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January 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 28, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Bandito Charters, Tacoma, Washington

how warm-water divers from Florida did diving Puget Sound

from the January, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

While we devote nearly all of our travel stories to tropical destinations, more readers are looking for closer-by diversions, so we hope to provide a few more short pieces from time to time. We have written before about the beauty of British Columbia and its unique critters, but you can get more of the same in Washington State and Puget Sound without carrying a passport. Have a look at what faced warm-water Florida divers when they decided to see what that region has to offer.

* * *

Dear Fellow Diver:

When my wife and I stepped out the doors of Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport, we immediately had doubts about the wisdom of our plan to dive Puget Sound in October. After living and diving for the past 30 years in southwest Florida, it seemed a little "cold" for such an undertaking. True enough, we had recently purchased DUI drysuits and spent three days training with them at California's Catalina Island. Now they seemed like somewhat puny protection. Diving the Emerald Sea, as Puget Sound is sometimes known, has been on our to-do list for many years. After reviewing the few Undercurrent reader reports I could find, I contacted Rick Meyers, pretty much a "no problem" kind of guy who owns Bandito Charters in Tacoma, 30 minutes south of the airport. (Seattle is 20 minutes north of Sea-Tac.) We would only be two, I said. "No problem," Rick said. We only wanted to dive for three days but would be arriving Saturday and leaving the following Saturday. "No problem." We needed tanks, weights and gloves. "No problem." How to pay: cash, check or credit card? "Whatever works." It was unnerving to work with someone so agreeable. Rick even arranged boat departures so we could sleep in a little (what luxury!), subject to Puget Sound's legendary tides. He quoted reasonable prices -- a three-tank dive is listed at $95 on Bandito's website -- for what was essentially a private charter.

We stayed at a Hampton Inn in Tacoma, a 15-minute drive from the marina, where Rick arranged to store our gear between dives. Breakfasts were included with the room. An inexpensive comfort-food restaurant named Elmer's was nearby, and we occasionally "splurged" at Duke's Chowder House, facing the Sound, which offered four different chowders, lots of great salmon dishes and other seafood.

Rick and his wife, Jackie, live on their boat with a "Jack Russell Terror" named Jessie. Actually, Jessie is anything but a terror and was a real pleasure to have on the boat, where she regards herself as first mate. Bandito can take out as many as 28 divers at a time on its three boats. Obviously, we took the smallest, the Island Diver, which had plenty of room for six divers and gear. We weren't taking photographs (brought the housing, forgot the camera), so we didn't pay a lot of attention to such details as a camera table or rinse buckets. However, with Rick's well-organized approach to diving, I suspect there would be no problems. The cabin is enclosed with clear vinyl walls, and warmed with a heater that Rick says he scrounged from a bus. We were never cold, even as the outside temperatures varied from the upper 30s to the low 50s.

The Island DiverThough we hadn't asked for a guide, Jackie, a schoolteacher, dived with us on our first day and was welcome company as we faced the unknown. The first site was Maurey Island, filled with old underwater timbers and pilings. After adjusting our weights and getting used to the drysuits again, we followed Jackie as she pointed out the sights. Within 10 minutes, we had seen our first giant Pacific octopus. Small crabs on the bottom raised their pincers, doing the "wave" as we passed. Other highlights included lingcod, bigger crabs, nudibranchs, the lovely stalked white, pink and orange anemones, and a lion's mane jellyfish. A great start! The water temperature was in the 47- to 55-degree range (our computers couldn't agree), and visibility was 35 to 40 feet. When we surfaced, Rick had hot chicken noodle soup waiting. And there was hot water to squirt into our neoprene gloves and hoods before the next dive.

Our second dive site was at KVI, where scattered concrete debris sloped from 30 to 70 feet, with lots of hidey holes to be investigated. Lingcod lay on the bottom like logs with teeth and watched us warily. A sculpin on the bottom suddenly came into focus. Jackie left us on our own at the end of the dive, apparently convinced we weren't going to get in too much trouble in our new drysuits and end up hanging upside down at the surface like mosquito larvae (as we had done in Catalina). During our 45-minute trip back to the dock, Rick, who has apparently worked at every occupation in the area, gave us the harbor tour with his insights into the local culture. We were back at 2:30.

Next day started at 9:30 a.m. and we decided to dedicate this day to finding the elusive wolf eel. They tend to be territorial, and Rick seemed to have a good idea where he might find some. At Z's Reef, we poked along the bottom, peering into every crevice and finding six Pacific octopi. Finally, I spotted a brightly colored shrimp at the opening to one hole, and delightedly pointed it out to my wife. She studied the hole but seemed not too impressed with the little shrimp. Instead, she pointed with vehemence deeper into the hole, where a wolf eel was guarding a clutch of eggs. As we backed away from the hole, a second eel calmly swam past us to join the first one. Obviously, a great dive. On the next dive, at Sunrise, a wolf eel lay on the bottom under a seaweed leaf, apparently convinced he was hidden. He looked like an older guy, with algae in his teeth, but seemed friendly enough.

For our final day of diving, we visited Saltwater State Park, a sunny garden with anemone "flowers" scattered among boulders and seaweed, numerous shrimps scampering along the bottom, scatted nudibranchs and an occasional flounder. We then returned to Maurey Island, where we saw more giant octopi (and one small octopus almost out in the open), lingcod, ratfish (don't touch -- poison spine), anemones, crabs and the lion's mane jelly. Back at the dock, Rick let us dry our gear in his storage area, and pick it up whenever we wanted over the next few days. He then discounted the already reasonable price he had quoted us initially "because we really hadn't been that much trouble." I would return to Bandito Charters, just for the pleasure of dealing with Rick. But first, perhaps a liveaboard to dive Alaska or British Columbia. For a warm-water diver, these cold Pacific waters are exotic indeed.

-- V.J.

Bandito Charters, Tacoma, WashingtonDivers Compass: Bandito Charters is based at the Delin Docks Marina in Tacoma . . . Its excellent website ( www.banditocharters.com ) lists information on its operation, boats, maps, and hotel and restaurant recommendations in the area . . . You can reach the Tacoma Hampton Inn at 8203 S. Hosmer St. through the Hilton website ( www.hamptoninn.hilton.com ), and you can always search TripAdvisor.com for more upscale digs.

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