By Claire Bunker
Landlubber or otherwise, most everyone is familiar with Jacques Cousteau, the famous French underwater explorer who developed the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) and introduced millions to the world’s oceans with more than 115 television films and 50 books. But it may surprise you to know that Cousteau considered the Puget Sound one of his favorite places to dive, second only to the Red Sea.
Michelle Fessler, of Underwater Sports, concurs. “The Puget Sound is a fantastic place to dive because of its diverse life. Our waters are home to starfish, crabs, thousands of fish, and other marine species, including the Giant Pacific Octopus, which you won’t see anywhere else in the world.” The Giant Pacific Octopus, the largest in the world, averages up to 90 pounds with an arm span of up to 20 feet – the height of a two story building.
Underwater Sports, which has five locations throughout Pierce and King counties, instructs an average of 600 students yearly. Classes offered range from the Beginning Open Water class which teaches the basics to novice divers, to classes for the more experienced, such as night diving or underwater photography. Participants in the Open Water class begin with 8-12 hours of studying on their own in order to understand the principles of scuba diving, such as how pressure affects their body and choosing gear. They then advance to confined water pool dives using masks, fins, snorkels boots and gloves. Finally, students complete their training with four open water dives.
“We take students to locations that allow for shore dives offering easy entry and exit,” explained Fessler. Two favored dive sites include Sunnyside Beach Park in Steilacoombe and Les Davis Pier on Ruston Way in Tacoma. Les Davis Pier includes a stairway providing easy access to the water. And, because it’s the site of an artificial reef created by old concrete bridge decking, it provides structure for a variety of marine life.
According to Fessler, people want to learn to dive for two main reasons: It’s either on their bucket list, or they just love the water and want to be able to explore it more fully. For Gig Harbor High School student Blake Toney, it was a family thing. “My dad was certified and I wanted to be able to dive with him.” Toney, who has considered a possible future career in marine biology, admitted that before his first open water dive he was a bit apprehensive. “You have to be really self-reliant. It’s a lot of responsibility, which, as a typical teenager I tend to shy away from. But in the end, though it was kind of freaky, it was mostly fun,” he explained. In fact, on Toney’s first dive with his dad, he was lucky enough to spot a Wolf Eel, which is actually a long skinny fish abundant in local waters and another reason the Puget Sound is popular with divers.
Area divers are able to enjoy dives all year round. Though often considered a warm weather activity, local diving is actually better in the winter. In the summer months there’s less visibility due to algae blooms and the number of plankton in the water. Regardless of the time of year, there’s plenty of ways to stay active. A local dive club, the MudSharks offer both novice and experienced divers the chance to meet dive buddies and plan dives. Or check out some local dive events, including Underwater Sports’ Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest in October, or their Underwater Easter Egg Hunt – which actually involves painted golf balls – in the spring. Then again, if you have a chance to meet a Giant Pacific Octopus, do you really need another reason to start diving in the Puget Sound?