Below the surface
Diving in the Pacific Northwest
By Sue Madsen
On a cold, windy Saturday, a group of eight hardy souls gathered on the beach on Whidbey Island in wetsuits. It was the first “real” dive of our open water scuba course, and we couldn’t wait to get in the water.
The Pacific Northwest has some of the best diving in the world and, as the friend who had talked me into trying it had told me, “If you learn to dive here, diving anywhere else will be easy.” The highlights of that first dive included giant orange and white plumose anemones, vast schools of pile perch and a variety of sea stars of different shapes and colors.
As divers get steadier and more experienced, the smaller creatures capture the interest – brilliant orange sea cucumbers, purple ring-top snails, scallops, shrimp, nudibranchs and an array of otherworldly creatures that must be seen to be believed. But the big fellows still make the best stories – there are few other places in the world where one can regularly encounter Giant Pacific Octopi or Wolf Eels year-round.
All of us living in this area are well aware of the majestic mountains and stunning scenery that surround us topside, but few folks have experienced the wonders that exist below the ocean’s surface. And wonders they are. Jeremy Jones, owner of Washington Divers, told me that the Salish Sea boasts more color, life and diversity than the tropics. The high biological diversity is a result of its unique geological history. Glaciation some 10,000 years ago carved deep troughs between high mountains; the islands we see today are the tops of these mountains. Puget Sound and Georgia Strait comprise a complex system of interconnected inlets, bays and channels surrounded by rocky headlands, forested slopes, deltas, salt marshes and beaches. Sea water enters from the west, and cold freshwater waterways drain in from the surrounding mountains; the large tidal exchange (up to 15 feet each day) and abundance of freshwater inputs create strong currents that distribute nutrients throughout the region, supporting a diverse, productive food chain. And strange as it may seem, winter can be one of the best times to dive in this area, as water temperatures remain about the same 50 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. Water clarity is
at its best in late winter when plankton levels and silt runoff from the rivers are low.
GETTING STARTED. So how do you get started? Rigorous training and an experienced,
dependable buddy are key first steps. No doubt about it, you need to know what you are doing, and being knowledgeable and well prepared is critical. A number of local dive shops offer instruction and advice on equipment (see sidebar). Start by getting certified as an Open Water Diver; courses generally include classroom instruction and pool sessions to introduce you to equipment and to practice skills, and completion of three to five training dives at local dive sites under the supervision of certified instructors.
Once you have been certified, you are then able to rent equipment and get your tanks filled. Advanced training is also recommended; most local divers complete their drysuit certification soon after taking up the sport (after all, 50 degree water is cold even during the warm summer months). Other specialty courses include boat diving, deep diving, wreck diving, night diving and more. To receive advanced open water certification, you will need to learn navigation and deep water diving skills, take three to four specialty courses and complete 24 dives.
FAVORITE DIVE SPOTS. Great dive spots abound within view of Mt. Baker. Keystone
Jetty on Whidbey Island is a perennial favorite of divers from all skill levels; check out the “octa-hole” to see if the resident octopi are feeling social. Other local shore dives include Rosario Beach and the Langley tire reef. Try a boat dive to Lummi Rocks or Cypress Reef.
The Pacific Northwest is also renowned for its wreck diving.
More accomplished divers may want to check out the America, a square-rigged, 232-foot long sailing ship stranded on the rocks of San Juan Island. The cargo of coal that she carried now harbors urchins and kelp. If you are up for a greater challenge try the Cabezon, a 130-foot fishing vessel that burned and sank in the Bellingham channel. Beware of strong currents, however.
North of the border are some of the best diving spots in the world. Jacques Cousteau said the coastal waters of B.C., especially Vancouver Island and Nanaimo, were “the best temperate water diving in the world and second only to the Red Sea.” Nanaimo is famous for its wrecks. The H.M.S Saskatchewan destroyer and the Cape Breton, a 442′ former World War II Victory class ship were sunk to create an artificial reef and divers’ mecca. A great shore dive can be found at Lighthouse Marine Park in West Vancouver. The wall of anemones has to be seen to be believed.
Since my first dive I took a bit of a break, but after a recent trip to Belize that included diving and snorkeling the famed “great blue hole,” I found myself this past spring donning the dive gear again and waddling down the beach into the icy waters adjacent to the Keystone ferry dock.
This time around, fish were the order of the day. Large ling cod guarding their eggs stoically stood their ground as we drifted by. Kelp greenlings, a yellow-tail rock fish and sail fin sculpin all made an appearance. We searched in vain for signs of life in the octopus holes, but all we saw were the remains of last night’s shell fish dinner. All in all, it was a satisfying way to while away a rainy spring afternoon. X
Sue Madsen is a fluvial geomorphologist who likes to climb, ski, backpack, sea kayak and scuba dive in all of the Pacific Northwest’s wild places.