Diver down! Profits up for local scuba shops

Local waters provide spectacular, if chilly, adventures


Photo by Paul Moore

Gone Diving owner Charlynn Sutton, right, teaches a diving student underwater hand signals July 17 at the basic diving class at the YMCA pool.


There is another world out there — a place inhabited by strange creatures where humans cannot survive. This is the underwater world.

“It’s the closest to weightlessness you can get on Earth,” said Ron Akeson, manager of local dive shop Adventures Down Under. “That’s why they train astronauts underwater.”

In a city renowned for its access to some of the best sailing and kayaking around, an increasing number of people are venturing beneath the waves.

At Gone Diving, beginner classes are filling up faster than ever before, said owner Charlynn Sutton. These classes take place in the YMCA pool and give students a cheap and easy way to experience breathing under water, she said.

“We do it once a month and it fills up every month,” she said, adding that some students take the class several times to get used to using the breathing regulator. “You wouldn’t think it would be that different, but your mask covers your nose so you have to become a mouth breather.”

In the Pacific Northwest, it’s not so much the underwater landscape that draws people but rather the diversity of marine life that calls these cold waters home. For example, Puget Sound is home to the giant Pacific octopus, the largest species of octopus in the world. It is also the feeding ground for the six-gill shark, about which very little is known.

“A lot of people think you have to go warm-water diving to see sharks, but you can see them right here,” Sutton said.

Often the larger marine animals are more elusive, but many divers relish the smaller attractions, such as sea anemones and Dungeness crab.

“Some of the marine life that you get to encounter is humbling and inspiring, from smaller marine life to sea lions and killer whales,” said Jeremy Jones, owner of Washington Divers. “Basically if you can find a good reef structure, you’ll find good marine life.”


Diving Bellingham Bay

Though Bellingham has enough divers to support three dive shops, very few people dive in Bellingham Bay — unless they have to.

“It’s not that exciting. The bay is just mud,” said Roger Schjelderup, who owns Diversified Diving and Top to Bottom Diving and Marine Services.

Numerous jobs have required Schjelderup to descend into the bay, from inspecting the city’s outfall pipe at Post Point to patching and re-floating sunken vessels. He said he has seen an explosion of marine life in the area over the years.

“I’ve been diving in this water for 18 years and it had almost no life in it at all when I started,” Schjelderup said. “And now we have sea anemones and scallops and other things growing like crazy down there.”

Though the visibility is often clouded by silt pouring out of the Nooksack River and the task sometimes becomes tiresome, Schjelderup said he still enjoys commercial diving. When he’s in need of a vacation, he spends time doing recreational dives off the shores of Vancouver Island with his family. Simply being underwater can be relaxing, he said.

“It’s quiet — you can forget about everything else,” he said. “We do have communication equipment, but it’s a hassle to use.”

While Schjelderup is busy bringing up sunken vessels, some local scuba organizations are proposing to sink boats on purpose. Sunken vessels are a major attraction for divers — whether they were sunk on purpose or by accident — because they act as an artificial reef for marine life and provide divers with something interesting to explore.

For Akeson of Adventures Down Under, exploring sunken vessels is his calling, he said. He gets a thrill from both the technical diving required to reach such depths and from simply exploring historical relics.

“It’s neat to get a glimpse of the past,” Akeson said. “And it’s amazing the amount of stuff down there.”

In his 32 years diving, Akeson said he has explored more than 50 shipwrecks and found items ranging from leather boots to clawfoot bathtubs found in the captain’s quarters.

One of his favorite shipwrecks is the S.S. Governor, a 417-foot passenger liner that rests 235-feet deep just beyond Port Townsend. The boat sank in 1921 after being hit by a freighter in dense fog. Reaching the ship can be treacherous because it is located in a shipping lane and swift currents in Admiralty Inlet can quickly take divers off course.

Jones, who has also done his fair share of shipwreck diving, said that the historical relevance of some wrecks can be awe inspiring. For instance, he has been up close to sunken World War II Japanese vessels in the Pacific.

“Seeing stuff like that is not like walking through a museum,” Jones said. “You get to experience history is a more personal way.”


Warm versus cold

Though Bellingham may not be a destination hot spot for scuba diving, it is surrounded by some of the best diving the region has to offer.

To the south, Keystone State Park on Whidbey Island and Seacrest Park in Seattle both offer great beginner diving. Just beyond Bellingham Bay, the San Juan Islands offer endless alcoves to explore and often divers will keep their favorite spots a closely held secret. And just an hour north across the border lies a treasure trove of popular underwater adventures.

But just like doing anything else in the Pacific Northwest, diving here requires a few extra layers to keep warm.

“It’s just like preparing for any activity in the mountains — you have to dress warmly,” said Sutton, who has traveled to warmer scuba destinations, but still prefers diving locally. “I always tell people to go warm-water diving at least once because it’s fun, but I love coming back to the Pacific Northwest.”

In warmer waters, most divers are comfortable in a regular wet suit, but around here most use a dry suit to stay warm, said Akeson. Dry suits don’t look too different from wet suits except for the addition of rubber gaskets around the openings, which keeps water out and thus keeps the diver warmer.

For this reason, Akeson uses dry suits exclusively in all beginners classes at Adventures Down Under. Though dry suits are more expensive, the added comfort in body temperature is well worth it, especially for first timers, Akeson said.

“Once you’re immersed in the water you lose a lot of body heat,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t be doing the deep dives in a wet suit because you’re in the water for three hours and most of the time you’re just decompressing and waiting.”


Photo by Paul Moore

Divers are instructed to pay attention to their partners while underwater and keep in constant communication using hand signals.


Becoming certified

Whether it’s the abundant marine life or the intrigue of sunken vessels that grabs your fancy, the road to open water diving often begins in a pool. Each dive shop in Bellingham offers beginner classes and open-water diving certification, a diver’s passport to the world beneath the waves.

Becoming certified can take six to seven weeks, said Jones of Washington Divers. The class covers everything from equipment use to understanding the marine environment to planning a dive and includes time spent applying skills underwater.

“If people are at all curious they should take the time to experience it,” Jones said. “You can do it your entire life and as far as adventure sports go it’s the least physically demanding of them all.”

The only demanding part about diving is finding the right spot to explore. But on a planet that is two-thirds water, that shouldn’t be too hard.


Visit a local dive shop

  • Gone Diving, 1740 Iowa St., 738-2042
  • Washington Divers, 903 N. State St., 676-8029
  • Adventures Down Under, 701 E. Holly St., 676-4177

Related Stories