- Published on Thursday, 28 February 2013 11:56
- Written by Rick Stratton
Scuba divers in the waters of the San Juans are blessed with incredible visibility and endlessly entertaining dives. Divers unfamiliar with the area will be amazed at how incredible the visibility can be in the fall, winter and summer. It is not uncommon to see 40 - 50 ft. vis that time of year. In the spring months, you might consider a spring time trip when the vis gets to about 20-30 ft. Divers can swim among beds of large anemones, sea cucumbers, and other colorful swarms of invertebrates. The PNW is generously populated with large amounts of sea life including Giant Pacific Octopus, pectin scallops, the occasional abalone and wolf eel, spiny sea stars, vibrant red Pacific Henricias, and the ever-present sunflower starfish, sometimes measuring two feet across and possessing 20 or more legs. It’s no wonder the Salish Sea was Jacques Cousteau’s second favorite place in the world to dive.
“The currents flowing through the San Juans offer opportunities to see a lot of life you wouldn’t see in the south sound – or anywhere else,” explains Bob Scarzafava, co-owner of nearby Anacortes Diving & Supply. “You’ll see carpets of invertebrates covering walls and pinnacles with all sorts of different colors. And the best part? You get a free ride with the current – you can just go with the flow.”
According to Captain Phillip Jensen, of Diver’s Dream Charters, based in Skyline Marine in Anacortes Washington, the San Juan’s offer fantastic diving – world-class on any divers list. Jensen’s boat, the Lu-Jac’s Quest, a 42’, 14’ beam 25-ton boat, is very stable in the water. Licensed to carry 12 divers, with ample walk around deck space, Jensen has been diving the San Juan’s for more than 20 years and has a nearly endless variety of dive sites to choose from. He loves the San Juan Islands because of the tremendous life above and below the water and the tranquil charm of the Pacific Northwest home. “I love it here. The life is incredible, both above the water and below. The water is cold, but you just dress for it,” says Jensen.
When asked for ten of his favorite sites, Jensen wonders, “I could name a hundred great sites – how can I give you just ten?” Below is a list of his top picks.
Long Island Wall
The spot rests on the west side of Long Island at the Southern end of San Juan Channel and Lopez Island. This site has a long near vertical wall with many cracks and crevices for critters to hide. According to Captain Jensen, “it is truly a photographers dream”. The large currents of nearly San Juan Channel feed enormous amounts of sea life. This site is known for its strawberry anemones and incredible amounts of sea life, including large amounts of Puget Sound King Crab, beautiful Wolf Eels and colorful fish like Red Irish Lords. This site is absolutely incredible. Nearly every inch of rock is covered with life; invertebrates cover the rocks, fighting for space with kelp. According to Jensen, this site has the only known patches of beautiful strawberry anemones available.
Called by a variety of names, this site is located next to Dinner Island is known as Dinner Rock by most. It is a large pinnacle located in Griffin Bay, just south of Friday Harbor on the east side of San Juan Island that can be located by the kelp growing from the top of the pinnacle in about 20-30 fsw. A big rounded pinnacle, rising abruptly from a seemingly featureless bottom at about 90 fsw, is covered with long bulb kelp during the summer months. The life on the top of the pinnacle is incredible with large Plumose Metridium anemones, basket starfish, tons of fish life, purple urchins, red blood stars, and octopus and pectin scallops. Another fun aspect to this dive is the sometimes drifting entry to the site. Dropped from a live boat, the dive group descends with the flowing current. It is like flying through a forest and descending to land gracefully on the backside of the pinnacle in the lee of the current.
Located just east of Colville Island, in San Juan Channel, this site is marked by a green marker buoy on the top; and because of its exposure to the open channel, is extremely weather dependent. According to Captain Jensen, this site is one of his favorites because it is so hard to put divers on it. But when they get there, it is covered with life, from near the surface to below 130ft. The sea life on the site is extreme. White plumose anemones sit perched atop the rocks and green and red anemones line the many crevices. Giant barnacles, rose colored rock encrusting byozoa, cover the rocks with yellow dead man’s finger sponges sticking up like trees. Giant red and purple sea urchins, Puget Sound King Crabs, Pecten, and rock scallops line the wall on the east side of the rocks. Schools of black and purple sea bass swim in the kelp forest on the western side. Lingcod, Cabazon, and kelp greenlings cling to the rocks in the ever present flowing currents.
University of Washington Wall
Located just east of the University of Washington laboratory in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, this site is easily accessed by boat or shore with permission from the University staff. Labeled as a Bottom Fish Recovery Zone on the fish and game pamphlet, this protected site has more fish life on it than any site nearby. Captain Jensen says, “This site has incredible fish life on it; especially the lessor seen species of rockfish, like Copper, tiger rockfish, quillback, or China Rockfish. The wall starts at the surface just south of Pt. Caution and extends downward in a series of shelves. Photographers love this site as it very photogenic from the surface and below. Easily accessed, this dive is a great second or even first dive due to its potential 130ft plus depth.
Turn Point – Stuart Island
Located on the northwestern tip of Stuart Island in the northwestern portion of the San Juan’s, in Haro Strait, this site is known for its intense currents and tremendous sea life. The wild rocky shoreline, dense kelp that lines the wall creates a base for the incredible sea life below. An extremely thick kelp canopy in the summer months, the site is more easily experienced in the winter and spring because the kelp dies off in cooler months. Essentially two sites in one, the south side offers a steer vertical wall. The north side is gently sloping with large boulders, creating a haven for invertebrate life and nursery for juvenile fish. Invertebrates including Ostrich plume hydrod, encrusting bryozoan and red and green sea urchins fight for space on the rocks, as Lingcod, kelp greenling and Cabazon cling to the shale. Brown and quillback rockfish swim in the deeper parts. The side goes well past 130ft. Watch the current and your depth, but this site is worth it. It is an incredible dive.
Located north of Orcas Island, in the northern portion of the San Juan’s, this large site has several bays that are known for vertical walls, and packed with sea life. On the northern side, The fisher’d walls cracks and crevices hold enormous amounts of life from cup coral, deadman’s finger sponges, staghorn bryozoan with colorful red and purple urchins perched atop the rocky outcroppings. Red rock crab, Puget Sound King Crab and Lingcod, Copper and Quillback rockfish hide among the boulders crevices. Beautiful white and billowy Cloud Sponges are located in the deeper depths.
Located west of Orcas Island in Haro Strait, Flattop Island offers outstanding wall diving, with large bouldering stair step shelves. Large kelp beds in the summer months provides shelter for small fishing, giving the site an aquarium feel. A great site for all levels of divers because of the stepping shelves allowing divers to choose their comfort level. All kinds of life thrive at this site, from small invertebrate life, to large fish life including wolfeels, octopus, and Puget Sound King Crabs. The seafloor is covered with life including large plumose metridum anemones, nudibranches, barnacles, cup coral and giant chiton. Basket stars also are a common sight here. A photographers dream, the above and below water scenery make this site a must see.
Located in the southeastern section of the San Juan Islands, in Thatcher Pass, James Island has a rocky habitat with sheer walls that have a series of ledges allowing the site to be dove at nearly any level. The shale rocky walls are covered with anemones, including white plumose metridrium anemones, orange and green anemones blanket the ledges and in crevices. Giant gooseneck barnacles and yellowish brown hairy sea squirts dominate the shallows. Red sea urchins and pectin scallops add to the color of the site. Leather sea stars and basket stars scatter in the deeper depths where brown rockfish, china and copper quillback rockfish can also be found. On the east side, a small overhang caves makes a home for wolf eels and Giant Pacific Octopus.
Located on the South corner of Blakley Island, the Black Rock dive site offers an intensely colorful dive. The large movements of waters from nearby Thatcher Pass feed enormous varieties of sea life. The wall on the east side and the south side drops in a set of vertical shelves with wide bases. On the north side, the site has a large kelp bed nursery in the summer months. The habit is amazing due to the variety at the site - divers can expect to see nearly anything at this site. Large varieties of invertebrates line the shale in the shallower depths, giving way to larger species in the deeper depths. Fish like large Lingcod, kelp greenling and Red Irish Lord, pose for pictures from underwater photographers.
Located at the entrance of San Juan Channel, near the tip of the southern portion of San Juan Island, this site offers some the Northwest’s best. Large animal encounters combine with intensely colorful sea life. Hydrocorals, pink bryozoan, brilliant red blood stars line the walls, purple and red urchins perch on the rocks. This site also offers encounters with Stellar Sea lions in the fall, winter and early spring months. These incredibly agile and curious mammals are huge, weighing in at 1000-2000 lbs. They will go nose to nose with divers and sometimes play by grabbing dives hoods and pulling them off. Ron Akeson, owner of Adventures Down Under in Bellingham, Washington, lists this site as a personal favorite. “This dive is amazingly pretty and diving with the Steller’s takes it over the top – it is a definite bucket list item,” he explains.
Akeson has been doing recreation and technical diving in the Northwest for more than 20 years. He has a lot of experience in these waters and has been on many trips with Captain Jensen. “I am always happy to work with Phillip Jensen,” states Akeson. “He is unflappable. He is always calm, cool, and collected. He is a fantastic captain who is familiar with the sites and knows when and where to place divers for the best dive conditions.”
The San Juan Islands offer some of the finest diving on the planet. The combination of intense scuba diving, small town charm of Anacortes, and San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island, makes the San Juan’s a definite destination. If you haven’t been there, or haven’t been there lately – go! It’s worth it.