A better understanding of biological systems can only be gained if we understand what processes are important and how they operate to determine the distribution of organisms. Coastal orientation and depth can influence environmental conditions, including the degree of water motion and availability of light, which in turn may influence the horizontal and vertical patterns of organism distribution. Here, we used a mixed-model design to examine the effects of coastal orientation and depth on the structure of benthic assemblages by comparing the abundance and distribution of macroalgae and invertebrates in shallow and deep waters on the opposing coasts of São Miguel. Generally, coastal orientation had little influence on the distribution of most taxa. In contrast, significant differences were generally associated with depth, although patterns were spatially variable at the scale of locations. This study suggests that depth, and processes operating at the scale of location, but not at the scale of the coast, have an important influence on these assemblages, and that failure to recognise such a scale of variability may hamper our ability to better understand the processes that structure these communities.