Diving in Puget Sound
Fifty Places To Dive Before You Die
Janna Nichols had something a little different than Puget Sound in mind when she decided to take up diving. Something like Hawaii. “At the time, my daughter was going to college in Hawaii,” Janna began, “and I imagined that diving would be a great mother-and-daughter activity. My plan was to do my classroom and pool work here in Washington state, and then get certified in Hawaii. As I progressed in my classroom work, I realized that I enjoyed my instructor and fellow students. When they encouraged me to join them up in Puget Sound for our certification dives, I signed on. I got my certification in the cold water, and did eventually make it over to Hawaii. I really got hooked on diving there, but getting over frequently wasn’t an option. That’s when I began to understand all that Puget Sound had to offer. I haven’t been back to the tropics for a few years now. The cold water we have doesn’t bother me. After all, I’m a Pacific Northwest girl, and putting on some fleece is a regular habit.”
Puget Sound is one of America’s great urban diving grounds. Deposited between the Olympic Mountains to the west and the Cascades to the east, the sound encompasses nearly 2,800 square miles of water with an average depth of 450 feet, and stretches from the city of Olympia in the south to Port Townsend and Whidbey Island in the north. Much of Washington’s population—some four million souls—live along or near Puget Sound. The sound is hardly pristine; the combined ports of Tacoma and Seattle are the second busiest in the country, and many heavy industries operate along its shores. Still, with the inflow from 10,000 creeks and rivers to dilute the effluents that reach the sound, and the strong push and pull from the Straits of San Juan de Fuca to inject nutrients into the system, Puget Sound supports a healthy population of marine life. While the visibility off Pike Place Market or Edmonds may not match that of Kona, one needn’t see 150 feet to catch a glimpse of the resident creatures. In Puget Sound, the animals move a little slower.
“When you’re diving in the tropics, it’s fish, fish, fish,” Janna continued. “You’re almost overwhelmed by the vast numbers of incredibly colorful fish. People come to Puget Sound and ask, ‘Are there any fish?’ Well, we do have some fish. But the color comes from our invertebrates—anemones, starfish, octopus. Very large invertebrates. I teach courses in fish and invertebrate ID, and it seems that when I’m going through the list of species in class, we have lots of ‘largest in the world’ species.” Of these “largest” species, the giant Pacific octopus is certainly king. “GPOs” can average sixteen feet in length from arm tip to arm tip, and weigh ninety pounds; the largest GPO recorded had an arm span of thirty feet and an estimated weight of 600 pounds! Capable of changing colors to foil predators or fool prey, GPOs have proven to be highly intelligent creatures, capable of quickly solving mazes. Another large invertebrate associated with Puget Sound is the sunflower star. These giant stars can grow to over thirty inches in diameter, and can sprout up to twenty-four arms.
They can move at lightning speeds (for starfish), up to several inches per minute, and have voracious appetites. “Sunflower stars are one of the apex predators of the Puget Sound substrate,” Janna said. “They’ll eat about anything that they can catch, including other starfish. I stopped to take a picture of one once, and suddenly another was crawling up my leg!” There are more than seventy-five shore diving sites up and down Puget Sound, and hundreds more for those with access to a boat. The San Juan Islands, not far north of Puget Sound, open up a whole new set of opportunities. But Seattleites needn’t wander far to find interesting underwater diversions—and it’s possible to reach some after work. “A site that gets hit again and again is just across Elliot Bay and to the south in West Seattle,” Janna said. “It’s called Alki Beach. There are some artificial reefs there that attract a good representation of Puget Sound sea life. People like to night dive from a spot called Seacrest Cove Two. They’re often looking for six-gill sharks, a fish that’s generally found in much deeper water.
When you come up from your dive, you’re treated to the illuminated skyline of Seattle.” Another favorite site for Puget Sound regulars is Edmonds Underwater Park, heralded as America’s first underwater city park. The park comprises twenty-seven marine acres near the Edmonds Ferry Terminal, and is home to many of Puget Sound’s resident fish species, including lingcod, rockfish, cabezon, and wolf eels. Visitors owe a debt of gratitude to Bruce Higgins, who’s volunteered some 25,000 hours of underwater labor over thirty years to make the park a safe and satisfying place to dive. Higgins (and more than 350 volunteers over the years) have added rope trails to lead divers through the park’s highlights, and many structures to harbor animal life. He and his volunteers have been dubbed “The Egyptians” in playful recognition of their toil upon the sandy bottom of Puget Sound.
“When I started teaching the REEF invertebrate identification course,” Janna said, “there was a set curriculum of forty-four species that I had to teach. I needed to take ‘real-world’ pictures of all of them, so people could indentify them. The first forty-three came easy, but the last—the Candy-striped shrimp—was more difficult. I understood that they frequented crimson anemones, which are more common in British Columbia. My husband and I went north and found countless crimson anemones—but not a single candy-striped shrimp. On the way home, we were going to pass Edmonds, so we decided to stop. We found a sunken boat that was covered with plumose anemones, and there among the plumose were a few candy-striped shrimp. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen them.” Incidentally, the Edmonds Underwater Park has recently been renamed Bruce Higgins Underwater Trails; a small pyramid was recently erected on the bottom in Higgins’s honor.
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