JUNEAU — Giant pacific octopi hide beneath rocks, reaching out tentacles to explore a diver. Schools of spawning salmon swim upstream. Prowfish surround the wreck of the Princess Sophia.
Recreational scuba diving in Southeast Alaska requires a little more work and offers different challenges than warm-water diving, but those who do it say it provides sights unlike those anywhere else in the world.
When Annette G. E. Smith was a child, she was in canoeing accident so traumatic, panic would set in anytime she got water up her nose.
It wasn’t until age 45 that an instructor in Fiji told her she should learn scuba diving. She laughed at him.
“He said ‘I’ll teach you.’ And I was a challenge,” she said. “Once I got over that fear it was like ‘This is it’ for me. It’s an amazing world down there … What’s even more amazing is how incredible it is under the water here. People don’t think of there being much in cold water, but we have some amazing corals and sponges.”
Now, when she dives, she’s relaxed to the point she can’t even think about her “land life.”
“Any stress or troubles that I have in my land life are instantly gone,” she said. “It’s the most amazing thing.”
Local photographer Art Sutch is a certified dive master and dives regularly, selling photos and calendars from his underwater experiences at his downtown shop.
“You’re dealing with a lot of adverse conditions up here,” Sutch said. “Deep, cold water, zero visibility, current, sea lions coming up chattering their teeth at you … the biggest prerequisite is to get trained well, and get experience with experienced people before you go do a lot of crazy things on your own.”
Divers here used to wear wetsuits. It’s something Sutch said “just about killed me.”
Most divers now use drysuits, which require additional certification; divers have to counteract the lift of the air the suit traps with weights of between 30 and 40 pounds, said Phil Sellick, owner of the Scuba Tank.
Southeast Alaska divers also face seasonal challenges. Winter, in which the ambient water temperature can hover around 37 degrees, provides for better visibility. Summer has more glacial runoff. It also has more plankton bloom.
Winter, of course, also has shorter days and less light.
“Learning to dive in Alaska is like learning to drive on a semi,” Sellick said.
He estimates, along with classes he teaches through the University of Alaska Southeast, he certifies between 50 and 100 people every year. Not all of them are regular divers, however — he guesses that active recreational divers number around 200.
Sometimes the visibility can get so bad people panic, feeling claustrophobic and unable to even see their hands in front of their face, Sutch said.
Then there’s the creatures. Some are more gentle than others. Sutch calls sea lions “aquatic bears.”
“They will do everything to you underwater that a bear will do on land,” he said. “They’ll charge you, chatter their teeth at you.”
Sutch likes diving on the outer coast the best. The outer coast, he said, is where the water is a little warmer and has higher salinity, and the sea life is more diverse.
“The outer coast — it’s just a whole other world,” he said. “And it’s just big. You have the whole wide-open Pacific out there … You could do one dive out there and see halibut, octopus, ling cod, rock fish … here you have to go to different areas for different things.”
Rock walls, like a 300 foot one where Sutch likes to dive on the west side of Portland Island, have upwellings that bring up nutrients from the depths, also sometimes providing for better dives. Smith also loves diving along canyon walls.
Sometimes, when they’re in their dens, the giant Pacific octopi will explore divers with their tentacles, Sutch said. He’s also been inked by them.
“They’re pretty neat creatures,” he said. “You’ll see when they get mad; the ones here have little horns above their eyes and generally change a redder color. They’ll blend in … they’re pretty wild.”
Sutch would love to see an orca while underwater. He’d also love to dive with a humpback in Alaska; he’s free dived with them in Hawaii.
With a new dive, Sutch said, “you never know what you might find. You’re always finding new things … One of the things that keeps me down is you can go down and see something you’ve never seen before.”
That’s something Smith points to as different from warm water dives.
“I love the tropics, but one of the things I notice … is you go out to a reef and there are lots of fish. Cool fish, colorful fish. You go to another reef, and they’re the same as the first reef. Then you go to a third reef, and there are lots of fish, colorful fish — but they’re the same,” she said. “Here you can dive in a spot and see nothing or you could go in an hour later and there’s a big octopus in a little den there. You can go to the same site over and over and you see different things every time you go, which is neat in some ways and frustrating in some ways.”
The only place she thinks is a consistent dive is the anchor at the breakwater in Young’s Bay. “Monster-size” giant Pacific octopi have made their home there, she said.
“The biggest misconception about up here is that it’s void of life because it’s so cold. But actually we have a lot of life because of all the nutrients in the water, and because it’s free of pollutants,” Sutch said. “You dive new dive sites and might be the first one to ever dive there.”