Thor’s Well, Gateway to the Underworld

I saw a picture of Thor’s Well about a year ago and was instantly fascinated by it. It’s basically a deep hole in the rocks off a rough stretch of the Oregon coastline in the US. As the waves crash in, it fills up, spouts water 20 feet in the air and overflows, before sucking the water back in and out to sea. It’s pretty dramatic! 

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So as soon as I knew I’d be visiting the West Coast of the US I put it high on my list of places to visit. To get the cascading water effect I’d seen in photos you need to be lucky; I’d read and been told that you need a high tide for it to overflow and from what I’d heard, it wasn’t the best time of year for that to happen so passing through for an afternoon I’d be lucky to get anything. But I crossed my fingers and headed up there during a road trip from San Francisco to Portland.

It’s quite a remote place, located in Cape Perpetua and reached from a winding road in what feels like the middle of nowhere. When I arrived, there were still a couple of hours before sunset so I parked up and wandered down to look for it. It’s certainly a lot different to Bandon Beach where I’d been the night before; where at least 20 other photographers were knocking around and plenty of people walking dogs, but Cape Perpetua was deserted.

Thor's Well, SequenceThor’s Well took a good while to find; if it isn’t overflowing and shooting water in the air then it’s extremely hard to spot because you’re just looking for a hole in the rocks along a 200m stretch of coastline. But after running around on the rocks for a while, I suddenly saw water shooting up 20 feet in the air as a big wave crashed in so maybe my luck was in. It definitely seemed wild to me but whether the tide was high enough was another question.

I’d also read that it can be pretty dangerous to get too close and at this point I hadn’t seen the video I posted above. If it overflows too much and you’re right next to it you’ll be in a world of trouble and I think if I’d seen that video footage I wouldn’t have gone within 30 feet of it!

So initially, I just watched it for a good half hour or longer to see how close I should get and it never seemed to be overflowing above around ankle deep and barely created the cascading water effect that I was looking to capture, so I was more worried that I could walk away empty handed really.

Despite the aggressive waves coming in, the tide hadn’t been high enough to produce a big surge from Thor’s Well so I set up pretty close to the rim, around 6-8 feet from the edge and got ready. I thought a shutter speed of around 1/2 a second would be perfect so I set up and then it was a case of just waiting.

The first time it overflowed was pretty scary.. water shooting up in the air 20 feet right beside me, but with the wind blowing it away from me. At the same time a big wave would hit the coastline 30 feet to my right and crash down on the rocks right next to me, so I’d found a spot where it was somehow possible to keep dry and I hit the shutter a few times. There was only a small overflow but I was at least able to see that 1/2 a second was a perfect shutter speed and waited for the next one.

Quarter of an hour went by with nothing happening so I was starting to worry this wouldn’t work out when I saw a pretty big one coming in.. there wasn’t much time to react so with everything set up already, I just had to hit the release and tried to keep everything as still as possible while water was flying around in the air from both sides, before it flowed out of Thor’s Well, around my ankles and up the tripod before being sucked back in, which is exactly what I wanted. As that was happening I hit the shutter and got 4 or 5 exposures which seemed to do the trick. I checked the back of the camera and was happy with what I’d got as I was expecting to leave empty handed really.

The next wave was even bigger and I ended up with a nice 1/2 second exposure of blurred sky and water after picking up the camera and backing off! It’s a pretty scary place to be out in the almost dark with only angry waves for company, and just a rough idea of how much it will overflow by.

With light running out I decided to stick around for just one more attempt, and five minutes later I was ankle deep in water again but the window of opportunity had gone, I was now up to ISO 800 to keep everything sharp and the light wasn’t nearly as good as the previous shots.

I headed back closer to the shore and just watched for a while – it’s easy to just see these things through a lens with nothing but shutter speeds in your head and not fully appreciate them so it was good to just watch it for a while, although I did gulp when a big wave came in that caused more overflow than I’d see in the last hour or so and I was glad to be out of there. Don’t mess with nature as they say, it wasn’t that wise to be close to the edge really as one freak wave can put you in trouble.

It’s a great place to visit though, whether you like photography or not, it’s nature at it’s most dramatic.

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