Article by Rick Stratton:
Photos Courtesy Bandito Charters and Underwater Sports
Tacoma, the city of Destiny, is a hub of business and adventure. Located south of Seattle, it is home to over one hundred thousand, and full of fun places to visit. Tacoma has a rich history; it was founded in 1875 and named after the nearby Mount Rainer, originally called Takhoma or Tahoma. Tacoma, being situated on the waterfront of the Puget Sound, served as an end of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and is still a mecca for transporting goods, with the Port of Tacoma being Washington’s biggest port. However, not everything in Tacoma has to do with business and ports; folks, especially divers looking for adventure have a plethora of dive sites and watersports to explore.
The Tacoma Waterfront is the ideal location to explore and discover Tacoma’s colorful history, from early days of boatyards, warehouses, and mills, to today’s booming water- front. Its scenic views and walks, fine dining, and historical sites of local importance. Other activities on the waterfront include fishing at Les Davis Fishing Pier, and parasailing where you can get stunning views of the Port of Tacoma and Mount Rainer in the distance. Visitors young and old enjoy the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, which features animals on land and underwater.
Another locale of interest is Rustin Point: a development north of the waterfront where visitors can find artisanal retail stores and theaters as well as restaurants and cafes.
Arly Buchanan, store manager for Lighthouse Diving in Tacoma is a retired US Navy oceanography officer who has been leading dives in the area since 1974. Buchanan loves the diving here because of its quality – and it’s why he lives in the Pacific Northwest.
“This is the best day in and day out diving in the world,” explains Buchan- an. “All of the Pacific Northwest is great but because of the economics of the area, it is cheaper to live in Tacoma and we have lots of great dive sites here in Tacoma.”
Mike Adams, store manager for Underwater Sports in Lakewood attended college at the University of Puget Sound during which he logged several hundred dives in the Tacoma area.
“The Sound used to be very polluted along the Tacoma waterfront – it was questionable if you wanted to dive there,” he says. “Now, that has changed dramatically. The Tacoma waterfront is so much cleaner and has better access than ever. It’s a night and day difference.”
Rick Myers, owner of Bandito Charters loves the diving in Puget Sound. “I love the diving here in Tacoma, its why we have been here for more than 20 years,” exclaims Myers. “When out of town guests come here, they ask – where do we dive – I always recommend Tacoma!”
Specific Dive Sites in the Tacoma area:
Browns Point is located on the north point of Commencement Bay in Tacoma, and is home to the Browns Point Lighthouse, located on four acres. This site is not well known and is rarely listed in many dive guides because of the lack of bottom structure. The dive consists of a relatively easy shore walk in entry in the intertidal area. The bottom consists of sandy silted gravel bottom sparsely covered by patches of eelgrass. Red rock crabs, sanddabs, burrowing anemones, and sole are usually found here.
“I dove this site a lot when I was in college and have done a couple of dives there since. It has a gently sloping sandy-silty bottom that doesn’t have a lot of life on it,” he says. “But it does make a nice site for a night dive. You can do a nice drift dive from Brown’s Point to nearby Dash Point, if you catch the current right.” – Mike Adams.
Depth ranges from the surface to more than 60 feet. This area is current- swept and the and lack of structure has kept sea life from making their home here. This site has current and boat traffic and should be dove only a gentile flooding current or high slack for best visibility. The site attracts salmon fishermen and anglers – fly a large dive flag when visiting here. Dash Point State Park
Beyond scuba diving, Dash Point State Park, located between Seattle and Tacoma, offers miles of adventure. Key features here include hiking, biking, beachcombing, fishing, boarding, and other activities. These activities are suitable for travelers of all ages.
“There are several seapen fields on the site with beautiful ones jutting from the floor,” says Buchanan who sometimes leads training dives at this location. “The combination of seapens and bioluminescence in the fall makes for incredible night dives.”
“I recommend diving there in the spring months – March through June
Adams recommends to look for nesting cabezon in the debris fields that lay on the bottom down to 70 feet,” says Adams. “Most divers go to the right of the pier be- cause it’s closer to the parking lot. There’s also a wreck at this site, located about 200 feet – the is “way beyond recreational limits.”
This site is a relatively easy beginner site with plenty of parking, nearby amenities, restrooms, showers and access that make this site worth a try. While there is not much large life to see, the relative ease of the dive makes it stand out. This site has a very gentle slope in the intertidal zone making it very shallow. Divers beware this site attracts fishermen with large hooks.
Foss Waterway Seaport Maritime Museum
While not a dive site, the seaport is worth mentioning. Located at Tacoma’s original deep-water dock and moorage site, at 705 Dock Street in Tacoma, the Seaport provides an “activities-focused” public waterfront space to help connect people to Tacoma’s rich waterfront history.
According to Wes Wenhardt, Executive Director Foss Water- way Seaport Maritime Museum: “The Foss Waterway Seaport Mari- time Museum celebrates Tacoma’s rich maritime heritage, past, present, and future. [It is] located on the historic Thea Foss waterway, in a century old wooden wheat warehouse, listed on the national register of historic places.
“The museum has a dive connection called Pier to Peer, which hosts dives with a diver in full face mask through a video camera and live link. People can converse with the diver as he/she collects items for later explanation on shore. The items are temporarily captured and then later released. Local diver and Washington Scuba Alliance (WSA) Vice-President Randy Williams often leads these dives and has been working with the Museum for a number of years.”
The Seaport Museum is also home to the Flashback Scuba Museum, founded in 2000 by local diver and historian Ryan Spence. The Flashback exhibits offer a brief glimpse at the large historic impact that the sport and world of commercial diving has had in Tacoma. Beginning as a small scuba project with a private collection of working vintage dive equipment, the project has expanded over the years to include the Nick Icorn collection, one of the largest private collections of historic dive gear in North America.
According to Spence: “The project was conceived of as a way of connecting with the past and finding adventure in the present. It has grown over the past 15 years into something bigger. We now have a much larger selection of working equipment, a large photo, film and document archives and one of the largest collections of original Cousteau equipment in the world. “ explained Spence.
“It is not just the equipment that captivates our attention, however, it is the stories and the people behind its development. It is the people and their stories that make the history come alive. The Flashback Scuba project has taken many people and partnerships to get to where we are today and we believe partnerships are the key to the future.” – Ryan Spence
Les Davis Marine Park
Located on the southwest shore of Commencement Bay on the water- front on Ruston Way, near the mouth of the Puyallup River lies the Les Davis Marine Park. This is one of the most popular dive sites in Washington due to its easy access, nearby parking, and upkeep from the Washing- ton Scuba Alliance. Les Davis easily accessible dive site that is protected from current and open around the clock. The highlight of this dive is the artificial reef created by old concrete bridge decking. It provides structure for fish, crab and other marine organ- isms. The reef is located between 40 and 70 feet deep.
Says Buchanan: “Les Davis is by far the most popular training dive site in the Tacoma area. Shops from all over the Northwest, especially nearby Oregon divers often travel to Tacoma to dive there. The reason for this popularity is predictable dive conditions and lots of life to see. The site usually has very minimal current, which does create a somewhat silty bottom, so good buoyancy control is necessary to keep it from ‘silting out’.
“It has lots of life to see. The artificial reef has tremendous life on it with plumose anemones, nudibranchs, pectin scallops, sea stars, surf perch, kelp greenling, lingcod, lots of different species of sculpins, giant Pacific octopus, and even occasionally, stubby squid.”
“Les Davis is the site that seems to have made the most massive improvement in quality over the years,” says Adams. “It is very popular site and gets quite crowded on the weekends with divers from all over the sound traveling to dive there. We tend to dive it during the week when there is less traffic, allowing us to park closer to the site and enjoy the dive better.”
WSA is working on a plan to significantly expand the footprint of the artificial reef. WSA has a plan to work with the state of Washington and the City of Tacoma to create a larger fish and invertebrate habitat at the site. Stay tuned for further developments – see www.wascuba.org for details.
Located just south of Point Defiance park on the western shore of the Tacoma Narrows, this dive site features an opportunity to see a variety of rubble and other junk while drifting along the sea floor. The reef and assorted junk pile offers refuge to a variety of sea life making this dive both interesting and challenging for local divers to visit by boat. There is no viable shore access at this site.
This site is recommended for a drift dive on a flood current. During the flood, the current near the shore will run north along the shoreline while the midchannel currents run south. Be sure to confirm the current direction and intensity prior the dive. Dive this site only from a live boat and make sure and fly a diver down flag.
There is a variety of sea life that make their homes in the myriad of junk you might find at this site. Beautiful white plumose anemones might be found on an old washing machine, a large lingcod could be found perched on an old wood stove. You never know what lies just out of view as you drift along the bottom” explains Buchannon.
Located in the west section of Point Defiance Park, Owen Beach is a great dive site for scuba explorers who want to go a bit deeper. Owen Beach offers divers a deep-water experience, starting with a drop off that goes down past 95 feet. The bottom is covered in wood and stone debris that is home to a variety of marine life. During the summer months it is even possible to spot some six- gill sharks amongst the debris. At 95 feet down there is a large barge wreck that offers the view of a variety of fish. “This site is recommended to those divers who can handle strong currents” explained Adams who leads trips there often.
The sand and gravel bottom contains a motley of wood and stone debris: within these small cracks and recesses live more types of life, which include blood stars, anemones, and red Irish lords. It’s also not uncommon to encounter iconic six gill sharks during summer months. According to Adams “Divers should exercise caution when you are learning to dive the site. The bottom drops away quickly, so you should get into the water and then swim on the surface to the wall before descending. If you descend first, even if it is only a few feet, you can end up on the wall much deeper than you intended.” – Mike Adams
“Owen Beach is a great site for a drift dive,” says Adams. “I take groups down to the beach and there is a long promenade along the beach there. You can walk nearly to the point of Point Defiance if you want to. I show new divers how establish neutral buoyance, plane out, and just drift with the current at about 35 to 50 feet. This site is perfect for that.”
Point Defiance North Wall
Located about two miles northeast of Point Defiance rests a large, extensive wall system perfect for divers that like a layered approach. The clay wall gradually descends with a series of sandy ledges and shelves of varying heights down to about 105 feet. Divers can find sculpin, octopus, greenlings, warbonnets, red Irish lords, wolf-eels, and smaller critters like stars. Because of the wall’s multitude of ledges, over- hangs, rocks, and other distinct geo- logical features, there’s plenty to see and explore” explained Rick Myers, owner of Bandito Charters who lists Point Defiance North Wall as one of his favorite sites.
Says Myers: “We love the diving the north wall. It is large site, capable of handling a lot of divers at one time without feeling crowded. We dive the north wall always on the ebb tide. It is always changing” explained Myers.
“The current comes out of the Tacoma Narrows and bends around Point Defiance. As it starts to run faster, the currents create a lee on the North Wall allowing a safe dive. Known for its structure, the site has lots of life on it but the main draw is the constantly changing look of the topography, dramatic holes, ridges, and valleys cut into a series of shelves by the current.”
Adams says: “Point Defiance doesn’t need to be a ‘boat dive’. If you are in really good shape and up to a bit of a trek you can walk from the Owen Beach parking lot down to Point Defiance and do a drift dive back.
Point Defiance West Wall
“The West Wall is spectacular. It is a pretty dramatic wall and drops straight down from 30 to 95. The site is best dove on a flood tide. You have to watch the current set up and see it developing properly. When the cur- rent gets going, it straightens out and creates a lee on the west side.”
The West Wall is a smaller site and we don’t usually go there often, explained Myers. Because it is a shorter wall, we can’t put a dozen divers on the site, but it is pretty” said Myers.
Tacoma Narrows Drift Dive
Divers can drift along the rocky shore- line north of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge for some of the best diving in the sound. Drift diving is challenging and interested persons should get training from a professional before attempting it. Sandstone shelves down deep and big anchor blocks from 55 to 90 feet scattered around from when they built the original bridge are very popular. The wall descends into a series of ledges 25 to 85-feet deep with large lingcod, greenling, giant Pacific octopus, in a kaleidoscope of colorful anemones of all kinds.
“It’s certainly an advanced dive because of the strong currents, and divers should dive the narrows drift with a local diver or professional dive charter,”says Myers.“ This is one of my customers’ favorite dives.”
“The drift from Salmon Beach down to the bridge, or back the other way – an awesome drift dive. Once I show my students how to establish neutral buoyancy, plane and drift, staying between 30 to 60, it is a relatively easy site to dive. The downward current that develops near the bridge. Because of the clay banks on the Tacoma side of the narrows bridge, a downward current develops starting between 45 to 70 feet. That can be really scary for newbies because suddenly you can be pulled into a down well, and the rock and even their bubbles are heading downward. I will always tell local divers, if you are drifting this dive to the north, start north of the bridge. To the south, be sure to exit before the bridge.”
Although the ledges continue both directions, the most dynamic and colorful portion of this area is south of the power lines and north of the bridge. Sandstone ledges to the north give way to clay ledges south of the bridge.
Mile Post 8
Located north of the bridge on the Tacoma side, noted by the “mile post 8” on the railroad tracks. This site along the eastern shore of the Narrows is noted for several sets of anchor blocks and large rocks which make excellent habitat for rockfish and lingcod.
“The site is popular during hunting season,” explains Adams, who sometimes teaches the spearfishing specialty class. “This is a more vertical dive compared to the other dives in the area which tend to be more spread out.”
“At a certain level of current, the current sets up and creates an eddy on the site,” says Myers who leads dives to this site on an ebb tide. “The main body of the current will be coming from the south, and when it sets up, it creates an eddy going to the north above about 60 feet. There is a really nice boulder field in there. It has lots of lingcod, wolf-eels, giant Pacific octopus, in there.”
Remains of the Galloping Gertie
Galloping Gertie is the original Tacoma Narrows bridge, which opened on July 1, 1940. It was called Galloping Gertie because of the vertical movements of the deck observed by construction workers during windy conditions. Later, the bridge col- lapsed into the Puget Sound on November 7. The replacement bridge wasn’t completed until October 14, 1950.
This was a relatively common dive site prior to 9/11/2001. According to Myers, he doesn’t lead dives there because of the security requirements and the lack of clear directions from the authorities who control the area. “If you ask DOT, they refer you to State Patrol. If you ask State Patrol, they refer you to the Coast Guard, who will refer you back to either State Patrol or DOT,” laughs Myers. “Nobody will give you permission to dive the site. When there’s three entities out there pointing fingers at each other, we stay away from it.”
Wreck of the Hildur Foss
Opinions are mixed on the wreck of the Hildur Foss, located in North Commencement Bay. According to self-described “obsessive wreck geeks” Scott Boyd and Jeff Carr, authors of Northwest Wreck Divers, this wreck, located in 60 to 70 feet of water, may not be the true Hildur Foss. According to the authors, the Hildur Foss was built in 1907 as a cannery tender and worked in Puget Sound for many years. She was scuttled in Commencement Bay on April 1, 1949. Due to the runoff from the nearby Puyallup River, the visibility at the site is rarely more than 10 to 15 feet. The remaining hull sits just above the silty bottom with some large steel tanks marking the wreck.
As with any wreck dive, divers should consider this an advanced dive due to the limited visibility and boat traffic from the nearby harbor. Consider river run off and avoid times with recent rains. Fly a dive flag.
“Tacoma is synonymous with three things: glass art, classic cars and outdoor adventure. As the hometown of the biggest name in studio glass art, Dale Chihuly, you’ll find his glass not only in our Museum of Glass and Tacoma Art Museum, but throughout the city in public places. Tacoma is also home to both America’s Car Museum, which is the largest car museum in North America, and the LeMay Collections at Marymount, which is the largest private automobile collection in the world. And being situated in the middle of the Pacific Northwest, we’re naturally close to nature. From all the hiking and climbing opportunities at iconic Mount Rainier just outside the city, to our waterfront which is full of public access for kayaking, SUP and SCUBA, people come here to find the true Northwest experiences they’ve heard and read about.” Says Matt Wakefield, Senior Communications Manager of Tacoma tourism agency Travel Style
Winter, spring, summer, or fall; no matter the season there is a place to dive in the Southern Puget Sound. From the walls and caverns to the detailed wrecks, there is a large variety of dive sites to explore amongst the emerald green waters. The culture is vibrant, creative, and relative to the water. There are foods that tend to every taste bud that visits the area. The tree-covered mountains are filled with paths that have seen the soles of millions of boots. It doesn’t get better than the Puget Sound, and the southern part of the sound is just the kind of emerald green paradise that attract divers from around the nation.