Newport Attractions

Photo by Cindy HansonWonders of Newport

By Lori Tobias

It's almost feeding time at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and, clearly, the sea lions know it. They dive and roll, plunge deep, then burst back through the water's surface, leaping and twirling in a show that looks part pure pleasure and part sea-lion strut. Soon, three aquarium staff members in blue coats and rain boots emerge, carrying pails of slippery fish. As they set the pails on the pool's edge, one of them briefly turns away from the water. Just that quick, a sea lion shoots out of the pool.

"Watch your back!" the other staff members yell, and with only a second to spare the woman snatches the pail of delicacies to safety. These treats will have to be earned.

I'm on a behind-the-scenes tour at the aquarium in Newport and enjoying a peek at the daily backstage practices that help keep the thousands of marine animals here healthy. I tour the kitchens where the animals' food is prepared; visit holding tanks where I feed sharks chunks of raw herring; and climb up to a rooftop to visit the football field-size pool that was once home to the world-famous orca Keiko. The pool now houses a trio of tanks home to wolf eels, sharks, salmon and skates, among others that make up the "Passages of the Deep" exhibit. Looking down into the tanks, I watch a pair of divers prepare to descend on a mission to place identifying tags on several bat rays. As the divers enter the water, I realize that at the aquarium, like the rugged coast where it is located, there is much more than initially meets the eye.

It's been two years since I moved to Newport, a town of roughly 10,000 set midway along Oregon's Pacific coast. Early settlers were first drawn to the area in the mid-1800s by its oyster-rich Yaquina Bay. In 1867 pioneer Samuel Case built the town's first resort and named the new city after his hometown in Rhode Island. Suddenly Oregonians had a new place to vacation, and they've been coming here ever since.

When I first came here I fell in love with this bit of the coast for its rugged, picturesque beauty. I loved the towering pines, the stately lighthouses and , of course, the mighty Pacific Ocean. I had no idea, however, of the wonders that awaited me.

One, it turned out, was nearly in my backyard. For months my husband and I had driven down Highway 101, watching for the Yaquina Head Lighthouse to come into view. It's familiar light would flash as though to welcome us home. But it was nearly a year before I wandered down the road to the lighthouse and discovered the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, 100 acres of Yaquina Head Lighthouse - This 93-foot-high tower is the tallest on the Oregon coast. It stands 162 feet above sea level.hillside, meadows and cliffs on a peninsula jutting a mile out to sea.

On that first visit I headed straight for the lighthouse and tagged along on the tail end of an hourly tour. With a beacon that sits 162 feet above sea level (the tower itself is 93 feet tall), Yaquina Head Lighthouse beckons boats as far as 19 miles out to sea. Activated in 1873 and operational ever since, it is the tallest lighthouse on the Oregon coast. Visitors can climb the 110 steps of the wrought iron staircase to the top, or visit the two rooms of the adjacent "oil house." In the early years of lighthouse operation, lighthouse keepers used these rooms to store the whale oil used to fuel the lamp. Today, one room houses a display of equipment from the U. S. Coast Guard, and the other contains an exhibit featuring a 1,000-watt lightbulb and a piece of a Fresnel lens, such as those in use at the top of the lighthouse.

At the Interpretive Center, about a quarter mile away, visitors can also get an up-close look at a replica of the 9-foot lens and lantern portion of the lighthouse. The center also offers a video about the Natural Area, mural-size historic photos of Newport at the turn of the century, and displays representing the array of marine life and seabirds found in the area.

On nature trails that wind through wildflowers and grass, the views stretch for miles in every direction. Even at this height you can hear the cacophony of bird calls from the hundreds of gulls, common murres, pigeon guillemots and Brandt's cormorants that make their home on Colony and Pinnacle rocks. Occasionally a tufted puffin will happen by, and sightings of bald eagles and redtailed hawks are not uncommon.

Down at the water's edge, reached through a series of wooden stairs and decks, there's Cobble Beach-a jumble of basalt cobbles that geologists believe was deposited here 14 million years ago by volcanic eruptions in the Columbia Gorge region, some 300 miles away. I quickly discover that walking on round rocks requires something of a balancing act, but slowly I make my way out to the tide pools, where sea stars, anemones, sea urchins, hermit crabs and snails populate a living marine garden.

While the Yaquina Head Lighthouse is one of the area's most recognizable landmarks, perhaps no single structure is so readily associated with the area as the Yaquina Bay Bridge, a graceful, 3,220-foot span of steel that arcs over the bay. Below the bridge, sailboats, motorboats and even a luxury yacht or two bob at the docks, while commercial and charter fishing boats make ready to head out to sea. Newport's harbor is home to the largest fishing fleet on the Oregon coast. On the docks, beyond, a gathering of sea lions bark up a fuss in a scene ready-made for a postcard. But there's another picture-perfect view of the bay my husband and I seek out, one enjoyed by those who venture out on the water.

On a warm spring morning, we stop by the Embarcadero Resort, tucked into a curve of the bay, to rent a two-person kayak. As we strike out across Yaquina Bay, the bridge shimmers in the sun ahead and , just beyond, the flat water of the bay meets the roaring Pacific. On an island of rock, a colony of sea lions watches us with weary-looking eyes, diving into the water when we approach. We steer clear of a boat making its way back to the plant where crab, shrimp, groundfish and tuna are processed, then paddle along the muraled buildings of the commercial bayfront where we fall under the gaze of diners, who sit watching our progress as they drink in the view. Farther along, we pass before the stately old white house that is home to the U. S. Coast Guard, and was once the site of the area's first destination resort, known as the Ocean House.

After guiding the kayak along the docks, where we poke in and out of the slips, admiring old wooden vessels and sleek new ones, we head across the open water, bound for the rental dock. But in no time I am caught up in the scenery around me: a family of ducks, a forested island, sailboats drifting in the Breeze. I am a million miles away and I am nowhere in particular.

"Oh, Lori," my husband calls from his seat behind me, startling me from my reverie.

It seems I have forgotten to paddle; the tide has turned and we're slipping back toward sea. And so, after savoring one last moment behind the bayfront scene, I dip my paddle back into the bay, and we cruise for home.

Story by Lori Tobias, a free-lance writer in Newport, OR.