- Published on Tuesday, 27 November 2012 23:33
- Written by Andy Lamb
By Andy Lamb
“Never.” This was my answer to an incredulous Don Coleman and his question “When did you last dive Hood Canal?” Don, who together with his wife Diane, own and operate Pacific Adventure Charters, very seldom gets such a reply to this inquiry. And upon reflection, this would be an unexpected response from a long time Pacific Northwest diver. With 45 years of recreational diving and over 3,000 Pacific Northwest Dives – primarily in B.C. and Washington – under my weight belt, I had somehow missed plunging into this very popular SCUBA diving destination. This was about to change.
On the weekend of October 27/28, 2012, I was finally going to sample what Hood Canal, Washington had to offer. Arriving at the aptly named Pleasant Harbor Marina, near Brinnon, on Friday afternoon, I checked in and loaded dive gear aboard the 38 ft Down Time, the roomy and well appointed dive boat. A Chris Craft Commander, this classic vessel was completely re-fitted with Pacific Northwest diving in mind. From there, I proceeded to my luxurious weekend accommodation adjacent to the marina and settled in. I was later joined by chief REEFer Janna Nichols and her husband Claude, two of the Saturday dive contingent. Others rounding out the compliment would arrive the next morning.
Although I was an unlikely “virgin” with respect to diving in Hood Canal, reports about its underwater attributes were certainly encouraging to me. A Friday evening dinner conversation with Don filled in more detail. A lifelong fish geek, I was particularly delighted to hear that Hood Canal could also be described as “Fish-R-US.” An abundance of large lingcod and numerous species of rockfish inhabited the dive sites we would visit. In addition, these finned ‘dive buddies’ would be very approachable for viewing and image making.
But why, I enquired? Fish populations at most other dive sites throughout the Pacific Northwest appear to be historical lows. In 2003, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife established a bottom fish closure and eliminated their harvest south of the Hood Canal Bridge. As a steady stream of visiting divers can attest, evidence strongly suggests that this initiative is responsible for the abundance. Certainly from his continuous front row seat, Don Coleman confirms this impression via his observations over the closure’s span. More fish and a constant increase in their size during the nine years is a very compelling story. By now, I “couldn’t wait” for Saturday – which resulted in a restless Friday night.
Finally, Saturday morning arrived. And so did the remaining divers, including my weekend dive buddy and videographer Tom Heineke, of Puyallup, Washington. Once aboard and stowed away, the group which now also included Todd Cliff, Margaret Bangs and Anna Hansen received the customary safety/boat briefing form PADI instructor and USCG certified skipper Don. Safety and Education are vital priorities for everyone. Then it was off to our first dive site, the very popular ‘Pinnacle’, where the Down Time was secured to the Washington Scuba Alliance mooring buoy. A well deserved tip of the hat must go to this terrific organization and their safety/conservation oriented programs.
Although Don’s thorough dive briefing was most important to the ‘neophyte’, the others also listened intently. Final preparations complete, we all disembarked and descended to find excellent visibility and a landscape with critters just as Don had described. A successful reversal of this process, resulted in a full contingent of divers safely returning to Down Time. Happily, this successful template of diving was repeated for all four weekend dives.
Weather issues dictated that Black Point, the only “non-buoyed” weekend site, would be our final dive Saturday. It turned out to be a pleasant change with a nice selection of small invertebrates huddling amid the boulder strewn slope. Of particular interest were numerous squat lobsters uncharacteristically moving about in the open and as shallow as 20 ft (7 m).
A new day with better weather conditions dawned Sunday. Also arriving were replacement ‘troops’ to once again fill available spots on Down Time. Joining Tom and I for the festivities, were Dan Hershman, Andy Dion, Mark Nayler, Jeri Kollen and Mark Peil. Our first destination was to be Pulali Point, a location that provides several separate and distinct dive sites. Don selected the ‘west wall’ and a great choice it was for more fish watching. For the day’s finale, the Pinnacle provided a very suitable option, particularly for the folks just joining in today. Tom and I were delighted for the opportunity to explore site aspects missed on Saturday (see New Experience, Old Suit, page 48 – this month’s Critter Corner – for more detail). The rest of the group was also pleased as this site is one of Hood Canal’s finest. Indeed, resulting feedback and images from weekend participants confirms that a good time was had by all.
“Magnificent” in a word describes my initial experience with Hood Canal’s fish life. (The Latin word sebastes most appropriately means “magnificent”). The piscine life was extraordinary. The large populations of the seven species of rockfish (Genus Sebastes) present were particularly encouraging. Coppers, quillbacks, browns, Puget Sounds, vermilions, blacks and yellowtails swam across my underwater path. In particular, it was the major schooling of the blacks and yellowtails that provided a special joy that I had not experienced for some years. It was delightful to drift amid large numbers of these unconcerned, even curious adult rockfish. I was simply accepted as
one of the group.
The large and plentiful lingcod were also a welcome sight and obviously were familiar with divers. If a slow and deliberate approach was made, a diver could literally come “chin” to “mask faceplate” with individuals. Although very early, evidence of the approaching spawning season was noticable. Aggressive, sparing males, swollen gravid females and even a couple of fresh, white egg masses were reported by fellow divers.
My prime ‘takeaway’ from the Hood Canal diving experience was a desire to see more fish population recoveries throughout the Pacific Northwest. As a British Columbian and Canadian, I would like to see similar initiatives north of the border where sadly, we lag behind. At this point, I will spare you my customary rant about the many benefits to both consumptive and non consumptive users of no-take Marine Protected Areas.
In conclusion, my next dive visit to Hood Canal must not take another 45 years – it simply is not chronologically possible. But seriously, I look forward to a return visit and a chance to commune with the fabulous fish fauna residing there.
PS: For all the Sebastophiles out there, I bear tidings of great joy! The definitive book on ‘our’ rockfish (and their closest relatives) is being launched in November 2012. A Guide to the Rockfishes, Thornyheads, and Scorpionfishes of the Northeast Pacific, by John L. Butler, Milton S. Love and Tom E. Laidig, published by the University of California Press. With multiple colour images or each species and information most sought by divers, it is a must have.