A short 66 years ago, my friends and I experienced skin diving by way of a water tank, compressor and hoses. It was truly a great adventure, but the thermal layer cut it short. Chasing the aquatic dream, we saw a movie called “Frog Man,” which was about U.T.D. divers during World War II. There was even a diving suit in the lobby, which really got us pumped—something we could do regardless the weather conditions.
There was news of a scuba diving club on Lake Union, so I drove to a large fishing boat building business. There I met a lady named Sheila and her husband in front of a small scuba supply store. I felt at home the minute I stepped inside — tanks, fins, regulators, snorkels, masks and suits!
The very first diving suits were inner tube thin. The jacket and pants were extra long, so as to roll together at the waist and then tie with one circular rubber hose a half-inch in diameter. Shoes were included with the pants, and mittens were sealed at the wrists. The hood had an opening just small enough for a mask. Underneath, we layered underwear, jeans, alpaca jacket, wool cap and wool socks.
Dressing was the easy part — now to get under the water.
After a bit of classwork, reading dive tables and figuring length of time possible to stay under, we took our first dive. We secured 28- to 35-pound belts around our waists and 40 pound tanks to our backs.
Onlookers were everywhere—crowds gathered as we swam to the sunken dry dock near Edmonds Ferry Landing. While submerged we held a sleeve open to let air escape from the suit, making us heavier and able to sink. That first breath from the tank, I knew this was it!
The sea was alive with color! The fish, sea anemones and kelp that reached beyond the surface created an effect like walking through a forest. I was proud to call myself a Puget Sound Mudshark! Seasoned divers like Frank Wolf, Gary Keffler and Ted Roethlisberger joined us in that first dive.
At 40 feet, an all-new silence enveloped us, and then we swam to 60 feet deep to an area called Devil’s Hole and swam under a structure. It was dark but thrilling to see the abundant sea life.
Like today, adhering to the buddy system was of utmost importance. If a valve jammed, resulting in no air, you had to surface — even from 60 feet. The trick was to exhale a little air while swimming slowly to the surface, so as to prevent the bends (air bubbles in the blood stream). It was surprising there was air left to exhale. I tried it during the extreme diver’s test. Sharing a regulator with a buddy worked the best ,but if the mouthpiece wasn’t held down, you swallowed Puget Sound.
Our club dove all over — even small lakes like Pine Lake, where we found old six foot saw blades lumbermen used for cutting trees at the bottom. One of the blades had a length of fishing leader tied to it, so I reeled it in to find a large trout with a hook grown into his mouth. Who knows how long he’d been in that situation, so I pulled the hook out and he swam away. He even stopped and looked back at me.
Sheila, her husband and many others built fishing boats 40-60 feet and beyond. They needed hours on the engines, so asked the club to go along for $5 each. They had air compressors, so that meant a two-tank dive, and we would sometimes go as far as the San Juan Islands. We were the first divers to see the many virgin areas of the Puget Sound.
Back at the Red Onion and The Attic, I shared my newfound passion with friends who were really into it or not. The ones who were interested took some lessons, rented some gear and, after the first dive surfaced saying, “Yah! Where do I sign up?” Similar to snow skiing, many friends were made sharing the sport.
We never ran out of places to dive. Frank Wolf and his wife Marilyn owned West Seattle Skin Diving Supply, and asked me if I wanted to join them on a 40-foot cruiser to the Canadian San Juans. Oh yah! A compressor was aboard to refill our tanks.
We cruised by a deserted lumber site and we went through the cabins after tying up the boat. The walls were covered with pages of the Sears Catalogue showing mostly females under attired (pre-Playboy Magazine). The dates went back to the early ‘20s. Nearby we dove on rocks where a ferry had sunk in the teens. The bow at the shallow end was at 80 feet, so we didn’t go far beyond, but it was covered with sea anemones.
The most memorable stop was the Princess Louis Inlet, where fresh water from the Chatterbox Falls ran into it. We had to wait until the tide changed to cross the fast-flowing river from the falls.
A lodge nearby was popular in the ‘20s, welcoming celebrities to enjoy the area and lay on the white sand shipped in from Hawaii. WWII put a halt to that and the big submarine chaser (part of the lodge) filled with snow and sank in the mixture of fresh and salt water. This dive at 70 feet was super clear, with endless visibility.
In another area nearby, two men started their 60-foot cruiser with no fans, which caused it to blow up. It sank and rested on the bottom in an almost circular ring of debris. That was at 90 feet.
The early years of diving gave us a chance to bring home seafood like lingcod, crab and Cabazon.
We ended up making it a rule — no octopus. Diving off Alki Beach, at 70 to 80 feet, was a wreck where an octopus lived, identifiable by the many clamshells scattered about. Reaching way in on the dark side of the wreck, we released a packet of copper sulfate, and the big old octopus showed some tentacles. Frank Wolf, who is a big dude, pulled on a tentacle, and the octopus pulled back, making Frank think better of hanging on — he let go in the nick of time. Sometimes we’d let an octopus touch us. They’d feel our mask, hose and hands, and that big eye let you know if he was tolerating you, so we tried not to push it.
Diving as a sport has improved greatly in the last 66 years. My best dive buddy and wife took dives in many areas, but Molokini near Maui was by far the epitome of diving heaven. All you need there is a shorty jacket for comfort. At 80 feet of water, we could read the numbers on the boat.
Who knows, we just might add a few more entries into our logbook in the future. Every time we see a new possible dive site, we say, “Wonder what’s down there?”
Enjoy diving, and dive safe!