certainly a good idea to carry additional safety equipment such as waterproof flares, radios, whistles, cell phones, extra spark plugs, screwdrivers, wrenches and the like.

Dive Conditions -TOP-

There are times when the sea off Oregon is flat and without current. Boat divers should find those situations simple to dive. But often the seas can be rough, the visibility poor and the weather cold. So this discussion of boat diving in Oregon will concern techniques for diving tough conditions.

Locating the Site. -TOP-

Most interesting dive sites of the Central Oregon Coast consist of rock outcroppings mounting up from the sandy floor in rock reefs. The floor may be from sixty to a hundred and ten feet deep while the reefs may rise to within twenty feet of the surface. Port Orford sites may be much deeper calling for wall dives along rocks.

I think it safe to say that reefs will be found in almost any area along Oregon within a mile of shore. Many are marked on various nautical charts. Experience has shown nautical charts from NOAA to be quite accurate in locating many sub-surface objects. My impression is that these locations on the charts bear out so well in practice that you can just go with them. Look at the charts for your area. Of course many other pinnacles not marked. But why not start with what is obvious?

A GPS can be invaluable in locating an anticipated dive site. It is also possible to locate dive sites by triangulation from shoreside landmarks. But this technique can be far less effective than in situations where surface features can be found on both sides of the boat. Most boat operators will use a GPS or Loran. The GPS is more accurate.

Carefully consider the tide tables for the period of your dive window. Water depth can vary by up to twelve feet. This can have a huge effect when combined with swells. There is no point in going to a shallow reef at low tide in high swells. The surge will be undiveable and the boating dangerous. If you have picked a site which requires crossing an undredged bar be aware that what may be crossed at high tide may be unpassable at low tide when you return. Swells may be breaking there on the return.

Never go anywhere when you are not sure of your return. Never assume that you can make the same headway in opposite directions. Eight-foot swells may be quite comfortable while two-foot random chop can be bone breaking. Many have thrilled to chasing through the slop in one direction only to find their return trip speed limited to a quarter or less in the other direction. What were smooth swells with interesting patterns have become holes with solid vertical walls at the other end. These walls can suddenly eat the bow of your boat.

At The Dive Site. -TOP-

Upon locating the approximate dive site through appropriate consultation of navigation equipment it will usually be necessary to search about a bit with the depth finder. It is rare to simply drive to a GPS point and then feel secure in just throwing out the anchor.

Many pinnacles have narrow tops and steep sides. While locating the true top one should be evaluating the local conditions of water and wind motion. One should not just toss out the anchor but rather anticipate drift and place it along the side of a reef opposite the local wind or water drift. The anchor should be laid in place. It is not good to have it hook between rocks. It can be impossible to retrieve without diving for it. The hook is intended to lay stable upon a surface while a fifteen-foot length of heavy chain functions as a vertical spring to actually tether the float ball. If the hook is placed a bit below the top on the high side of the drift it should be very secure. (picture) As mentioned before, the boat is left free to move independently.

The actual position of the float ball may be well off the pinnacle. Remember that water drift and wind drift may be unrelated. Indeed, the anchor line may have strong sub-surface curves as well. The captain should advise the divers of this after consulting the depth finder. The captain may advise the divers of a preferred compass heading. The divers should at least fix their compasses for north and south or possibly the drift before the dive. The captain should then advise the divers to make their final preparations while positioning the boat to drop them well upstream of the ball in the local drift conditions.

It is important to begin a rough conditions dive well. Great divers seem to simply drift onto the anchor line and disappear with little or no fuss.

If things start out badly they don't get better by themselves. No one can defeat tons of water. It is almost always more comfortable on the anchor line below ten feet. Getting there efficiently can be difficult. This gets exponentially more confused as you add more divers. There should be at least two divers per drop. They should be paired for similar experience levels.

One is diving when one is not in the boat. The diver should have his mask in place and his regulator in his mouth as if he were fifty feet down. This should persist until back in the boat or at least relieved of the weight belt. The surface can be the most difficult part of the entire dive. In rough conditions the weighted diver can wallow about with his weight belt and tank as swells sweep over him until he is totally exhausted.

The diver should be properly weighted. I prefer to weight myself so that I am easily able to maintain neutral buoyancy at fifteen feet on a nearly empty tank at the end of the dive. Thick wet suits, dry suits, and rough conditions can all combine to force an ascending diver to the surface far too fast. A returning diver may be laden with booty as well. One should imagine a virtual surface at fifteen feet in rough conditions. There will be more about this later.

A missed approach to the float ball or a prolonged struggle on the surface should be terminated quickly. The captain should recognize a botched dive and the diver should be picked up. Hanging on the float ball in current at the surface in rough conditions can wear a diver out in seconds. If there is time to become worried about all this and the diver has still not left the surface action should be taken. Rough conditions merely increase the risk of problems after starting a dive in oxygen debt. Continuing with a dive after struggling on the surface consumes lots of air just when it is best to be using minimal air. It is also very good to be able to easily exhale completely at the point of descent to get the below the chop quickly. I often ventilate several times just before back-rolling off the boat in anticipation of this.

If one has gotten into a struggle but still finds himself in control ten feet down on the anchor line it is always wise to stop and catch up on the breathing before continuing. It takes less air there and the dive will be longer and much more pleasant.

If the diver misses the float ball he should accept pick-up. Once having lost the anchor line the chances of finding the reef top are small. So the frustrated diver with a building oxygen debt is now confronting a deep dive under blind conditions with his air consumption way up. Or possibly a long drift out of the area of the dive plan. Not good.

The captain should drop the divers on his command and they should swim immediately to the ball and undertake their descent. Obviously the captain must be very cautious not to hit them in the water. It is not wise to adjust the divers with the boat. The diver should aggressively seek the float ball. Then he should deflate his BC, exhale and drop quickly down the anchor to below ten feet. He should clear his ears early and often. There will be little chance to adjust equipment up to this point. If a diver can't get his descent started easily he should abort the dive by signaling the boat and his partner and deal with equipment in the boat. If he has developed confusion or has become task loaded to the point of hesitancy he should also abort the dive. A diver should never be embarrassed at aborting a dive. But he should be embarrassed at pushing a difficult situation into a frantic rescue.

The Dive. -TOP-

At ten feet everything begins to smooth out. Regulators breath more smoothly, surface chop abates, conflicting currents stabilize, ear equalization is well under way and decreasing diver buoyancy begins to assist the dive. It is also possible that the reef may come into view. Sometimes, anyway. At any rate, the diver may now continue the descent confidant that things are going well and in control.

Many divers will be using a dry suit. The use of a dry suit should be well studied and practiced for any diver prior to this point. Some using a dry suit may need to add air to their suits while in descent to the reef top. I usually prefer a bit of squeeze throughout my dive as an indicator of a bit of ceiling before buoyancy begins to escalate on ascent. So I often continue to the reef top without adjusting the air in my dry suit. If for some reason it is necessary to abort at this point then one doesn't have to quickly dump the air in the dry suit. By the time you reach a reef below twenty-five feet you will have to add air to a dry suit. Upon reaching the reef a natural opportunity arises to go over ones situation and equipment and await the rest of the group who probably agreed in the boat to meet at the anchor for the dive.

It is wise to go upstream at the start of a dive. One may wish to return to the boat up the anchor line. This ability to stay in complete control can be the mark of a good diver. A compass should be used. Hunters may ignore direction in the pursuit of game. But they do this because they are hunting and not because they are ignorant. Even so they will be interested in which side of the reef they dive.

Hunting. -TOP-

Hunting is a big subject. There will be only a few general comments here. Most bass will tend to accumulate on the borders of the reef. They may select an area for current conditions. A diver may wish to circle the reef border till he finds them. It is very easy to take them and they don't seem to relate to the dispatch of their brothers by leaving if one is fairly calm. It is good to have good buoyancy control and let the surge gently assist your maneuvers so the bass feel you fit in to the scene.

Mister Ling Cod can occasionally be found laying about on surfaces but is more likely going to be near shelter. He may be in a fissure or depression. He may be in a vertical crack. Often he will be near the bottom of the reef or out in the bolder piles on the sandy floor. He will almost never be found free swimming; at least not so that you can whack him. Once a ling is moving it is very difficult to stalk him. But if one is encountered resting it is not hard to allow drift or surge to gently bring you into position for a shot.

Free swimming sea life off Oregon is adapted to defend predation by engulfing. Fish seem to measure each other up by body mass. Big things moving calmly thorough in concert with the current create no panic. Ling rely heavily on camouflage. Movement does not help them much with this. So they tend to sit still. Oregon fish do not seem alert to the possibility of a creature suddenly closing the gasp on them with a powered spear. So it is easy to take them.

However, Oregon fish are quickly alerted to any sort of unnatural or erratic motion. Particularly when it seems diverted with a focus on them. If a diver suddenly changes direction and chases a fish it will jet away. It may allow you to hang out for several seconds or even approach if you do not move rashly. Their nerves do seem to work well in knee-jerk reaction. But their thought process seems to take several seconds to mature. If one does not trigger a reflex reaction in them they may fail to understand you are stalking them.

I mention all this as it impacts the dive. The hunter may wish to circle the reef for bass or go poke around deep for ling. Either approach is better done smoothly. All hunting is better done with less loud bubbles.