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Washington’s Best Dives

Outstanding Salish Sea Drive-and-Dive Scuba Sites

We’ve got it good in the Northwest. Wildlife abounds amid stunning natural beauty right in our backyard, and the splendor doesn’t end at the tideline. Scuba diving allows exploration of an entirely different dimension: The world beneath Washington’s waves.

Up-close-and-personal encounters with fascinating creatures large and small await in the Salish Sea’s nutrient-rich waters, kelp forests and vibrantly colorful reefs. The water’s cold no matter the month — averaging 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit — and offers exhilarating current-swept dives that will challenge experienced divers, but also more mellow, sheltered sites that are perfect for a beginner’s first immersion.

Because of COVID-19, please take recommended safety requirements, check road closures, and practice social distancing if you are planning a road trip. 

A stubby squid at Seattle's Alki Beach
Stubby squid, active at night, can be seen off Seattle’s Alki Beach in winter. (Photo by Brandon Cole)

Alki Beach (Central Puget Sound)

For a unique after-work activity, nothing beats Alki after dark. All manner of weird critters are active on this sandy slope at night, including bearded sturgeon poachers, eelpouts, bug-eyed flatfish and eerie-eyed ratfish.

Winter is the best time to see stubby squid, and Alki is one of the best places to see these golf-ball-sized cephalopods.

If waves are breaking at Alki, relocate to nearby Cove 2 protected inside Elliott Bay, a solid backup dive with an incredible view of Seattle’s skyline.

Edmonds Underwater Park (Northern Puget Sound)

Wintertime is prime time to take the plunge at this extensive, curated collection of purpose-sunk boats, tire reefs and jungle gym-like metal and PVC structures near the Edmonds Ferry Terminal.

There’s a silver lining to the season’s gloomy skies: Less sun means less plankton, resulting in better water clarity. Ropelinked trails connect the many artificial reefs, which are home to ghostly plumose sea anemones and big fish like lingcod and cabezon.

An easy beach entry, modest depths (10 to 45 feet), views of the Olympic Mountains from the water and a nearby dive shop make Edmonds an ideal scuba training location.

A 6-foot wolf eel emerges from its lair to the delight of a Day Island diver
A 6-foot wolf eel emerges from its lair to the delight of a Day Island diver. Photo by Brandon Cole)

Day Island Wall (Southern Puget Sound)

Wolf eels are Northwest celebrities, high on divers’ wish lists. Many of these Muppet-faced fish, which grow to 8 feet long, lair between 50 and 75 feet deep along this dive site’s sheer sandstone wall. Dive here during “slack,” the period between incoming and outgoing tides when water movement is at a minimum. Need more help? Confer with experienced locals at Tacoma-area dive shops to plan your submersion time.

Saltwater State Park (Central Puget Sound)

This bustling undersea city is an artificial reef comprised of three parallel ridges of boulders and concrete poles. Thousands of white and orange plumose anemones as tall as 3 feet provide a beautiful backdrop for wide-angle photos with copper and quillback rockfish and sea stars. It is about a 275-yard swim from the shore, so you may opt to dive from a boat.

A decorated warbonnet peers out from a crevice
A decorated warbonnet peers out from a crevice. (Photo by Brandon Cole)

Keystone Jetty (Whidbey Island)

This perennial favorite at Fort Casey Historical State Park is enjoyed year-round by divers of all skill levels. Depths range from 5 to 60 feet.

There are two distinct habitats: an old wharf’s pilings, and a rocky spit (the “jetty”). Whidbey Island resident Jan Kocian has dived Keystone hundreds of times, usually with his underwater camera. “Sea life is plentiful” in this protected marine area, he says.

Everything benefits, from impressively large lingcod that are overfished in some places but thriving here (due to a variety of reasons), to octopus, numerous crab species, swimming scallops and other local fish such as grunt sculpins and decorated warbonnets.

Stay on the jetty’s east side to avoid the ferry docks on the west, and consult Admiralty Inlet current tables before you dive. Strong currents are possible at the spit’s end and in front of the pilings, so choose days with small tidal exchanges and dive at slack just before or during gentle incoming tides.

Sund Rock (Hood Canal)

Sund Rock’s sheltered location and marine life menagerie attract divers from all over Washington state to Hood Canal.

Giant Pacific octopus are often seen here, sometimes crawling about on the sand, other times hiding in plain sight on the rocks thanks to their remarkable camouflage abilities. You may even find this most charismatic of megafauna protecting its eggs. There are also wolf eels and swimming anemones, seaperch, whips and sunflower stars.

Sund Rock is private property; entry costs $15.

Duncan Rock divers marvel at walls carpeted by brightly colored sealife
Duncan Rock divers marvel at walls carpeted by brightly colored sealife – and playful sea lions. (Photo by Brandon Cole)

Duncan Rock (Olympic Peninsula)

Duncan Rock is completely exposed to the elements: Mountainous swell, strong winds, dense fog and swift currents can occur. On the rare occasions when this extreme site is safe to visit, expert divers rave about the dramatic bottomography and prolific life.

Canyon walls are carpeted with brightly colored sea anemones and sponges, craggy splits and fissures packed with giant mussels, rockfish and greenlings. Curious and playful Steller sea lions — lumbering on land but graceful underwater — sometimes pay a visit.

Sekiu Jetty (Olympic Peninsula)

This shallow, shore-access spot on the North Olympic Peninsula boasts abundant marine life. Weave through the kelp maze just a few fin kicks offshore to find sculpins, shrimp and nudibranch sea slugs.

A few notes of caution: Make sure to stay inside the kelp bed and float a dive flag to warn any boats in the vicinity. Underwater visibility suffers if seas are rough and surges make things uncomfortable.

Mushroom Rock (Olympic Peninsula)

Neah Bay is a great destination on the Olympic Peninsula. Pacific Ocean storms punish rugged Cape Flattery, but a weather window during summer and early fall rewards intrepid divers. Mushroom Rock is an intermediate-level site accessible only by boat.

“An enchanting undersea forest of bull kelp plants up to 50 feet tall sways above the rocky reef with rockfish, Puget Sound king crabs, sea stars, urchins and anemones in residence,” says Bill Minton, owner and operator of NorthWest Dive Charters.

Painted sea anemones, also known as Christmas anemones, at Deception Pass
Painted sea anemones, also known as Christmas anemones, at Deception Pass (photo by Brandon Cole)

Deception Pass (Whidbey Island)

To avoid the dangerous waters racing and churning through Deception Pass, select only the most favorable of slacks, occurring on only a handful of optimal days each year.

But when the tides are right, advanced divers with the requisite skills and proper planning are treated to a wall absolutely slathered with invertebrates like a living, breathing kaleidoscope.

On glorious display are resplendent tapestries of jewel-like anemones, sponges and sea cucumbers, bouquets of feather duster worms, and countless crustaceans and little fish going about their business.

Few Whidbey Island visitors on the iconic bridge high above likely have any idea of nature’s bounty and the thrilling adventure awaiting far below them, deep in the tempestuous, swirling green seas that are Washington’s underwater wilderness.

–Written by Brandon Cole, who previously photographed Northwest tide pool inhabitants and took readers inside the sunken HMCS Saskatchewan off the coast of Nanaimo, British Columbia.

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.

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