The Adventure: Cold Water Diving

Cold water diving
March 11, 2016

A note from the blog staff: We originally posted this blog on March 11, 2016. But several experts from the Puget Sound dive community contacted us to correct some of the information we had. We thank those diligent readers for taking the time to help us improve this blog. We hope what follows does justice to your concerns and suggestions! Special thanks to Mike Racine and Janna Nichols.

Have you stood at the water’s edge and wondered what lies beneath the surface?

Cold water diving
Up close and personal! Diving provides a unique perspective on rarely seen sea creatures such as this spotted ratfish at Saltwater State Park.
Ever wish you could just keep right on walking until the surface world slips away, and the watery wilderness below slides into view?

You can do just that from several of your state parks on Washington’s western, island and Sound shorelines! Diving is a year round sport in Washington.  Now is the perfect time to give diving a try!
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Cold water diving
When is a rock not a rock? When it blinks at you then swims away! The underwater world is full of beauty and surprises. Photo by Janna Nichols.
Cold weather scuba diving is popular in the Northwest, and our Western Washington waters are among the premier places to dive in the country, says Mike Racine of the Washington Scuba Alliance (WSA). Undersea life in our region is vibrant and beautiful—a rarely seen scape of infinite wonder and mystery.

“In the Northwest we dive all year,” Racine says. True, the water is cold, he adds, and for optimal comfort, a dry suit is recommended year-round when diving in the Northwest.  A wetsuit also provides protection and is fine for the warmer summer months.  He recommends a 7-mm-thick suit with hood, gloves and booties as  a minimum exposure requirement.

Diving during the colder months can offer improved visibility underwater. There’s less sunlight, which means lower production of plankton to cloud the water.

Like wildlife? You might swim by giant Pacific octopuses, wolf eels, and colorful nudibranchs. You can see a variety of crabs, flashy striped perch and large bottomfish, such as lingcod and cabezon. From rocky reefs to wrecks, there’s almost no end to what you’ll find beneath the surface.
The Basics
Ready to give this exciting sport a try? Diving can be an expensive endeavor. But we’ve gathered some pro tips for diving into diving without depleting your pocketbook – and staying safe!

Get certified

All divers MUST take a basic open-water certification before diving. Most dive shops have classes, or you can search online for an instructor in your area. You will not be able to rent equipment without your certification card.

Rent equipment

Diving can be a pricey sport, Racine says. You may need to buy some of your equipment, such as your hood, mask and fins. However, you can offset some of your costs by renting a regulator, tank, drysuit/wetsuit, buoyancy compensator and other necessities until you are certain you want to invest.

Diving is done either from a boat or from shore.  The simplest and least expensive route is going to be a shore dive where you simply walk into the water to begin your dive.
Cold water diving
Don’t forget your swim friends! The first rule of dive club is never go it alone. Photo of divers at Saltwater State Park by Janna Nichols.

Get a friend


ALWAYS dive with a buddy. Start with easy shore dives as you get used to the sport. Go with a friend who has been on at least a few more dives than you, or join one of the many local area dive clubs that organize group dives.

Know the conditions


An informed diver is a safe diver! Always know the conditions at the site before you dive, Racine says.

Check the currents and tides. Check the internet for information about the site and/or ask other divers about the dive you are interested in. The more you know before you go, the more fun you’ll have and the safer you’ll be.  Begin with easier shore dives before moving on to deeper waters.

“You are entering a beautiful and otherworldly environment,” Racine says. “In some ways it’s the closest thing you will ever experience to being an astronaut. But you are entering the environment on life-support equipment. You can never take that for granted!”

Racine recommends “Northwest Shore Dives” by Stephen Fischnaller as a resource for locating dive sites in the area.  It lists approximately 55 shore dives, including 14 in state parks.  The book gives detailed descriptions of dive sites, where to get in and out of the water, features of the site and a NOAA current station for each dive site as well as time corrections for determining slack current times.

Travel tip: Just as in any Washington State Park, NEVER touch the animals. Additionally, sea creatures are more easily damaged by handling. Take a tip from the professionals and “take only pictures; leave only bubbles!”
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Puget Sound and Hood Canal offer plenty of options for beginning divers, with many of them at Washington state parks! Looking for the perfect parks to try this? Here are a few!

Saltwater State Park

The destination: Des Moines, on Puget Sound
The dive: A man-made rocky reef consisting of very large piles of quarried granite make Saltwater a popular dive site. The reef is home to a profusion of fish, such as rockfish, large lingcod and wolf eels (which are actually fish and not true eels) and invertebrates, such as anemones, jellyfish, crab, urchin and the highly intelligent giant Pacific octopus. The park has ample parking, facilities, bathrooms, a restaurant and a nice beach. Plus you can walk right in to the water and start diving!

Saltwater is accessed both as a shore dive and a boat dive. Two mooring buoys mark the reef. The site ranges from 50 to 90-feet deep at the reef.  As a shore dive, it is a relatively long swim out to the reef – roughly 300 feet. Saltwater State Park is on the East Passage in Des Moines. The site does have current, so beginning divers are cautioned to check the tide/current tables and plan  dives around slack tide. If new to the site, it is advisable to take a buddy who is familiar with the reef and how to find it from shore.
This dive is rated: Beginning through advanced divers.
Cold water diving
Rinse and repeat. Diving at state parks means not only cool dives, but great amenities as well. Photo by Janna Nichols.

Fort Casey Historical State Park

The destination: South Whidbey Island, Admiralty Inlet
The dive: The diving at Fort Casey is centered around the jetty that protects the Coupeville Ferry Terminal as well as the pilings that once supported an old military pier facility.  The pilings are covered with invertebrates. The jetty consists of large quarry rock that provides cover and food for a variety of colorful marine life. This site is one of the best shore dive sites in Washington  and a favorite of divers.

The current at this site can be intense!   Make sure to check the tide/current tables and dive on the slack tide. Additionally, it is very important to keep your bearings underwater and not inadvertently stray into the ferry channel. Don’t go past the end of the jetty!
This dive is rated: Beginning through advanced divers.

Twanoh State Park

The destination: Union, off SR 106 on Hood Canal
The dive: Calm, warm waters and a gently sloping bottom make Twanoh a great spot for beginners! Walk in anywhere along the shoreline, but for the best diving try heading east, which is to the right of the parking lot. An active boat launch on the west end (left) is best avoided. There is no reef here, but among the eelgrass beds you can spot moon snails, sea pens and perch. Tube anemones, starfish and sea cucumbers also share these waters. Need a place to warm up? Twanoh’s largest Civilian Conservation Corps – era kitchen shelter has an amazing rock fireplace. Start a fire (with the ranger’s permission), and tell some fish tales after your dive!
This dive is rated: Beginning through advanced divers.

Fort Worden Historical State Park


The destination: Port Townsend, on Admiralty Inlet
The dive: The Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s wharf is the ideal entry point for your dive at this shallow and easily accessible shore dive. The wharf’s pilings are covered with plumose anemones, and the shell-littered bottom is teeming with life! You may run into octopuses, wolf eels, seastars, sponges and lots of shrimp! Experienced divers caution that there are currents here, but you can drift from one end of the beach to the other, and it’s a pretty safe dive. After your dive, rinse off in the park’s showers, check out the science center then just enjoy some contemplation on the soft, white-sand beach.
This dive is rated: Beginning through advanced divers.
Cold water diving
Public anemone #1! Pretty plumose anemones populate the pilings at Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Photo by Janna Nichols
Don’t forget: The better you get at diving…
The more state parks you will have available for you to dive in! For a list of state parks with diving possibilities, click here!

Scuba diving is the closest thing you can get to walking on the moon.
As a diver you are very close to understanding what it is like to be weightless and have the ability to move in three dimensions. Unlike space though, Puget Sound is flush with enchanting and unique creatures. Diving exposes you to a side of this beautiful state that many have never seen. If you go scuba diving at state parks, tell us about it and share your stories here

All photos courtesy of Janna Nichols.