For many years I’ve heard about diving under the Newport Pier. I was never keen on the idea. It’s surrounded my surfers and sand, and protected by a curtain of fishing poles. Three years ago, my friend Jim, finally talked me into it. “We’ll make a quick dive before work,” he said. I work 10 minutes from there. So what, I’ll be a little late?”

Upon arrival, my expectations held. Lots of surfers, lots of sand and lots of fisherman. The upside was, it was a beautiful summer morning and I was playing a little hooky from work. The parking is very close to the pier. There are no stairs. The walk over the sand is short, and there are showers right next to our parking spaces.

This is probably the easiest Southern California beach dive you can do. We first checked conditions by walking to the end of the pier and looking down at the pilings. The visibility looked unexpectedly nice. Easily 15 feet vertical. Our entry was just next to the pier.

A quick shuffle through the surf and we then finned under the pier and made a surface swim to the beginning of the rectangular platform at the end. We dropped down 24 feet to the bottom. It was bright and sandy behind me and dark and ominous in front of me. My initial reaction was that this was a wasteland. Lots of discarded junk and fishing line. There was almost a fence of knives surrounding the pier.

It didn’t take long to make a quick recon of the entire dive area. When I finally settled down and put on my macro eyes, an explosion of life was in front of me. This is an arduous environment, subjected to high surf and the seasons, yet there was a proliferation of life under the pier. After my initial dive, I told Jim that we should make this a weekly event. So started my quest to video document this environment for a year. We meet every other week or so. Two-thirds of the time, the visibility at the end of the pier made us skip the dive and arrive early at work.    

The late spring and summer months are the best under the pier. Bryozoan carpets the bottom making a nursery for juvenile fish, crabs and nudibranchs. Bundles of fishing line make a home for pipefish. In my 30 years of diving, these were the first pipefish I’ve seen in Southern California. Empty clamshells make a home for bay blennies. A discarded PVC pipe makes a home for sarcastic fringeheads. An empty shell makes a home for a small octopus. Crabs of many flavors enjoy the bounty of discarded fileted fish from the fisherman above

Fall months can have the best water visibility. Life is down a bit, but strange things can be sighted. Male sarcastic fringeheads have established their territories in moonsnail shells or PVC pipes or bottles. They have wooed females to lay eggs and are on high alert. They WILL bite your finger to prove it. I’ve found a small group of juvenile flag rockfish, a rare find of a deep water resident. Schools of baitfish can swarm the pier and blot out the light. On one magical fall morning, I could see the sand from the end of the platform.

A night dive is eerie in every sense. It’s the “Night of the Living Dead.” Red crabs that have been hiding in the sand all day, come to the surface. When you put your hand down on the bottom, it would start to move as crabs emerge from the sand. The bottom becomes covered with them. They are the night cleanup crew. This was of my freakiest night dive ever. I should make this a Halloween tradition.

The winter storms scrub the pier clean of the life holding bryozoan. It becomes an apocalyptic wasteland with the bottom covered in clam shells. Mostly empty, but not all. The ever-present moon snails search for the live ones for their final coup de grace. They leave their telltale bore hole, showing that they succeeded.

The Newport Pier has a long and important history for Southern California. In 1888, it was built as the McFadden Wharf. The local inhabitants suggested this exact spot because of the way waves break. It breaks to the north, or the south. But where the pier sits, waves are minimal. Later it was found, that there is a submarine canyon directly off of the pier.

This is a special place to dive. It’s not clean, it’s not pretty–it’s spectacular. If a ‘beach clean up’ effort were to be held here, I would be the first to protest. Life without the pier or the garbage from above, would be SAND. Life under the pier has adapted to us humans, even with its barbed-hooked consequences. I’m not encouraging littering our oceans, but a discarded bottle is home to the octopus. Sunglasses are a home to the pipefish. Discarded batteries are a time bomb to this habitat. I sent them to the recycling center.

Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: 55 Freeway south until it ends on Newport Boulevard. Continue south, past Pacific Coast Highway. It will turn into West Balboa Blvd. Right at 21st Street. GPS N33°36.5157′ W117°55.7098′
Highlights: Lots of macro critters in the bryozoan carpet and on the pilings. Schools of baitfish can be seen in fall months.
Access: Beach entry. Enter next to the pier. Once past the surf, swim out under the pier to avoid fishing lines. Limited parking. Bring quarters. Best during the week or early am to avoid the crowds. Showers on the beach. Bathrooms and donuts nearby.
Depths: 25 feet under the end of the pier. If you swim straight out from the pier you can hit 100 feet as you descend into the canyon.
Visibility: 10-15 feet is good. Fall and winter can bring much better visibility.
Photography: A macro dive unless there is stellar visibility.
Hunting: It is a fishing pier. There must be something to kill.
Hazards: Fishing line (bring a sharp knife or snips), surfers, long-shore currents. Carefully check conditions. If unsure, ask the lifeguards — their office is at the beginning of the pier.