Shark? What shark?

 

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Steamboat Island Wall

(quicklinks)

- by Nicolle Pratt (last date dove: October 2002)

Although I log a great number of dives while instructing, I believe in the importance of setting aside time to go recreational diving. I constantly challenge myself with new diving situations and sites to expand my own personal dive experience. I lucked out in finding these great dive buddies to go diving with who I look up to in many ways as my diving gurus. Bryan and Randy are simply experienced knowledgeable divers who go diving just about every weekend. I am even more fortunate that Bryan owns a boat he strategically modified for diving. Have boat will travel...to a bunch of really cool dive sites.

The first time we dove Steamboat Island Wall was about a month earlier. We got up before the roosters, drove to Olympia, put the boat in at a local marina and headed open water bound. Bryan owns current predictor software and actually knows how to use it, so we have preprinted current tables for the dive sites and we look them over on the ride up. Based on current, we plan to either do a live boat drift dive scenario with two in and two out or we anchor and everyone dives together.

On our dive at this site a month ago we were able to anchor and all dive together. The dive was so unexpectedly interesting, we planned a return trip. On this second trip we arrived at max flood (2.2 knot current on this particular day) and instead of waiting for the current o slow down, we decided to do a live boat scenario for the first dive leaving the second dive to hit perfectly at slack. Before doing a live boat scenario, it's always good idea to scout the site and envision the way the dive will play out underwater. Some call it planning, some call it praying. I always do both when working with current.

The Dive Site: Steamboat Island Wall is off one of the points of a small island called, gee they are so creative with dive site names, Steamboat Island. We found that the wall, made up of pock marked sandstone, bends around this sharp point where a large house (with itty-bitty windows) sits atop an exposed rock bluff that has been noticeably reinforced with concrete. Looking toward the point from the boat, there are old pier pilings around the point to the right and a tiny marina far around the point to the left.

The main portion of the wall, composed mainly of sandstone, sits out directly out from the front of the point. Dropping in close to shore and taking a 330 heading you should hit the edge of the wall at about the 15' mark. At this spot, the wall drops off at a sheer angle to a base at about the 45' mark.

Out and down from the base of the wall there is an area of the dive site where additional boulders and sandstone formations are found all the way to approximately 90'. You can identify this part of the wall by the introduction of sandstone formations away from the wall creating an open-top hall like area to dive through. At these formations, turn away from the wall and descend. The formations go on for quite a distance in both directions parallel to the wall in-between 60' and 90'. The dive site reminded me of various canyons I have hiked in southern Utah like Bryce Canyon if it were underwater.

Sea Life (invertebrates): Before even entering the water, we saw lots of moon jellyfish and the occasional water jellyfish cruise by. Once on the dive, you'll notice the wall is covered in many places with Zoanthids (colonies of white flowery anemone-like critters) and indents in at points where Red Rock Crab have dug out dens. Inside vacated dens you'll find lots of coon-striped shrimp, Longhorn Decorator Crabs, and brilliant healthy purple Ochre Stars. At the base of the wall closer to where it tapers off on the West side, there are a number of Spiny Pink stars (the ones that look stark white underwater). I was pleased to additionally spot a beautiful Sea Lemon and a Lewis' Moon Snail. Lance, my dive buddy on the dives this day caught my attention in time to see a Hooded Nudibranch (sometimes referred to a Lion's Nudibranch) openly swimming. I felt like I had stepped into a scene from the Discovery Channel's Blue Planet.

Sea Life (vertebrates): Move over invertebrates Shark? What shark?and bring on the fish. No, I don't mean the fish, I mean THE Fish. That's right, the absolute highlight of this dive site, is the likely shark encounter. Sharks, I am simply fascinated by them stemming from my fortunate opportunities to dive regularly in warm water where I have been able to log quite a few shark encounters. Through my years of diving I have built a mini-shark library and I look forward to any opportunity, expected or unexpected, where I encounter the beautiful hunters.

The shark at this dive site is a Spiny Dogfish (sometimes referred to as a dog shark). Sometimes divers dismiss these little sharks, but it hard to dismiss this 4' beauty (which is good size for this species). And being true to form, this dogfish is definitely not shy. On our dive a month ago, we had read in Dave Bliss' Northwest Boat Dives book we had on board (circa 1997) that this site had a resident Dogfish with the tenacity of a white shark. Although 5 years old, the book didn't lie and this shark greeted us quickly once we descended to about 60'.

On this most recent dive trip as soon as we descended past 60 feet, sure enough the shark appeared and as quick as I could have imagined. I turned and out of the dark there it was almost within reach. It appeared so quickly that although I have dove with much bigger and certainly more dangerous sharks, it gave me quite the jolt. I turned to Lance to see if he had seen it and by his look I figured he hadn't. So I gleefully gave him the universal diver sign for shark (using your hand to make like a fin and hold it to your forehead). I turned back to continue leading when it returned for another pass by. Lance saw it that time. The shark was just beautiful. But as quick as it was there, it was gone. I wished it had stayed with us a little longer. Guess I'll need to return for my own pass by.

The site is also frequented by a great number of Sculpin doing their best to blend in and ignore divers. I also saw a few Lingcod, a Crescent Gunnel, and a Kelp Greenling which was a real treat since they are not so common in the Puget Sound

Important Dive Site Notes: The wall starts close to shore, however I did not see any shore access, so this site remains a boat dive site. This site is also current intensive and it gets very dark so bring your light so you don't miss the formations.

Current: This dive site is certainly current intensive. Because the point of land the wall sits out from is so narrow, the current rips right at the best part of the dive site. This can be problematic when entering the water as the current can blow you away from the wall. Grabbing a hold of the bottom isn't a great option since the composition is crumbly unstable sandstone. After diving this site in a 1.6 knot current, I would suggest to others to wait for slack and taking the opportunity to go visit the deepest point and then return to go slow along the wall. Our second dive was timed at slack and we anchored right over the deep portion of the site. Slack allowed us the opportunity to really discover the site.

Caution/hazards: Current, crumbly sandstone, and the dogfish. The dogfish isn't a hazard, but more a cautionary note because it is not timid and may startle some divers...ok I'm the diver it joyfully startled. Do calculate for current, because away from the wall all you'll be looking at are vast stretches of unexciting fields of gooey ducks and upon your ascent you'll likely come up in the middle of boat traffic. Please remember whenever diving from a boat it is always recommended to carry a surface signaling device and whistle or air horn.

Directions: This site is close to Squaxin Passage and Totten Inlet North of Olympia not far from the Tolmie State Barges and the Wreck at Taylor Bay. Take I-5 North to the Yelm / Marvin Road exit and put in at your preferred marina. Latitude: 47 11.27 N Longitude: 122 56.28 W.

Nicolle's personal note: Diving this site afforded me with my first dogfish encounter and it is one I will never forget. The formations are very interesting and the wall is beautiful to look up at from the bottom. It is easy to navigate and the top of the wall at 15 feet makes for an excellent safety stop you can easily spend more than 3 minutes discovering. Thank you to my dive buddies for taking me to this great little site and thanks for being just as willing to return.

Nicolle Pratt
(503) 287-5328
Portland, Oregon
nicolle@pnwscuba.com