It is amazing how a single conversation can change your life. In the summer of 1850 Captain William Richardson was enjoying a drink in a bar in San Francisco, when a group of shipwrecked sailors stumbled in. The sailors shared their tale of harrow and survival as their ship became wrecked off the Mendocino coast and they had to row in a small boat to San Francisco. But, they spoke of more than survival. They spoke of huge forests without end and trees so big you could make a hundred churches from a single tree. Richardson was a shrewd businessman and knew San Francisco and California were going to need lumber to grow, and these yet-to-be-exploited forests may prove as profitable as gold. He was right.
Richardson was one of the first lumbermen to head to Mendocino County and had the pick-of-the-litter. He staked his first claim on a picturesque cove just south of Mendocino, and named his cove Albion. The cove is a wide sandy beach, well protected from wind and swell. Today, Albion is a haven for divers, not lumbermen.
Divers may park in a day-use area near the cove and carry their gear across the wide, sandy beach. The center of the cove is mostly sand. Pilings stick out of the sand beach and mark the site of the old wharf. The south side of the cove is often rough, is in the boating channel, and has little to interest divers except a few old anchors. These anchors are not from shipwrecks; rather, they were deliberately placed there to secure schooners as they took on lumber.
Beach divers should enter on the north side of the beach and work their way along the north wall. The water is shallow and uninteresting for some time, and then gets clearer with more life. Small, mostly short abalone may be found here with scattered small fish and invertebrates. Should you have lots of stamina you may make the half-mile swim to near the mouth of the cove, although I suggest getting there by boat or kayak. Here you will find clear water, numerous small coves, and a bottom full of huge boulders that drops away in steps. Free divers can find numerous 8 to 9 inch abalone and a few small fish in 15 to 25 feet of water. The rocks are mostly covered with coralline algae and palm kelp. This can be a pretty place to snorkel, particularly on a sunny day.
Albion is a great place to dive if you have a boat. Small vessels may be launched from the wide sandy beach near the public parking lot, or larger boats from the private campgrounds. Divers will want to explore the coves north and south of Albion. Particularly good choices are the north and south sides of Whitesboro Cove. Here you will find a jumble of algae-covered boulders and plentiful abalone in 10-15 feet of water. Spearfishing is better in deeper water. Also check out Buckhorn Cove just north of Albion where you will find a rock and sand bottom with more good-sized abalone.
Outside of the cove are two rather impressive pinnacles. Bull Rock is offshore of the south end of Whitesboro Cove (the next cove south of Albion). The pinnacle begins in about 15 feet from the surface and drops in steps to 120 feet. It has breakers in a moderate to large swell. Numerous smaller pinnacles surround the main one, separated by deep valleys. The tops of the pinnacles are covered with bull and palm kelp, with beds of strawberry anemones and a few large Tealia anemones a bit deeper. Every square inch of rock is covered with colorful invertebrates, blue rockfish are often found circling the rock.
As one drops deeper, divers encounter fields of Metridium anemones and then fields of encrusting sponges, cup corals and rock scallops. Scallops begin to appear at about 60 feet. At this depth they are small and hard to find. As one goes deeper they get bigger and more numerous.
Another great spot if you have a boat is Colby Reef. The top of the reef starts in about 20 feet and drops off to over 100 feet. The bottom is carved with deep canyons and small caves. The rock walls are covered with Metridium anemones. The invertebrate life is not as spectacular as at Bull Rock, but the more captivating bottom terrain more than makes this up for this. This is another good spot to see rockfish and lings.
Albion is an OK dive without a boat, but a spectacular dive with one. With two campgrounds at the cove, and several hotels and fine restaurants up the hill, Albion is a great place to spend a weekend and enjoy some of the best diving that the North Coast has to offer.
Dive Spot at a Glance
Location: Albion Cove is about four miles south of Mendocino on Hwy. 1 at mile marker 43.93. Colby Reef is 1.5 miles north of Albion and 1/2 mile offshore (39’ 14.983” N, 123’ 47.797 W). Bull Rock is off the south side of Salmon Creek (39’ 12.931” N, 123’ 47.233” W).
Access and Entry: Short walk to sandy beach from day use (fee) parking lot. Or launch boat from campgrounds.
Depths: 10 to 30 feet in the cove 20 to 140 feet outside.
Skill level: Beginner or better.
Visibility: Fair in the cove, 5 to 15 feet; outside the cove, 10 to 60 feet.
Hunting: Great abalone hunting for 8-9 inchers, good spearfishing for rockfish and lingcod, good scallop hunting on offshore pinnacles.
Photography: Poor in the cove, outstanding macro and wide-angle outside the cove.
Hazards: Divers should be particularly wary of boat traffic and stay clear of the boat lane. Watch for big waves and swell near the mouth of the cove.
Facilities: Two campgrounds are on the Albion River: The River Campground is on the flats (707-937-0606), and Schooner’s a bit up river (707-937-5707); both have restrooms, showers, and boat launching ramps.