Northwest Travel: Newport

Marine science abounds in this coastal Oregon town

John Gottberg Anderson / For the Bulletin /

NEWPORT —

One of the great joys of travel is the opportunity to self-educate, to learn about subjects that maybe had not been on your radar until you began to explore a place more deeply.

That’s what makes Newport, one of the nearest Pacific coastal communities to Central Oregon, such a great getaway destination for me.

It’s not just that this city of 10,000 is well-adapted for tourism, with numerous fine restaurants complementing a legion of comfortable lodging properties.

For me, Newport is also the Northwest’s hub of discovery for oceanography and the marine sciences. Not having spent a lot of time at the shore when I was young, I developed a fascination with denizens of the briny deep later in life. And I continually find new knowledge to absorb.

On my most recent trip, for instance, I visited the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area and learned that sunflower stars are the most feared carnivores of the tidepool world. They are able to pry mollusk shells open with their two dozen arms, and move as fast as 3 feet a minute along the intertidal floor, thanks to 15,000 tube feet.

At the Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center, I learned that an underwater volcanic mountain range, the Juan de Fuca Ridge, extends along the Oregon and Washington coasts, only about 250 miles offshore. Its hydrothermal vents support a unique and prolific community of tubeworms, crabs and mussels not found elsewhere in the Pacific.

At the Oregon Coast Aquarium, I watched as a mature red octopus, about the size of my fist, enshrouded a sac with thousands of eggs against the outer wall of its viewing tank. As the eggs slowly hatched, biologists withdrew them to an adjacent tank, where — viewed through a magnifying glass — they bore a startling resemblance to tiny squid.

To me, each and every one of these discoveries is as thrilling as an early-morning powder run down the slopes of Mount Bachelor.

The aquarium

There’s no better place to launch a Newport marine weekend than at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Established in 1992, honored by national media as one of the 10 best aquariums in the United States in 2007, the aquarium is located on 39 acres on the south side of the Yaquina Bay Bridge — a landmark structure that celebrated its 75th birthday just last weekend.

One of the things that makes the Oregon Coast Aquarium special is that it is very much Oregon’s aquarium. The permanent collection of 15,000 specimens, representing 250 species, is drawn entirely from Oregon coastal waters. “We live inside the habitat upon which we base our exhibits,” explained public relations manager Cindy Hanson.

Indeed, the aquarium looks directly upon the Yaquina River estuary, where great blue herons and snowy egrets may be seen scouring the stream for fish, insects and other prey. Next door are the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center and, beyond that, the new Marine Operations Center-Pacific, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Across the bay is the working fishing port of Newport’s Bayfront neighborhood.

The central exhibit at the aquarium is “Passages of the Deep.” To some visitors, it is better known as “the shark tunnel.” The 200-foot-long acrylic tunnel passes through a 1.3-million-gallon tank divided into three sections: offshore reef and kelp forest, rocky-bottom shipwreck and open sea. A walkway is suspended 8 feet below the water’s surface and 8 feet above the seabed, giving visitors the sense that they are walking through the middle of the ocean.

Around them swim 42 species of local Pacific fishes, one-third of them various types of rockfish. But there are also four species of skates and rays; a couple of wolf eels whose frightening appearance belies a gentle nature; and five kinds of sharks, including leopard sharks, seven-gill sharks and spiny dogfish.

“Passages” opened in January 1996 as a rehabilitation pool for Keiko, star of the “Free Willy” movies of earlier in that decade. Keiko was released into Icelandic waters in 1998.

I enjoyed the Swampland exhibit, although this temporary display will end a 19-month run at the beginning of 2012. Featuring reptiles, amphibians and fish from the Amazon jungle and the mangrove and cypress swamps of the southeastern United States, it features a school of piranhas, a 16-foot anaconda and a pair of sharp-nosed caimans.

Swampland’s replacement will be a children’s education exhibit titled “The Sea&Me,” scheduled to open for the 2012 Memorial Day weekend.

Other indoor galleries feature jellyfish, seahorses, a touchable tide pool and thousands of fish. A large aviary is home to tufted puffins, rhinoceros auklets, common murres and pigeon guillemots — all of them diving birds — as well as black oystercatchers.

Other permanent exhibits enable visitors to watch sea otters, harbor seals and California sea lions in open-air, outdoor habitats; plans are underway to extensively renovate these areas. In addition, behind-the-scenes animal encounters may be arranged with many of the larger animals: Romantics can even get a smooch from friendly Lea, a 21-year-old sea lion who loves to offer affection.

And if that weren’t enough excitement for one aquarium, the Bay House — an outstanding fine-dining restaurant on the south side of Lincoln City, 22 miles north of Newport — now runs the aquarium’s restaurant. The South Beach Grill serves gourmet fare daily at budget prices. The fish tacos, in particular, are outstanding.

Hatfield Center

The adjacent Hatfield Marine Science Center operated by OSU is a perfect complement to the aquarium. There are few resident animals — a giant Pacific octopus that greets arrivals is the largest among them — but there are enough morsels of scientific intrigue to spark interest in an entire curriculum of oceanography classes.

If there was any one idea that I carried away with me from my recent visit to the Hatfield Center, it was that scientists devote a great amount of energy searching for patterns in natural worlds that may appear to be random and chaotic.

In an exhibit on the migratory behavior of whales, for instance, visitors can listen for sound patterns among the unique calls of various species of whales. Elaborate models explore climatic mysteries like El Niño, target tsunami evacuation routes, and predict the impact of undersea volcanic eruptions. Time-lapse photography follows patterns of sand build-up and its cyclical removal by ocean currents and wind.

Other exhibits consider a wide range of marine subjects, from the ease with which saltwater conducts sounds and electricity, to modern conservationists’ focus on promoting sustainable fisheries.

A major exhibit considers the problem of aquatic invasive species, many of them transoceanic hitchhikers whose presence in a new environment can irreparably alter habitat for native species.

Visitors young and old are encouraged to immerse their hands in a touch tank to feel the texture of anemones, sea stars and other invertebrate life, while observing their distinct behaviors and color patterns.

Yaquina Head

A better place to observe tidepool life, however, is the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, this reserve has a handsome 19th-century lighthouse overlooking one of the most picturesque rocky shorelines on the central coast, along with an interpretive center that offers a marvelous introduction to both.

You’ll want to catch the tidepools at a daylight low tide, and the lower, the better. Consult local tide tables, available online. The lowest October tides will come shortly before dusk toward the end of the month.

Yaquina Head is a basaltic headland that extends into the Pacific for a little over a mile, four miles north of Newport off U.S. Highway 101.

It is a 14 million-year-old lava flow from whose rocks native tribes gathered shellfish as long ago as 4,000 years.

The Yaquina Head Lighthouse on its westernmost point began operating in 1873; it is the tallest (93 feet) and second oldest continually active light on the Oregon coast, and although still in service, invites visitors during daylight hours to climb its 110 steps and view its original Fresnel lens, manufactured in France in 1868.

I suggest starting a visit to Yaquina Head at the interpretive center. If you’re intrigued by the lighthouse, displays will introduce you to its many keepers and their daily duties; there’s no doubt this was an isolated outpost in the 19th century.

I focused more attention on the marine life. That included sea birds — pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants, pelicans, murres and gulls — that roosted on the rocks beside the promontory. It included sleek harbor seals that bobbed in the waves of the inlet, hefty sea lions that napped upon the rocks, and gray whales whose frequent “blows” could be sighted not far out to sea.

Most of all, it involved the tidepools of Cobble Beach.

A steep but sturdy staircase leads downhill from the main lighthouse parking area. At its base, footing gets more difficult. The entire shoreline is covered with naturally polished, rounded black rocks — “cobbles” — that are the legacy of millions of years of marine erosion. They are lovely to look at but require careful walking to negotiate.

Interpretive guides are present at low tides to describe the intertidal life, point out interesting finds and provide assistance where required. They also monitor visitors, who sometimes like to walk off with pretty rocks or marine-life specimens despite ample signs requesting them not to do so.

Sea stars, incorrectly called starfish, in shades of purple, red and orange, are every visitor’s favorite discovery. They may be seen singly, clinging to the underside of rocks at the tide line, or in clusters, laying one atop another in desperate embraces.

But green anemones, the sort that like to wrap around any gently inserted finger, are even more prolific. Sea urchins, their purple spikes a certain threat to intruders, prefer somewhat deeper tidal waters, along with foot-long chitons and yellow nudibranchs.

And throughout the tidepools, especially upon the jagged rocks that spend the least amount of time beneath the surface of the water, are countless colonies of mussels, their shells spotted with barnacles.

One regret

I had expected another view of prolific marine life when I visited the Oregon Undersea Gardens on Newport’s Bayfront. In sharp contrast to the city’s other ocean attractions, however, this one was very disappointing.

For a charge of nearly $12 (compared to $15.95 at the stellar Oregon Coast Aquarium), visitors are ushered through a gift shop into a single, poorly maintained underwater tank where a diver feeds and exhibits a few marine specimens during a 10-minute, hourly “show.”

When I visited, the sound system was not operating properly, so the diver couldn’t communicate directly with the audience, and a narrator took his part. The herd of California sea lions on docks just west of the gift shop got a much bigger ovation.

The Undersea Gardens is one of three Bayfront attractions owned and operated by the Mariner Square group. Of the trio, I found the Wax Works, a small wax museum opposite, to be entertaining and engaging, with a karaoke-style “American Idol” stage in its midst.

The Bayfront does have several fine places to eat. At Bay 839, I had a whole Dungeness crab for dinner. The following night, at Panache in the Nye Beach district of Newport, I enjoyed hazelnut-crusted halibut. But this may be the last time I dine at Panache, one of my coastal favorites; the owners told me they are retiring and moving to Ecuador as soon as they are able to sell their establishment.

I stayed two nights at the comfortable Best Western Agate Beach Inn, on the north side of Newport near Yaquina Head. From my ocean-view room, I could see the light beaming across the Pacific sands with its trademark pattern: two seconds on, two off, two on, 14 seconds off.

And I wondered how many marine creatures were also noticing that light.