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Diving in the San Juan Islands, Washington

Updated on April 28, 2010

A kaleidoscope of life awaits divers in the San Juan Islands, made up of about 172 puzzlelike landmasses in Washington's Puget Sound. Once an ancient mountain range, the region was overwhelmed by the sea millions of years ago. Today only the highest peaks show above the surface. The four main islands — Orcas, San Juan, Lopez, and Shaw — and their satellite reefs represent an underwater frontier, worlds away from the nearby metropolises of Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria with their skyscrapers and traffic and endless condo studded concrete and asphalt landscapes.
 
It's no secret that this archipelago has some of the finest cold-water diving anywhere. The late Jacques-Yves Cousteau counted his dives here as some of the most memorable in a lifetime of ocean adventure. The chilly, current-swept waters of this Emerald Sea nourish a startling abundance of marine life from orca whales to jeweled snails. Coursing through the glacier-carved passes at up to six knots, the current is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest. This conveyor belt loaded with a soup of life-giving plankton is responsible for feeding reefs so lush that they rival the tropics for color and diversity.

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The ebb and flow of the formidable tides dictate where and when one can gear up and go down. Diving the San Juans safely and enjoyably requires staying within one's limits, knowing how to assess conditions, and having a thorough knowledge of the currents. Divers with little or no experience of currents and cold water should buddy up with a local guide, instructor, or veteran. Some dive operators here provide a pre-dive orientation on wearing a full wet or dry suit and adjusting the 25 to 30 pounds of weight necessary to offset the suit's additional buoyancy.
 
More than 500 dive sites are hidden away in the deep channels — averaging some 600 feet — between the islands. A wide variety of terrain offers divers of all levels interesting and challenging marine exploration. Year-round diving is possible thanks to 300-mile-long Vancouver Island, which shields the San Juans from the Pacific's ferocious storms. Although this area is sheltered from tempests it does not mean that it's necessarily a sunny location as it is a region where you can find weeks of rain in virtually every month of the year.

Boat Dives

On the right tide, novice to intermediate divers find Shaw Island's Point George a good beginning. Because of the back eddy formed by the point, divers enjoy a rare situation in the San Juans — a mellow dive with little or no current. Many sites lie within a research reserve, protected from both commercial and sport fishing, and the numerous gargantuan lingcod are evidence of that. Top predators of the reef, the lings sport an impressive arsenal of teeth. Many other fish and invertebrates, including cabezon, scalyhead sculpins, scallops, barnacles, and multicolored nudibranchs, hide in the rocky crannies. Also in Point George's favor is its proximity to Friday Harbor. The hub of San Juan Islands' activity, especially in the summer months when thousands of tourists arrive, Friday Harbor is home to the islands' only full-service dive center.
 
Continued In: Diving in the San Juan Islands, Washington - Part 2

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