You take a deep breath, not because you need to, but because you’re nervous, stretching one leg far out in front of you. If this were a still shot, you would look like you were taking the longest step of your life, extended by the long, sleek flipper attached to your foot. Then the moment resumes. With one hand over your regulator and mask, the other poised on your weight belt, you step out, letting gravity pull you into the deep.
Not everyone has had this experience, suiting up and diving into the deep, but here in the Northwest we are living right on the edge of one of the best places to dive in the world. Jumping into the frigid waters of the Puget Sound may not be the first thing that comes to mind while looking into the dark rolling waters, but once below, there is a whole new world to explore.
What you can find
It may not be fish, fish, fish everywhere you look, but the Pacific Northwest has some very large and intriguing creatures, one of these being the giant Pacific octopus. This strong, intelligent animal averages nine to 16 feet in length; the largest recorded reaching 30 feet and weighing in at more than 600 pounds. A popular place said to house these giant creatures is in the ruins of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the infamous “Galloping Gertie.” Other species of marine life have come to call the wreck home as well.
Another animal of intrigue lurking in the waters is the sunflower sea star. These large stars, which can grow up to 24 arms, are highly carnivorous and especially fast for their species. These creatures are quite goat-like in their appetites, eating just about anything they can get their tentacles on. Six-gill sharks roam the area as well, although they are usually found in much deeper water. This is a large shark, measuring about 18 feet, and can sometimes be found while diving at night when it comes into shallower water to feed.
Despite the popular notion that it’s all dark and bland under the waters of the sound, there’s color below, too. While a diver won’t see swarms of colorful fish found in tropical waters, the anemones, starfish, octopus and other invertebrates brighten the sea floor and reefs with their beautiful colors – often luminous whites as well as pinks, greens, oranges and reds.
Diving in the colder water of this region requires more exposure gear. While you might be able to dive in your bikini in Hawaii, that won’t fly in waters that average 45 to 50 degrees, depending on the season. A dry suit, instead of a wet suit, is the more preferred suit for most Northwest divers. Unlike the wet suit that allows a thin layer of water to enter between the suit and your body to insulate heat, a dry suit, believe it or not, keeps you dry. Dry suits require thermal layering underneath and need to have good seals around the neck, ankles and wrists to keep out water. For cold water like that found in the Puget Sound, an ideal wet suit is a “farmer john” style that gives 7 millimeters of protection on the legs and arms, and an extra layer around your core for 14 millimeters of insulation. Opinions vary on both suits, but it comes down to personal preference. Dry suits are more expensive than wet, but many divers prefer the cost to the cold.
Light is another consideration. The deeper the dive is, the more color disappears. The brain will compensate for the color loss a little bit, allowing you to see colors that wouldn’t be captured if a photo was taken at that depth. Given that the Pacific Northwest has low visibility in general– depending on site, conditions, season and other variables – lights are a good investment as they allow a diver a better look around and bring out the colors and patterns in lower depths.
Quite a bit of gear is required for this extreme sport and every diver has an opinion about what the “best” is, but as any diver will tell you, it’s being comfortable that matters. Rent various brands to find what suits you best suggests Charlie Ghramm, an open water scuba and specialty instructor.
“When starting out, rent different brands to find what you like, as not everyone will like the same thing. You will find that your friend will like something that you find uncomfortable. Just make sure you are happy with how it feels and you will enjoy diving more.”
The wrong gear can turn the dive of your life into the dive of your nightmares. You don’t want to miss out on a captivating wreck or a rare animal sighting because you have to keep adjusting your gear.
As long as you can work it into your budget, all divers will suggest comfort over cost. No one wants to spend an hour of what is supposed to be a great time, itching to get out of their gear. Like many sports, the start-up cost can be pretty pricey. Class costs vary depending on the company, but usually sit around $300 for the open water certification required to train you to safely dive to 60 feet. More advanced and specialized classes can be taken after that depending on your interests. Gear, depending on brand and supplier, can greatly range, but expect to spend more than $1,000 to get started. Renting is another option as well, but it ends up being a pricier option in the end. After the initial set-up, maintenance and air-fills are relatively cheap.
Like most sports, there is always a community of enthusiasts ready to bond with and assist their new scuba buddies. Many divers take trips to varying locations, near and far, and are eager to share their sightings and experience. Talking to divers is also another way to get great insight into the sport regarding any aspect of it.
In my own dive experience, a novice with just more than a year under my belt, I have been able to pick up many helpful tips on navigating dive sites from fellow divers. I have also been directed to great dive shops, and new sites to explore that were not highly advertised. In my varying dives in the Puget Sound and Hawaii, my exchanges and experiences with other divers have been a huge part of the fun.
A quick Google search will produce a ton of sites in your area to explore. Talking with members or your local dive shop or club is also a great way to find awesome places to dive. Sites are marked as beginner, intermediate or advanced depending on the conditions; current is a big factor.
Les Davis, a beginner to intermediate site located in Tacoma, is a favorite dive site of Ghramm. It’s a great place to see some of the creatures of the area and has an artificial reef system.
Charlynn Andrews, scuba instructor at Gone Diving in Bellingham, is especially fond of diving around the San Juan Islands:
“The further out you go the better it gets. Long Island would be my favorite. It is a steep rock wall that plunges to deeper than 130 feet. The wall is covered in white plumose anemone and red strawberry anemones running through the white as a river.”
She labels it as an advanced site because of the tides, currents and depths. She also recommends diving there during the fall and winter when there is.
An extreme sport, one that takes you completely out of your element and will disorient every sense you have, diving calls to thrill seekers. It is a passionate sport, and as any diver will tell you, you either love it or you don’t. It is something that will completely consume a person and all of their adrenaline, if one is brave enough to take the plunge. Take advantage of what is all around us, sink into new depths, challenge yourself and jump in!