Seattle Dive Tours

Steller Sea Lion
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is largest of them all? Well, if we are talking about sea lions, Steller sea lions are winning this contest.

This threatened species got their name from German scientist, George Steller, who studied and classified them, but there are still many unknown details about these animals. For example, science still has no explanation for the fact that stones are often found in their stomach. Some people believe that the gravel can be used for food processing or even as a “weight” which can help them regulate buoyancy while diving.

They are marine mammals, belonging to the order of Pinnipedia, and they are classified under the name Eumetopias jubatus. They live in the Northern Pacific, and can be found from the coasts of Alaska to Japan and Russian coastal waters, almost always in colonies.

They are large animals, and can weigh up to 1,000-2,500 pounds and are about 10 ft. long (adult males) while females weigh up to 770 pounds and are in average 8.2 ft. long. These beautiful animals can live up to 30 years, but males have a much higher mortality rate. When they reach 10 years, the ratio of female to male lions is 3:1.

Steller Sea LionMale lions become sexually active when they reach 3-7 years, and females reach reproductive age at 3-8 years. They usually have one pup each year and are pregnant for 12 months. On average, they have 3 pups during their life. Mothers stay with their young for 10-14 days before starting to hunt at sea and are able to recognize them by smell. Pups usually leave their moms when they reach juvenile stage, which is 14 months.

Just like other sea lions, they feed on a variety of fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and capelin, but they are also very fond of octopuses and squids. It is known that sometimes they feed on other Pinnipedia such as baby seals. They hunt at night, almost always close to the shore, and feed in groups, probably because it is easier to control the movement of fish. Male lions can eat about 40 pounds of food per day, and females about 20 pounds.

Although they are not considered migratory, they can swim more than 100 miles, and can dive very deep, even up to 1,000 feet. Usually, a dive lasts for 2 minutes, but they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. Around 1,000 individuals can be found in Washington state during peak times, usually hauling out on offshore rocks, jetties and navigation buoys. Near Seattle, divers can see them in the middle of Elliott Bay. Young adults will occasionally come near and investigate scuba divers, playfully chewing on diver’s gear. One of the best dive sites to see them is Alki Seacrest Park (Cove 2) in West Seattle

In Washington, Steller sea lion numbers vary seasonally with peak counts of 1,000 animals present during the fall and winter months. Haulout sites are found on jetties, offshore rocks and coastal islands. This species may also be found occasionally on navigation buoys in Puget Sound as well.

Since 70’s, their number has declined, some people believe because of lack of food due to excessive fishing. Also, one must not forget the human factor since they are often the target of the fishermen, especially in Japan and are also affected by the issues regarding climate changes.

However, US government established in 1990 no-buffer zones around rookeries with Steller sea lions. In Canada, they are protected under the Fisheries Act from intentional killing. In addition, many procedures, harvest limitations and measures have been enforced in recent years which, together with the Revised Recovery Plan from 2008, brought to their stable and steady growth in numbers. Their primary natural predators are sharks and killer whales.

Notable experts: Markus Horing, Jo-Ann Mellish, Wynne Kate and Phillip R Mundy

Further reading:

Diving with Steller Sea Lions

When people hear of Puget Sound, they often think of Orcas, but we also have many other different types of whales that stop by Puget Sound throughout the year. One of these is the Gray whales. A small sub set of Gray whales come to Puget Sound each spring to feed on Ghost shrimp in the waters near the south end of Whidbey Island.

Gray whales can grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh 40 tons, or about the weight of 20 average US cars. They have one of the the longest migrations of any animal, traveling between their birthing lagoons in Baja California and their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Gray whales feed by scooping up mud on the bottom of the ocean and using their baleen to filter out small invertebrates. They primarily feed on Crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters, crayfish, krill, barnacles, and, of course, Ghost shrimp.

The Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) are in the order Cetacea, which includes Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises. The North Pacific population is estimated to be between 20,000 and 22,000. Gray whales can be seen along the west coast of the United States as they migrate from their birthing lagoons in Mexico to summer feeding grounds near Alaska.

Gray Whale "little patch"

Gray Whale “Little Patch” near Whidbey Island

Gray whales are a dark slate gray color with light gray scars left by parasites. They also have two blowholes on top of their head and lack a dorsal fin. Newborns are dark gray to black in color.

Gray whales have been granted protection from commercial hunting by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1949, and are no longer hunted on a large scale.

Our 2016 Hornby Island dive trip finished up this month after a beautiful long weekend with Hornby Island Divers. Our group included scuba divers from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. The owners of Hornby Island Diving, Rob & Amanda Zielinski, do an amazing job with both diving and lodging.

Steller Sea Lion at Hornby Island, BC

Steller Sea Lion by Thomas Robbins

Saturday, our first day, had few Steller sea lion encounters as the Steller sea lions had been gorging on herring and were so full they could barely move off the rock outcroppings where they spend most of their time resting and sunning themselves. Even without the Steller sea lions, there was still lots to see, including Puget Sound king crab, Canary rockfish, and Lingcod.

The Steller sea lions were much more active on Sunday, and we had lots of encounters on both dives. Steller sea lions are playful and curious  and are rarely aggressive towards scuba divers. They do need to be respected as wild animals, and divers should avoid pushing them away or challenging them.

After a busy day of diving on Sunday, we headed out to Middle Mountain Mead after dinner for wine tasting. Mead is an ancient type of wine made with honey, and is produced on Hornby Island. We are looking forward to diving again with Hornby Island Diving and will be getting together another trip next year.


November is the month for the scuba industry trade show, DEMA Show, and I was down in Orlando last week to catch up on all the latest scuba diving developments. DEMA stands for Diving Equipment & Marketing Association, which is an international organization dedicated to the promotion and growth of the recreational scuba diving and snorkeling industry. The association has over 1,300 members and is responsible for producing the trade show each year, in addition to other goals such as promoting scuba diving and environmental awareness. The 2015 show was held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando Florida November 4-7.
While its always fun to wander the show floor checking out the new scuba gear, I always focus on opportunities for learning and education. Show seminars are a great way to update professional skills and find out the latest on what I need to know as a dive professional. This year I attended sessions on new digital learning products, training standards, risk management for scuba diving, the PADI ReActivate scuba review program, and business pricing strategies. Lots of good information to take back home and implement into the business.

Down on the show floor, one of the most interesting products was the Full Face Snorkeling mask by Ocean Reef. This new style mask with integrated snorkel claims to be easier to use than a traditional mask & snorkel set up. After chatting with John McKenzie of Scuba Gadget, I noticed that there were a number of other vendors were offering “clones”, some not as well made but others offering improvements such as GoPro camera attachments and children’s sizes. Another interesting new product was the ScubaPro Hydros Pro BCD featuring lots of Monprene and a modular fit. Another observation of the show was how rebreathers continue to come down in price and ease of use. Rebreathers in the $3k-$4K range are now not unusual, and I’m even hearing that open water certifications using rebreathers are not far down the road.

Next year, DEMA Show will be in Las Vegas November 16-19. I’ll be looking forward to attending and catching up all the most recent developments in scuba diving.

GoPro at DEMA

Late summer each year is the time Hooded nudibranch (Melibe leonina) migrate from deep water to the shallow eelgrass beds of Puget Sound to mate and lay eggs. During peak times, they can be seen by the thousands at dive sites such as Edmonds Underwater park and Redondo Beach. They can also be found as far north as Alaska and south to California.

Hooded nudibranch by David Sisson

Hooded nudibranch by David Sisson

Hooded nudibranch can reach up to 4” long with a round oral hood that is used to catch prey.  Their bodies are translucent, with a pale white, yellow, orange, or greenish tint and give off a sweet smell when taken out of water. During reproductive season in the late summer, they congregate in shallow eelgrass (genus Zostera) habitat, clinging to eelgrass blades. They are carnivorous, eating small fish & invertribrates such as copepods and zooplankton. Hooded nudibranch are in turn preyed upon by larger fish, Northern kelp crabs, and sea stars.

Hooded nudibranch are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs. To reproduce, two Hooded nudibranch simply fertilize each others eggs. After laying their eggs, the Hooded nudibranch die off, leaving behind a new generation.

The best time for divers to see Hooded nudibranch is at the end of the dive, during a safety stop. Hover over the eelgrass bed at around 15’ and look down, inspecting the eelgrass for Hooded nudibranch clinging to the blades.

Seal Sitters: Share the Shore from EarthFix on Vimeo.

The Pacific Northwest has many marine mammal species- Orca, whales, dolphins, porpoises, and several Pinnipeds, including seals and sea lions. One of the most common is the Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina). Harbor seals live year-round throughout Puget Sound, and can be seen swimming about near docks, beaches, ferries, or waterfront restaurants. They eat sole, flounder, sculpin, cod, herring, and even occasionally a Giant pacific octopus.

Starting in July each year, female harbor seals congregate in rookeries to give birth and rear their young. Harbor seal pups are born alert and can follow their mother into the water immediately after birth. Harbor seal mothers nurse their young for 4-6 weeks until they are weaned. Mother’s milk is rich and nutritious, containing 50% milk fat. Mothers will occasionally leave a pup on the beach while they forage for food. These pups are not abandoned and should never be approached or moved, as activity around the pup could cause the mother to abandon it.

The first year after weaning is a rough time for Harbor seal pups as they must learn to forage for food by themselves while relying on fat stores from nursing to keep their energy up. During this critical first year, Harbor seal pups need to rest on the beach and warm up (called hauling out) for up to 12 hours per day. They can be easily scared back into the water by human activity on the beach, causing them to waste energy instead of resting and warming up. Current guidelines are to stay away at least 100 feet from a marine mammal, including resting seal pups.

At Puget Sound dive sites, scuba divers should be alert for Harbor seal pups resting on the beach, keep their distance from the pup, and notify the local marine mammal stranding network so that volunteers can come out to watch the pup. For West Seattle dive sites and beaches, contact Seal Sitters at (206) 905-7325. For other locations, call the NOAA marine mammal hotline at (800) 853-1964.