Shorediving for Treasure: Jade Cove
Jade Cove is located off Highway 1 roughly half way between Carmel and Morro Bay. I started diving here in the early 1980’s, and I still love to camp and dive along this beautiful area of our California coast. While I was actively teaching, I used to take my advanced Scuba class here as one of its special trips to explore the different topography and animals north of southern California. We would camp at Plaskett Creek Campground for several days and dive the many interesting areas around Jade Cove. Today I still make an occasional trip to the cove with friends because once you’ve been here it seems to get into your blood. Since the early days there have been some minor changes to the surroundings, but nothing has changed underwater. When the weather allows you to dive, Jade Cove is an excellent place to get wet.
You can take jade here, as long as it’s collected by hand on the beach or underwater. In my early years, I hauled a lot of rock off the beach and out of the ocean and had a lot of fun doing it. If you think you might want to try diving this interesting area, here’s some information you might find useful.
Besides Plaskett Creek Campground, there’s another camping facility that is semi-close to the cove at Kirk Creek. It’s located about six miles to the north. There is no real market to buy food near either of these two places, so if you decide to camp at one of these locations shop for groceries in advance. Other recommended campgrounds include San Simeon State Beach 25 miles to the south, and Morro Bay State Park even further south. These two have shower facilities which aren’t available at either the Plaskett Creek or Kirk Creek. They are also located close to dining and grocery shopping areas. Morro Bay, Cayucos, and San Simeon have motels, and the last time I was there you could get air fills at a dive shop near the foot of the Cayucos pier. There are also camping facilities at Big Sur north of the cove, and lodging in Carmel or Monterey, an hour and a half’s drive away.
You can dive Jade Cove any time of the year and find jade, but I’ve found that the best hunting is during the winter and spring months. You have to catch the few calm days that slip in between the storm systems that march down the coast and churn things up during that time of the year. When the big swells roll down from the north, kelp is ripped up from the shallower areas of the sea floor and deposited on the beach making a mess there. However, that also creates new open areas for you to search for jade, and it increases the odds of finding a nice chunk of mineral. The summer months are warmer, but the kelp growth flourishes then, and jade is harder to find under that shadowy mantel of the kelp canopy.
Jade can be very hard to recognize at first, so beginning divers usually don’t find a lot of it, but the jade that they do find is usually of better quality. Later, when your eye becomes trained to spot smooth green rocks, you’ll find much more jade rock, but some of it may be of poorer quality (junk jade). I stopped taking junk jade (impure pieces) after my second or third trip. When they dry out you’ll know that they’re not worth keeping, and that they sure aren’t worth carrying back up the cliff to the car. Don’t be greedy, the good stuff is a joy to display around the house, and you can tell and retell the stories you invent about the adventures you endured finding it.
When you dive here I recommend that you take a float with a game bag attached. That way you can ride out to your chosen search area, tie the float off on the kelp, and run a search pattern nearby on the bottom. Then, if you get lucky and snag a larger piece of jade, you can dump it onto your float and that makes your return trip to shore a lot easier.
Warning! These two narrow coves can develop some nasty rip currents when the surf is up, and even strong swimmers can have trouble fighting through these to get back to shore. This is especially true in the north cove. When the surf is large, a lot of water will role up onto the beach and then rush back to sea dragging everything that’s loose along with it. You should definitely avoid diving during these times.
Diving Jade Cove is fun when the conditions are favorable, but it’s a real bitch when they’re not. Know your own limitations and don’t exceed them, and always dive safe. Even if you can’t dive on a given day you can still have fun. I suggest you stick to combing the beach on these days where you can find small pieces of jade, or travel north or south and enjoy being a tourist.
North Jade Cove
The north cove is directly across Highway 1 from Plaskett Creek Campground. Access is off the road via a trail across from the campground. There used to be a raised stile over a fence there, but that was taken down several years ago to provide easier access. It’s a short hike down to the cliff above the cove, and then there’s a rough steep trail down the cliff that changes every winter when the weather shifts things around. You should take time to check out the trail before finalizing your diving plans. The safest entry area is on the beach south of the trailhead. It’s a small, pebble-covered, open area that fronts the ocean where you can time the sets and back into the water successfully. This beach is also where most beachcombers look for their jade. One other thing of note! The water will be a lot colder than it is in southern California, however those of you travelling down from the north won’t notice much difference.
You can hunt for jade almost anywhere from the shore on out to sea. Look in the gravel patches between rocks in the middle of the cove, or in the shallower area marked A on the map. Don’t hesitate to use your hands to sift through these patches for the best results. Area B to the north is a large rock-strewn area where you can find jade in the gravel between the rocks or in several small cave-like depressions formed under the larger boulders. This is also the best area to go spear fishing for your dinner. Area C is to the south and extends along the cliff where you can swim through an underwater arch and search further out to sea. At times, I’ve done well hunting in all of these areas.
A Short Story
One fine sunny March day I was diving in the north cove with a group of students from my advanced class. I was working outside toward the south, and was doing okay but not super. Near the end of the dive I was towing my float and working along the bottom back towards shore, when I noticed the end of a jade rock protruding from the sand. I already knew that there was a large vein of jade that sometimes exposed itself in that area, and if it was the top of that huge structure, you could touch and admire the shelf of rock, but you weren’t going to be able to do much else. I thought that the protruding rock was probably part of this ledge, but I finned over to check it out anyway. Much to my surprise it turned out to be an independent mineral rock that later weighted out at 89 pounds. I had this quality piece of jade half uncovered when I started to run out of air, so I called over a student to baby sit my rock while I went back to the car for a new tank of air. When I got back to my new found chunk of treasure, I was happy to find that my student had worked to uncover the whole thing. It was way too big to swim to the surface, and I didn’t have a large lift bag available, so I did the next best thing. I took off my fins, picked up the rock, and walked to shore along the bottom. Believe me, negative buoyancy was no problem at the time. There was another problem though, because I still had to lug that heavy sucker back to the car. That was accomplished with lots of grunting and rest stops along the way, and maybe a beer break or two. I rewarded my helpful student with several nice but smaller jade pieces for helping me, but he still thinks he should inherit my rock when I die. This specimen still graces my living room floor, and it generates a lot of interest with visitors. When someone asks me about it I get to retell my story of the hardships I endured recovering sunken treasure at Jade Cove. If you dive there, maybe you’ll end up with a story to tell, too.
The south cove access is about half a mile south of the campground. There used to be a Jade Cove sign on the highway, but that’s since disappeared. There’s still a wide dirt pull-off area next to the trailhead, which is easy to find. Park there and take the path to the cliff over the cove; it’s only a short walk. Continuing on the path down to the cove can be an experience because winter storms also affect this access down to the cove. During summer months the trail is better maintained than during the winter, so check things out before making your dive plan.
The safest entry is from the pebble beach north of the trailhead, marked as area H on the map. You can dive and find jade anywhere from just outside the surf line on out into deeper water inside the south cove’s boundaries. These extend between the point of land to the north and all the way across to the point of land to the south. Start hunting in the shallower water in front of the pebble beach and work your way out, or swim out and pick another area to tie off your float and start your search almost anywhere. I usually begin in the shallower areas because they get stirred up more by the winter storm surges that periodically move through both coves. If that isn’t paying off, then I’d move deeper.
I’ve done very well at times staying close in and pawing through the gravel patches between the heavier rocks in shallow water on both sides of the small bay in front of the entry point. I also like to work in the shallower inshore waters to the south and out towards Area D. Area D itself is deeper with large boulders in places, but it shallows and fans out into pebbles and gravel if you keep working further to the south, and I’ve found that area to be very productive at times. Area E extends out northward towards the point that separates the two coves, and if there is little or no swell, it can also produce well. Again, I like the shallow gravel patches just off shore the best, and after working those you can extend out deeper off the north point. Diving off this point is actually outside the boundaries of the south cove, but it has consistently been a good place to look for jade. Area F is much deeper and extends seaward outside middle rock, and this is where some of the largest pieces of jade have been taken. Early divers used to float these “hunks” down to Willow Creek and then haul them ashore using a bumper winch.
The middle rock in the center of the cove is worth a look. There’s a small tunnel running along its inside edge, and if you rub the base of the rock with your hand you’ll expose a huge vein of jade that makes up part of the rock’s foundation. Just like the vein in the north cove, it’s way to big to do anything with, but it’s still fun to look at. When large swells uncover new pieces of jade from time to time you’ll never know exactly where the best sites will pop up. I used to alternate spots, searching all of these areas at different times, and that often paid dividends. My advice to you is to keep moving until you find an area that holds some pieces of jade, and then slow down and work the bottom around there. That tactic worked best for me, and hopefully it will pay off for you as well.
Other points of access
The middle point
If the surf is down you can take a faint but easy walking trail down to the shoreline just south of the point of land separating the two coves, and then you can start your dive there. It’s a rocky entry, but an easy one if it’s calm. Many people like this option because if your goal is to dive off this point, starting here eliminates the longer swim out from the south cove. Another popular option is to start here and work back to either the south or north cove and exit there. This allows you to cover a lot of ground without backtracking over the same areas twice.
On calm days you can make the longer walk out to Plaskett point between Sand Dollar Beach and north Jade Cove, and then make your way carefully down the rocks to the water along the south side of the point. The entry is a giant stride off of a rock on the shoreline. It’s much easier to get into the water here than it is to get out, but an exit is possible if you’re careful. If you want to try this option I’d plan on making a one way dive into the north cove and exiting there – that’s much easier. This area is popular with people who want to spearfish for the many rockfish, ling cod, and cabazon that frequent the rocky crevasses in between the larger boulders found here. The point is also a nice place to have a beer or a glass of wine and watch the sunset at the end of the day. You’ll see an occasional sea otter swimming between the point and Plaskett Rock, and when the gray whales are migrating they’ll spout nearby.
There’s a short road down to the beach just north of the bridge that crosses the creek, and there’s a small parking lot that provides easy access to this area. Divers have collected jade working through the rocks outside the creek, but for me it’s not been nearly as productive as diving either the north or south coves. However, when the surf is up, this is another area where you can comb the beach looking for jade. We used to suit up in our wet suits and walk along the shore all the way back to the south cove. There are a couple of tricky spots if the swell is really booming, but otherwise it’s a piece of cake, and occasionally we were rewarded with a nice piece of jade.
Sand Dollar Beach
I’ve never found jade along this sandy stretch of shore, but I’ve enjoyed some pleasant strolls here after finishing my diving day. There’s often a group of people here who drive to the top of Plaskett Ridge Road and then hang glide down to land in this day-use area. They’re fun to watch, and it’s another good way to end your day.
Other adventures close by
If you run out of air, or just get tired of sitting around in the campground, here are a couple of other things you can do that you might find interesting. These activities can also be utilized by non diving friends who might get bored watching your bubbles while you are out diving.
Nepenthe at Big Sur
This classic restaurant is located an hour’s drive north of Plaskett Creek Campground, and it’s an excellent place for lunch or dinner. Their burger and basket of fries are to die for, and if you’re not driving their Irish coffee will warm you on a cold day. You can also while away a few hours exploring the Big Sur area before or after dining.
Piedras Blancas lighthouse area
There’s a large population of elephant seals that hang out along the shoreline near the lighthouse here (mostly to the south). You can watch them on the beach and maybe see them playing, mating, or fighting at different times. They make good photography subjects, and it’s a fun way to spend some leisure time. The lighthouse is south of Jade Cove and north of Cayucos. It’s along Highway 1 after you leave Morro Bay, about a third of the way to Jade Cove. If you’re driving up from the south you can stop here on the way to or from your trip to Jade Cove.
Hearst Castle, San Simeon
This popular tourist spot is also located north of Cayucos along Highway 1, and it’s just a few miles south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. There are a number of different daily tours that feature the fascinating history of Hearst Castle, and you can’t go wrong with this option.
These are just a few of the many tourist options that you can enjoy to supplement your trip to dive Jade Cove. There are also numerous other things to do, it all depends on your personal tastes. The cove is an excellent and different area to dive, and the surrounding areas offer many other things you can enjoy. If you haven’t tried diving Jade Cove before I recommend that you put it on your agenda for the near future.
Diving Jade Cove
By Otto Gasser
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