Winter is the time to dive By Rachel Kelly
Winter, not summer, is the time to do some diving here in the South Sound. Don’t believe me? Ask Harbor WildWatch in Gig Harbor: “I can tell you that diving in the winter is only slightly colder (45 degrees versus 55 degrees), but the clarity is generally much better,” says Rachel Easton, executive director for Harbor WildWatch.
The South Sound is rarely affected by surface waves and storms, making it an ideal place for diving. The only issue that generally affects divers here is the visibility. As the snow melts from the mountains in the spring, the Sound experiences heavy rainfall and tidal exchanges. The currents can also get pretty intense out there during the spring. While the summer is warm, and generally the time that we all think of diving, there are many factors that mess with visibility, including the long sunny days. “The abundant sunshine and long day length of summer fuels a massive bloom of plankton that turns the water into pea soup,” says Easton.
In addition, the late fall and early winter is the time that salmon make their ocean run. Along with that migration comes an abundance of wildlife that feed off the schools of fish, including dolphins, seals and whales. Here in the South Puget Sound, there are a variety of diving opportunities, including steep sheer walls, reefs, and underwater “parks.” Divers can expect to see lingcod, perch, ratfish, and various types of sculpin and gunnels. For the lucky diver, looking in the right place (and with that clear winter visibility), there are the Pacific Giant Octopus, wolf eel and whales.
As for gear, it is possible to dive with a full wetsuit versus a dry suit. Ten degrees isn’t a lot, but water is water, and it always feels cold at first. Most divers around the South Sound take on the extra tack of a dry suit, and while they might not be snorkeling in such an outfit, they do experience longer dive times in the water. For new divers, safety requires special diver certification and a buddy system. Non-divers and families, or just someone who doesn’t feel like braving the winter waters, can take advantage of the clear visibility of winter waters as well.
October through March, on the first Saturday of the month, Harbor WildWatch hosts Pier Into the Night. Held at Jerisich Public Dock in downtown Gig Harbor from 7 to 8:30pm, staff biologists set up a 10-foot viewing screen that live streams what divers are seeing in real-time below the docks. In the past they’ve discovered feather-duster tube worms, sculpin, gunnels, Red-Irish Lorde, stubby squid and the infamous Pacific Giant Octopus. For more information about Pier Into the Night, be sure to visit HarborWildWatch.org.
For really adventurous spirits, underwater diving opportunities are abundant here all over Washington. If there’s one thing we have in Washington it’s water, and both salt and fresh provide ample diving opportunities. Dive sites can be found using a simple internet search. There are over 50 dive sites here in the South Sound (which underwater includes Olympia all the way up to Lake Washington). By land, however, that large of an area can be a long drive, especially when traffic is taken into account. So, for our purposes, here are some notable places found within a 30-minute radius of home. Included are small and large shipwrecks, beaches with boat access, broken ferry docks, and walls for beginner to advanced divers.
For beginning divers, there is a large wreck on the western side of Vashon Island, in the Colvos Passage just north of Sandford Point. Due to general neglect, the wreck sank and can still be seen peeking above the surface during low tide. This is a generally busy stretch of water, so dive flags are necessary. The area below the disintegrating hull houses a variety of creatures and are worth a good look. Also in that same area is the Maury Island Marine Park, which can be good for beginners. There are two wrecks in that area, some which are good for intermediate or advanced divers, so be sure that where you’re going is within your skill level.
Also, for beginners, there is the area outside of Cutts Island State Park. Near Kopachuck State Park, just South of Cutts Island, is a dive park with a boulder pile and shelves. The snorkeling is also good because of the eelgrass beds. Point Fosdick also has diving that is easily accessible by shore, with general debris and boulder shelves for exploration.
Intermediate divers might be interested in looking into two wrecks, one around Vashon Island and one around Gig Harbor. Neither wreck is available by shore and requires a boat for access. The Quartermaster wreck, north of Quartermaster Harbor near Vashon Island, abandoned more than 40 years ago, lies peacefully under the water. Light currents and clear visibility makes rockfish, sea anemones and sea stars visible as they huddle around the remains. Just west of the popular Tides Tavern dock in Gig Harbor lies the other wreck, a steamship by the name of the S.S. Burton. The steamer ferry caught fire in 1924 and was towed out to the middle of the harbor to protect the other boats closer to shore. There she sank and serves as a beautiful survey of maritime history. Also for the beginner to intermediate diver is the Point Richmond Minesweeper, which is a large wreck located outside of Point Richmond in Gig Harbor.
The South Sound also has an abundance of difficult dives, with fast currents and deep waters. The rewards for difficult dives are great, however, as the South Sound houses many large, and notoriously shy, sea creatures. One such dive is the Tacoma Narrows Pylons. The Tacoma Narrows is a technical dive, as currents and zero beach access make this a difficult area to navigate. The pylons themselves serve as a wonderful survey of marine life, but it is the old debris of “Galloping Gertie” that houses the truly fascinating Pacific Giant Octopus. Be sure to bring your underwater camera for this dive; as you float by with the currents you might experience a rare visit of one of these shy “monsters of the deep.”
For experienced divers not interested in braving the more extreme currents of the Tacoma Narrows, octopus and wolf eels can also be spotted at Z’s Reef off Fox Island. This dive is considered fantastic and allows for more grazing of various critters versus the high-current dive at the Tacoma Narrows. For other sightings of wildlife not often seen in other parts of the Sound, visit the artificial reef created by fisheries near Johnson Point near Olympia called Itsami Ledge.
Whether beginner or advanced, diving in the South Sound is worthy of investment, as it's an activity that can be enjoyed year-round. Happy new year and happy diving!