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Diving in the San Juan Islands, Washington - Part 2

Updated on April 28, 2010

At Clements Reef off the north shore of Sucia Island, two rocky reefs run parallel to each other, with a large, bowl-shaped canyon in between. It's an intermediate site best dived at slack tide. Most divers explore the canyon or the inside walls where depths average 30 to 100 feet. Because of the site's protection as a national wildlife refuge, hundreds of black rockfish patrol the reef in squadron formation. Giant sunflower stars (at some three feet across, the largest starfish in the world) make a meal of spiny urchins. Clements Reef also has harbor seals, which sometimes sneak up under cover of the kelp beds to inspect divers. They usually observe from a distance but occasionally approach, swimming around divers or tugging playfully on a fin.

Sampling of Shore Sites

Much of the waterfront property in the San Juans is privately owned or not easily accessible because of steep cliffs and dense undergrowth. Consequently, boat dives easily outnumber shore sites. However, a handful of popular shore dives are well worth the effort of hauling tanks down to the water.
 
San Juan County Park overlooks Haro Strait on San Juan Island's west side. Camping fans may find this the perfect place to pitch a tent for a few summer days and dive until they drop. There are a number of different novice to intermediate dives, from 10 to 100 feet. For one option, simply walk down the boat-launch ramp, swim out over a sandy bottom, then hug the rocky south shore of Smallpox Bay. Or climb down to the cobble beach in North Bay and kick out to the boulder piles. Both options yield excellent marine-life observation. Expect to see red sea urchins the size of volleyballs, bright orange sea cucumbers wedged between the rocks with feeding tentacles unfurled, chitons and limpets, and bottomfish such as the optically challenged flounder with both eyes on one side of its head. Shrimp march along the bottom and over tufts of algae while crabs scuttle along the sand, avoiding the lure of well-baited traps.
 
On Lopez Island, Spencer Spit rewards keen observers with a wealth of weird animals: penpoint gunnels, warbonnets, the whiskered bottomfish called poachers, and even grunt sculpins. One of the Pacific Northwest's most unusual fish, grunt sculpins are pig-snouted and wild-eyed, scampering shakily around on long, orange fin spines resembling stilts. If seeing these guys isn't enough motivation to tackle the 500-yard hike down the spit, perhaps the chance to encounter an octopus along the colorful wall of Frost Island is. Just remember to make the short channel crossing hugging the bottom at 60 feet to avoid overhead boat traffic.
 
Once mistakenly cursed as bloodthirsty monsters, killer whales now enjoy unparalleled popularity. Between May and September, visitors have an excellent chance to experience orcamania firsthand. They also have a good chance to see Dall's porpoises, harbor seals, sea lions, and minke whales, with an occasional humpback or gray whale cruising through. Approximately 100 killer whales make the area their summer home, finning in from the open ocean to feed on salmon and socialize with their pod mates. A thriving whale-watching industry with a fleet ranging from one-person kayaks to 200-foot floating hotels makes it easy to get a good look at this icon of the Pacific Northwest. Landlubbers can settle for a drive to Lime Kiln Point State Park. Besides being a thrilling shore dive, Lime Kiln offers terrific orca watching from the rocky shore. Not a bad way to spend a surface interval between dives.
 
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