Jul 17, 2008

Hardy divers sculpt a silent world at Edmonds Underwater Park

Once dangerous and dull, undersea area teems with features
Diver Janet Boyd watches a ratfish swimming along the bottom of the seafloor at the Edmonds Underwater Park. The area used to be a dangerous place to dive, but with decades of care from area volunteers, the park is a destination. Photo: Scott Boyd / Special to the P-I

By Amanda Castleman
Special to The P-I
July 17, 2008

A man wades into the ocean with a wheelbarrow full of concrete blocks ... sounds like a joke setup, right? Except no funny stuff's going down in Edmonds, just the work crew at the city's
underwater park.

For 31 years, Bruce Higgins has anchored a fluid collection of volunteers, the type that shun meetings and "just get out there already." The team has sculpted a sandy patch of Puget Sound, once known for scuba fatalities, into an urban dive destination.

Today, two miles of roped routes scissor this 27-acre site next to the ferry terminal 15 miles north of Seattle. Financed entirely by the sale of $10 laminated maps and an annual underwater pumpkin-carving contest, the protected area at Brackett's Landing boasts more than 20
major features.

Artificial reefs incorporate tree trunks, sunken boats, tractor tires, a cash register, a pickup bed and part of a model of the Hood Canal Bridge. Small wonder officials last year renamed the park "the  Bruce Higgins Underwater Trails."

As Calvin Tang, founder of newsvine.com and the Northwest Dive Club, points out: "It's one of the safest places to learn. You can only go so deep, about 45 feet at the highest tide -- and that's if you swim like three miles out," he jokes. "They've created something of great value to the dive community out of nowhere."

Longtime volunteer Jim Middleton, a Harborview histologist, agrees. "I certified here in 1968. Back then it was all smooth sand with one large field of ballast stones. I grew up on the other side of the hill. We'd suit up in the front yard, climb over the railroad tracks and dive
-- it was easy.

"Last time I looked, I've dived here over 400 times."

And there lies the beauty of an accessible site this varied. One season Middleton found five giant Pacific octopuses, very rare at Brackett's Landing. Another time he saw a minke whale scratching its back on "The Slinky," a submerged 12-by-75-foot coil of plastic tubing.

"We had to reposition it," he mock-complains.

Nice problem to have.

A black-eyed hermit crab. Photo: Scott Boyd
Higgins, on the other hand, had a harbor seal gum -- but not bite -- his head once, and he didn't even notice, much to the dive crew's amusement. He chuckles about it now. Then again, he's a man who laughs easily, despite his day job managing databases for Federal Occupational
Health. "I deal with government workers exposed to nasty stuff like pesticides and arsenic."

The site is his retreat, his oasis. "I've been to Issaquah 12 to 14 times, maybe east of the Cascades three or four, since I moved here.

When I'm more than 100 feet from salt water, sorry, I'm not happy."

Higgins never set out to have a pet park. It just happened. "No one else from the beginning is still involved," he explains. "Life's moved on. But I'm a stick-in-the-mud.

"In the '70s, this beach saw a number of fatalities. Edmonds asked: 'Why did the deaths happen? How can we solve the problem?' Lots of groups would have thrown up their hands and said, 'No more diving.' The city said, 'Let's get users involved.'

"It's just like a regular upland park: No one's telling you how to swing or what to build in the sandbox. The city isn't trying to regulate the activity, just improve safety.

"This is not 'Baywatch,' " he says with a grin. "There are no lifeguards."

Buoys were the first step, followed by rest floats. Today the site is a wonderland of nooks and crannies, from simple milk crates to the spiderlike sculptures of Tubehenge. Ruffles of bull kelp stream over the seafloor. Fat lingcod buzz blundering divers. "Nest here!" their false charges declare. "Back off!"

Higgins and his motley crew welcome divers -- of any experience level -- each Saturday morning and most Sundays, too. At 9 a.m., they gather at Edmonds Underwater Sports and rib each other gently before loafing toward the beach nearby. Then the work begins in earnest.

On a recent bright summer morning, the divers raft concrete blocks offshore with two lift drums that support 450 pounds each. They start paddling toward the sunken Sea Bus, where they will secure more navigation ropes -- the site's trails. The surface swim lasts about 20
minutes -- an eternity in Washington's quick-fix waters.

They descend into the jade water, remove their fins and walk around with two or four cinder blocks each, "like the old Captain Nemo stuff." They roil the bottom and silt-out the visibility, already limited to 15 or 20 feet.

They share a certain cowboy ease, these vigilante volunteers. Many endure the 52-degree water in wetsuits, rather than the cushy dry variety. Some, like Higgins, dispense with the buoyancy compensation device, the inflatable vest that helps a diver ascend and descend. The commuter belt is more Cousteau than might be imagined. Middleton explains: "There's about 10 regulars, mostly guys. But anyone's welcome. When they're down to half a tank, someone will bring
them in and give them a little tour. A few never go away."

Such dedication makes this park possible -- unusual for its city, rather than state, status. Its annual expenses run around $1,500, all kept in a cigar box. Higgins jokes, "They can cut our budget all they want."

Donations arrive from curious sources: rope from Alaskan crab boats and the Seafair log boom; sailboat bases from the Port of Edmonds; air fills from Underwater Sports; a couple hundred bucks out of the blue ...

The excursions are work dives, Higgins stresses, not the "lookie-loo" sort. "The meetings we do have are conducted as we snorkel offshore at the start of the dive. This thins the talkers from the doers."

As Middleton says: "That's the difference between what Bruce has done and others. They will discuss and committicize endlessly. We show up and get in the water."

The underwater pumpkin carving contest kicks off the Saturday before Halloween or on the holiday itself at noon in the park. "We had to ditch the costumes, though," Higgins says. "Some things just weren't real safe, like me going as a mummy and unraveling."


  • Details on Edmonds Underwater Park are at goto.seattlepi.com/r1538.

  • New volunteers can register at underwatersports.com,
    though most just show up at the Underwater Sports Edmonds branch (9
    a.m. Saturdays and most Sundays; 264 Railroad Ave.; 425-771-6322).

  • Catch volunteer Dave Rockwell's stills and videos of work dives at pugetscuba.com.

  • According to Betty Pratt-Johnson, author of the seminal
    "151 Dives in the Protected Waters of Washington State and British
    Columbia" (Mountaineers, 432 pages, $29.95), the best visibility is on
    weekdays in early July to mid-August, and in winter, when plankton
    levels are low and there are fewer divers to stir the silt.

  • Amanda Castleman is a Seattle-based freelance writer. She can be contacted at www.amandacastleman.com.

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