While a good portion of Gig Harbor residents enjoy playing on the water whether boating, sailing, kayaking, fishing, paddle boarding or swimming, there are many who also enjoy going all the way to the bottom for their recreation. Many assume that scuba diving is something done only while vacationing in warm water places like the Caribbean, Australia or Hawaii, but locals know that some of the most amazing waters in the world can be found right here in the South Sound.
“It’s like the whole Pacific Ocean is brought shallow. Some things that are often 1,000 feet down you can find in the Puget Sound,” explained Tom Larson.
Tom is an avid recreational diver and Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certified Master Scuba Instructor. He’s also a board member and volunteer with Harbor WildWatch. He’s been diving for 45 years, getting his first taste at 17 while working at a Boy Scout camp in New Hampshire. He enjoys telling his first dive story to all his students, as it sounds like something straight out of a 1970’s comedy.
“Camp had a couple of scuba units, and one day one of the older counselors asked me if I wanted to put on the gear and sneak over to the girls’ camp on the other side of the lake. ‘Don’t take the regulator out of your mouth’ was the extent of instruction,” laughed Tom.
While the adrenaline rush of being a sneaky teenager surely helped make his first scuba experience a positive one, Tom believes the initial feeling of freedom under the water he felt that day set him on the course to discovering one of his great passions in life.
“Underwater, I was completely at peace,” he said. “Now it’s the place I find most connected to the environment; at 100 feet underwater, I feel no stress.”
Having dived many places around the world, the Puget Sound remains one of Tom’s favorites. While living in Dallas, he would keep up the activity, but that meant flying to Cozumel, Mexico, for the weekend. He eventually came to the Pacific Northwest for work and was taking a stroll near Titlow Beach in Tacoma when he noticed a couple of people getting scuba gear on and their vehicle had an Idaho license plate. “I talked to them and they had driven seven hours just to dive here for the day. At that point I knew there had to be something special about this place,” Tom recalled.
Now 16 years into his residency in the Northwest, Tom has seen firsthand so many of the sites that make the South Sound such a unique place for divers. “You have the biggest octopus in the world here, anemone, 12-foot-long wolf eels, and algae blooms and plankton that support a huge amount of sea life,” he said.
While Tom received his first lesson rather hastily, it’s not something he recommends for those who are looking to get into the sport. Instead of trying to buy your own equipment or learn the finer points of snorkeling via YouTube, Tom recommends utilizing your local dive shop as the best resource. There are many reputable ones in the area that offer PADI-certified courses for those new to scuba. Courses are reasonably priced and include all the gear you will need to get going. They include a couple of weekends and begin with a book or video to help give you some knowledge before class time.
Classroom instruction includes learning the science and safe practices of scuba. After study, students are transferred to a shallow pool where they get to try on the gear, find the best fit and get comfortable being underwater.
“There is a swim test as well. There are not a lot of advanced swimming skills used while diving, but if someone comes under distress it is important to everyone’s safety that they are able to swim to the surface,” explained Tom.
As students continue to gain comfort underwater, they are taught additional safety skills, how to take a mask on and off while underwater, and how to properly clear a regulator. Once they’ve completed pool training, it’s time to hit the ocean. Just about every Saturday you’ll find students at the more popular beginner parks like Sunnyside Beach, Les Davis Marine Park or Edmonds Underwater Park. “The vast majority of people make it through class, with some going recreationally a couple times a year—and for others it becomes a lifelong passion,” said Tom.
While the initial expense of getting all the equipment can quickly add up, you don’t have to get everything at once. According to Tom, most students buy their mask, fins and snorkel first and continue to rent the additional equipment from their dive shop. Tom says the more often you hang out at the shop the more likely you are to get your rentals discounted, as the dive community is very tight knit. While you can’t speak to one another underwater, that doesn’t mean diving is a solo activity. Tom loves taking people of various experience out and says organized group ‘Shop Dives’ are another great way to make friends and find new places to see. “I take a lot of joy in taking out beginners. When they see a giant Pacific octopus in the wild, their reaction is fantastic,” he said.
Tom has seen all manner of sea life including lion’s mane jellyfish, steller sea lions and harbor seals that will often swim circles around divers and playfully nip at their fins. Never knowing exactly what he is going to find is a big part of the excitement that keeps Tom in the water as often as he can.
With advancements in technology, those who might not want to take the plunge themselves can still see what’s lurking just offshore with a couple of programs put on by Harbor WildWatch. Pier Into the Night is a program where divers like Tom go for a night dive with an underwater drone searching for sea life. The live stream is broadcast back to those standing on the pier who get to see everything the divers are seeing in real time. Participants might see a variety of crabs, sea stars, moon snails, shrimp that only come out at night or the occasional seal or famed octopus. You can find a schedule at HarborWildWatch.org.
Besides the wealth of marine life in the area, Tom’s enjoyment of scuba also comes from the camaraderie amongst divers. After a dive he’ll meet up with the others at a local restaurant or bar and recall the experience over a meal or drink. He wants to encourage as many people as he can to take up the sport he cherishes so much.
“It’s a little more challenging here with the cold water and more gear, but if you can dive the Puget Sound, you can dive anywhere in the world—it’s absolutely worth it.”