|Unlike the southern part of our state, steep cliffs dominate the Northern Californian coastline. While these present formidable obstacles for divers, they are broken by a series of small beaches with very protected entries. Within the heart of Sonoma County lies one of the best entries in the state -- Stillwater Cove.
This cove did not always go by the name "Stillwater," and was once known as Stockhoff's Cove, after the rancher who homesteaded there. Later the ranch later became a boy's school, and the school borrowed the name "Stillwater" from the abandoned lumber mill a bit to the south. The boy's school is still there, but is now a guest ranch, and the adjacent land is a County Park.
The U-shaped cove faces southwest, providing ample protection from the dominant northwesterly swell. The ease of entry makes this a popular spot for scuba and free diving instructors to bring their beginner classes, but experienced divers will find Stillwater is a great place to launch a boat, kayak, or swim to good abalone hunting.
The cove is a great place for beginner snorkelers and divers. The center of the cove consists of a highly textured boulder field with a sprinkling of small fish, crabs and nudibranchs. The rocky ridge to the right of the entry is covered with algae and is a great place to critter watch. Harbor seals occasionally haul out on the wash rocks within the cove. In the early part of the season, legal-sized abalone is found throughout the cove in shallow water. As the season progresses, you will have to swim farther and dive deeper to get your limit.
Stronger free divers should check out the wall on the south side of the cove. Under layers of coralline algae and sea lettuce may be found juvenile red abalone, red crabs, and an assortment of nudibranchs, including the sea lemon and the clown nudibranch. The shallow water is a great place for beginners and macro photographers, but few legal abalones are found here. Those with a better free diving skills will find 8 to 8.5 inch abalone in 20 to 30 feet of water. The water here is a bit deep for many free divers, but the abalones are in plain sight.
Straight out from the cove is an extensive bed of bull kelp under which is a series of rocky ridges and small holes in 40 to 60 feet of water. This is a good area to hunt for lingcod. Out from the far edge of the kelp runs a rock wall. The face runs along for about 200 feet and juts straight up 30 feet or so from an 80-90 foot bottom and is covered with white plume anemones. When the visibility is good, the scale and beauty of this reef is nothing short of spectacular and puts many tropical reefs to shame. Hiding among the anemones are lingcod and cabezon along with an assortment of crabs and nudibranchs. Hunting aside, this an excellent place for wide-angle photography.
If you have a kayak or boat, you will want to head north or south of the cove for better diving. The bottom consists of a high relief rock and boulders and is a great place to explore, or hunt. There are many holes and a few small caves that are homes for a healthy assortment of rockfish and lingcod.
Stillwater Cove has all of the facilities a diver could want. The campground is walking distance to the cove, and there is plenty of day use parking. You can also stay at the old boys school. Non-divers will also enjoy sunbathing, picnicking, or hiking the bluffs.
DIVE SPOT AT-A-GLANCE
Location: Within Stillwater Cove Regional Park, 14 miles north of Jenner on Hwy. 1, Sonoma County.
: Drop off gear at the junction of park entrance and Hwy. 1 between mile markers SON 37.17 and 37.31. There is no parking right at the cove; but, limited, free parking is available at the turnoffs on the north and south ends of the cove, and there is a large fee lot in the park for day use. Park rangers do not recommend parking in the turnoffs, but it is legal. Kayaks and small boats may be launched from the cove. A campground with hot showers is in the park; additional restrooms are on the beach, call (707) 847-3245, or "http://camping.sonoma-county.org/
". For reservations at the Stillwater Cove Ranch (the old boy's school) call (707) 847-3227.
Skill: All levels
Depth: 10-100 feet
Visibility: Good, 10-30 feet.
Photography: Fair macro photography inside cove, good macro and wide-angle photography in deeper water and in the kelp beds outside of the cove.
Hunting: Good abalone hunting for eight inchers in and outside the cove, fair spearfishing for lingcod and rockfish outside of the cove.
Hazards: Watch for big waves and swell outside of the cove and for boat traffic.