Those who have dived on the oil platforms know of the abundance of marine life that clings to the vertical steel members. And wreck divers know also how those hard metal surfaces attract much of the same kind of wonderful marine growth—thick, lush, vibrant and colorful. Wrecks and towers make for a bountiful oasis across often barren sand plains. San Diego is lucky. Not only do they have a good amount of wrecks (Wreck Alley), they have a great dive on a former tower and is now a wreck—the NOSC Tower. The twisted metal of the toppled rig is now home to a huge amount of marine life and is one of the best dives in all of San Diego.
Although the resemblance was strong, the NOSC Tower was not in any way connected to oil exploration or production. Rather, this was a research platform, placed by the Naval Ocean Systems Center (NOSC) for oceanic research. Sitting in not quite 60 feet of water, the small steel platform was used by scientists from a variety of institutions for research on the ocean environment before it was toppled by a large storm wave in 1988.
Because much of the platform had already been underwater for over two decades, it was already a great dive site. Now that the rest has been underwater for nearly as long, the entire structure is a cornucopia of underwater scenery and photo opportunities.
The thick growth of mussels attract a large number of pisaster stars including ochre, giant-spined and short-spine stars. They grow to enormous sizes, as much as two feet across, feasting on the abundant food of mussels and other bivalves.
Steel that is not covered in mussels is adorned in anemones. The deeper sections are a patchwork of different color versions of corynactis while shallow portions are home to carpets of aggregating and green anemones.
Amongst the anemones and algae, look for nudibrachs, tiny crabs and small reef fish. This is a good dive site for the macro-photographer. Not only are subjects abundant, but the many angles of the structure allow for shooting in a variety of positions.
Wide-angle photographers will do well at the bottom. Shoot up through the wreckage to capture the blizzard of fish in the colorful labyrinth of twisted steel. Barred sand bass are abundant on the bottom. Cabezon cruise the debris. Hovering mid-water are numerous sheephead and calico bass. Keep an eye out mid-water also for jellies as they seem to be common in this area.
This is a relatively small dive site that can be explored on a single tank. A mooring line marks the wreck and leads down to the shallowest portion at 35 feet. If you are new to the wreck, drop to the bottom and circle the wreckage first, just to get your bearings. Most of the debris is on the east end of the site. Scattered all around are bits of the rig. Seaward you will find the mangled bent over legs. The best part, however, is the multi-leveled section that use to make up the top portion of the small platform. Don’t worry if you can’t make sense of what used to be what—it is all good and generally easy to pass through. Beware, however, of fishing line and loose rope in the wreckage. Always carry a sharp knife on this dive site. Moving through the wreckage is good practice for buoyancy control and stability.
The NOSC Tower is the only “wreck” in Wreck Alley that was not intentionally sunk. Nearby are the Yukon (100 feet of water) and Ruby E (85 feet down) and others. If you dive a charter boat for Wreck Alley, odds are you will visit one of the deeper wrecks first, saving the Tower for last as a shallower dive. I love diving the Yukon and Ruby E, but if you are going to save the best for last, why shouldn’t it be the Tower!
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: About a mile off Mission Beach, San Diego in the area known as “Wreck Alley.” GPS coordinates: N32°46.315, W117°16.121 (GPS for reference only. Do not use as your sole source of navigation). The site is usually marked with a mooring buoy, but if it is gone you’ll need a depth finder to help you find this one.
Access: Boat only. Short boat ride. Launch ramps in Mission Bay.
Skill Level: All levels
Depths: 30 to 60 feet
Visibility: Fair to good, averaging 15 to 25 feet.
Photography: Excellent for both wide angle and macro. This a great camera dive.
Hunting: Discouraged in the Wreck Alley area.