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The Hidden Hazard of Oregon Coast Summer Breakers: Unseen Holes That Drop You

Published 08/08/2016 at 4:021 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Arch Cape. high and low spots like this lurk beneath the waves

(Oregon Coast) – Thankfully, the injuries and deaths are pretty rare. The problem with this hidden hazard of the Oregon coast, however, is that the conditions that create them happen more in summer when more people are out on the beaches and wading in the breakers. In fact, this dangerous situation actually can make the tideline look more inviting. (Above: Arch Cape. high and low spots like this lurk beneath the waves).

It's not talked about much as it doesn't happen often. But you can fall into mysterious “holes” in the sand in those oh-so-pleasant breakers. Dangerous sudden drop-offs exist while you're wading in the waves, which can drop just a little bit to several feet or more and cause you to drown.

On the north Oregon coast, they have the nickname of “crab holes,” but there doesn't appear to be a technical name for them. They basically refer to lower parts of the sand beneath the breakers that you can't see. These can suddenly drop a foot or two, or much more – even up to ten or 15 feet.

It's as if you walked into a pool at the kiddie end and couldn't see where that ended, and you fell in.

These happen on any Oregon coast beach with lots of sand.

You don't need to worry about them if you're just casually wading up to your ankles in the surf. But going out to where it's up to your knees or beyond, these could be deadly.


Above: note these raised areas in the sand at Newport. This is what the sand bars and the deeper areas look like underneath the waves.

It's unclear how often this kills or injuries someone. There are no good, firm statistics on the subject. However, there was one confirmed incident several years ago in Cannon Beach where a local man died because of one of these sand bar changes.

Keith Chandler, manager of Seaside Aquarium, said these conditions largely happen in summer, when the surf is calm and there are far more people hitting the beaches.

Chandler said this comes about because of the piles of sand that build up during summer's more mellow wave action. They build up just beyond the surf as well right in plain sight on the beaches. You can often see this striking sight on many beaches around the coast: areas where the sand rises and falls in height.

It's this kind of terrain under the breakers you have to worry about.

“The sand under the ocean is not flat,” Chandler said. “There are holes, deeper spaces between those sand bars, and they can be deeper than you realize.”

What happens is that people often go walking and wading into the surf atop one of these higher areas – or sand bars. These can suddenly drop off in any direction. For kids, a three- to four-foot drop can mean serious trouble.

On the extreme end, those ten-foot crab holes are just plain deadly.

Chandler noted that dropping suddenly simply a few feet can jolt your system. The shock of abruptly landing in such a way often causes you to breath in hard and fast. If for some reason the drop-off is low enough to put you under water – even if it's something you could normally swim out of – that instinctive breathing in means you've swallowed a mouthful of water.

What to look for? That's kind of complex.

“If you can't see the sand at your feet, it's too deep to go into,” Chandler said.

He went as far as to suggest not to go wading in the ocean at all, since people really need a trained eye to know what to look for.

Another important point, according to Chandler: walk back the exact way you came if you have gone out wading beyond your knees. Since these mounds of sand can drop off suddenly to the right or to the left of you, make sure you come back the same path you took.

Note the deeper area you must wade through to get to the main breakers a ways away. Be cautious of spots like this.

Above: Tillicum Beach near Yachats during summer's high sand levels. Note the deeper area you must wade through to get to the main breakers a ways away. Be cautious of spots like this.

Chandler said it's important to know the terrain before you go wading in.

“Look at the area at low tide first, and see where the sand bars are and the spaces in between,” Chandler said.

It's clear that isn't likely to happen with most visitors. The best rule of thumb is don't go wading into the breakers beyond your knees, unless you're ready to swim suddenly if necessary. But always keep an eye on the sand beneath you – as well as the incoming waves (watching out for sneaker waves). More Oregon Coast Beach Safety here.

Below: More of drop-off terrain and waves. Where to stay in these areas - Where to eat - Maps and Virtual Tours

 

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A famous little family eatery where the seafood practically gets shuffled from the sea straight into your mouth. Soups and salads include many seafood specialties, including cioppino, chowders, crab Louie and cheese breads. Fish 'n' chips come w/ various fish. Seafood sandwiches with shrimp, tuna or crab, as well as burgers. Dinners like pan fried oysters, fillets of salmon or halibut, saut�ed scallops.
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