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Scuba diving in Puget Sound is an amazing experience, and the main reason is the wide variety of marine life we have to offer. Here are 5 rock star fish (and where to find them) that make Puget Sound scuba diving so great:
(Sebastes maliger) These members of the Rockfish family are solitary and like to hang out close to the bottom, on or near rocks and boulders. They like chasing after Spot prawn and small crabs for food and can be easily identified by their mottled brown and yellow pattern. Look for Quillback Rockfish when diving at Three Tree Point.
(Nautichthys oculofasciatus) Named for their elongated dorsal fin, Sailfin Sculpin are nocturnal and can be commonly found during night dives at Alki Seacrest Park (Cove 2) in West Seattle. They range in color from yellow-brown to yellow-grey with dark bands on the body and unusual scales that have a velvety texture. Sailfin Sculpin migrate up to the intertidal zone in late winter and early spring to spawn.
(Oxylebius pictus) Like Clown fish in the South Pacific, Painted Greenling (especially juveniles) have a symbiotic relationship with fish-eating anemone and will hide from predators in their stinging tentacles. Painted Greenling are easy to find day or night at Redondo Beach.
(Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus) These beautiful fish are members of the sculpin family and can be found resting near rocky areas. Use a dive light to see its brilliant red coloring, but be careful not to touch one as they have poisonous spines that can injure a diver. A good dive site to see one is Alki Junk Yard in West Seattle.
(Ophiodon elongatus) These can be some of the biggest fish that a diver will see in Puget Sound, growing up to 5 feet in length and weighing in at 130 pounds. The largest example in Puget Sound can be fount at Edmonds Underwater Park. Lingcod can be very territorial (especially during egg season) and will charge and even bump into a diver that gets too close. Lingcod will eat almost anything, including Rockfish and even small Giant pacific octopus. In turn, Lingcod are eaten by Harbor seals and California sea lions.
Its been a fun and exciting 6 days with our March 2015 Hornby Island dive trip, where we spent two days of diving in Puget Sound before heading up to Hornby Island, British Columbia to dive in Canadian waters, and to see the Lions of Hornby Island. Our divers traveled from Florida, Hawaii, California and Washington state to join us on this underwater adventure.
Our trip started out near Seattle with two days of diving on Bandito Charters out of Tacoma WA. We visited some of our most popular south Puget Sound dive sites, including Z’s Reef, Point Defiance North Wall, and Maury Island Barges. Maury Island Barges was particularly beautiful as we had sunny skies (which meant lots of ambient light underwater), and 50+ foot visibility. We saw large populations of Copper and Brown rockfish, schools of various perch, and a favorite of mine, Painted greenling. On the invertebrate side we saw Plumose anemone, lots of sea stars and Giant barnacles.
After completing our two boat dive days, Friday was a travel day from Seattle north to Hornby Island, where we met up with more of our divers. The journey from Seattle to Hornby Island included a border crossing and a total of three ferries. The scenic drive north between Nanaimo and Port Hardy was especially beautiful with old growth forests and occasional views of the Salish Sea. While passing through Nanaimo, we had a chance to stop and try the famous Nanaimo bars.
After arriving at Hornby island Diving around early evening, we unpacked and had dinner. A few of our divers decided to try a night dive at Ford Reef, a shallow dive site accessible from shore next to the resort. The divers were amazed to find several large and brightly colored Puget Sound king crab out and about underwater in the early evening hours. After a good night’s sleep Friday, we were all up early Saturday ready to begin the first day of diving. The morning started out with sun and a few high clouds, and after breakfast we headed to our first dive site of the day, Flora Islet. The dive site was a wall dive with an easy line descent down to 60’, then divers followed the wall with a gentle current as they poked among the rocks for sea life. We found lots of Pile and Kelp perch, Copper and Quillback rockfish, Kelp greenling, and a very large Giant Pacific Octopus easily viewed in its den.
Once the dive was finished, we headed back to shore for air fills and a hearty lunch before traveling out to the second dive at Nash Bank. This boulder strewn dive site features hundreds of Lingcod, some guarding eggs, and a rare Yelloweye rockfish thought to be 100+ years old. Several of the divers happened upon this calm and friendly fish, who allowed us to take photos and video from a respectful distance before we moved on. After a second return trip to shore, a few of our divers headed back out for a third dive Repulse Point.
A storm came through Saturday night, bringing thunder and heavy rain to the island. We woke up Sunday morning to choppy seas and decided to delay our morning dive by 1 hour to allow for the weather to pass though. Once the seas had calmed down, our divers headed to Toby Islet for the morning dive. After a return to shore and lunch, we headed out for the main event, a dive at Norris Rocks with Steller sea lions. The sea lion colony is a temporary group of juvenile and adult Steller sea lions mixed with a few smaller adult California sea lions. As soon as we pulled up to the dive site, the juvenile Steller sea lions were in the water ready to meet us. Underwater, we settled in at about 30’ to watch the sea lions swim and carefully approach us. The sea lions are wild animals that are very curious, but can also be unpredictable. We took lots of still photos and video as the sea lions swam around us, checking out our dive gear and occasionally nipping at our fins and hoods with their mouths. It is quite exciting and unnerving to have a large wild animal put his mouth over your head and gingerly try to pull your scuba hood off. Our divers were able to spend up to an hour underwater with these amazing marine mammals.
Video by Christine Simon
Sunday evening consisted of naps, massages by a local masseuse, and a fresh salmon dinner before venturing off resort to Middle Mountain Mead artisan honey winery for a private tasting. Mead wine is a honey based wine that has been fermented since ancient times and was popular with the Vikings. After learning more about this unusual drink, and picking up a few bottles to take home, we headed back down the mountain. Monday morning was out last dive, where many of our divers headed back to Norris Rocks for more diving with Steller sea lions before packing up to catch ferries and eventually flights back home.
The dive trip was a great success, with divers experiencing dive sites and marine life that can not be seen elsewhere. We’ll definitely be coming up to Hornby Island and other parts of British Columbia again for more diving, and hopefully we’ll get another chance to meet the Lions of Hornby Island.
Second to Harbor seals, California Sea Lions are the most common Pinniped that we see in the Northwest, with a total population of over 300,000 ranging from the southern tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico to as far north as Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Some of these will choose to spend late summer through early spring in Seattle, feeding and resting in front of downtown in Elliott Bay.
California sea lions (Zalophus Californianus) are closely related to two other sea lion species, the extinct Japanese sea lion and the endangered Galapagos sea lion. California sea lions can weigh close to 1,000 pounds and grow to 7 feet in length, while their fur color can range from gold to a dark brown color. They can live for up to 30 years in the wild, reaching sexual maturity at around 7-9 years. Unlike “true seals“, sea lions have external ear flaps and can move on land with their hind flippers.
In the spring, male California sea lions migrate down to breeding rookeries in the Channel Islands National Park. Females do not migrate and stay near their rookeries year-round. Once females give birth, they will nurse pups for up to 1 year, with females sometimes leaving their pups for up to 3 days while foraging at sea. After breeding season, males will head back north until next spring. California sea lions feed on a wide variety of fish and invertebrates, mostly foraging around coastal areas and sea mounts. They have been known to swim as far as 280 miles out to sea and can dive to depths of over 500 feet while remaining submerged for up to 10 minutes. They can also slow their heart rate to stay underwater longer.
While resting and basking in the sun off the Seattle waterfront, sea lions keep a watchful eye out for their main predator, Orca. Resident Puget Sound Orca pods are focused on eating salmon and are not interested in sea lions, but transient Orca pods will travel into Puget Sound to hunt for seals, sea lions, Grey whales, and other marine mammals. California sea lions also need to keep a watch out for sharks while in the open ocean, as they will ambush them while resting on the water.
Due to their increasing population numbers, California sea lions are not considered threatened wight he help of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Their main threats are now conflicts with fishermen, entanglements with garbage, and the killing of sea lions near the Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River.
We wish our California sea lions a safe journey back down to the Channel Islands, and look forward to their return to Puget Sound later this summer!
Check out this video of California and Steller sea lions up north of Seattle on Hornby Island, BC:
Seattle is starting to settle in to its familiar fall weather pattern of warm, sunny days and clear cool nights- a perfect time to try scuba diving in the Northwest and explore the best dive sites in Seattle and Puget Sound. Water temperatures remain relatively warm while visibility improves to some of the best of the year. Fall also brings with it stunning bioluminescence, with millions of microscopic invertebrates creating a glow in Puget Sound water during night dives.
Both Steller sea lions and California sea lions have returned from their breeding rookeries in Alaska and California to join our year-round Harbor seal population to rest on Seattle beaches. As always, Seattle Dive Tours works closely with Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network to identify and protect resting seal pups.
Underwater, fish and invertebrates look even more stunning in the clear, cool water. Copper rockfish and Brown rockfish are plentiful, while Nudibranchs such as White-lined Dirona, Opalescent Nudibranch, and Yellow margin Dorid are all reaching their largest sizes of the year, plus our own Puget Sound Giant Pacific octopus is usually around for a viewing by our scuba divers.
Our PADI professional dive guides will be at the Northwest’s best dive sites in Seattle this fall to show both visiting and local divers the amazing beauty of Puget Sound.