Skiing was always an option in the winter time for Madison Parkers. The Seattle drizzle eventually got to us, so I was happy to help those who were interested in the sport I just took up, SCUBA diving.
It promised a whole new world of color and sights, but one friend warned me not to push him. I said, “Give it a half hour,” and suddenly we were at Frank’s Dive Shop and he announced, “I’ll have what Dick has!” We all laughed.
One friend happened to have a swimming pool so I showed him how to use my mask. He said it wouldn’t do because it leaked. I showed him how to clear it, and then he swam to the bottom of the pool and back up and thought that was cool. Frank Wolf’s dive shop had all of the necessities including a SCUBA tank, so we took it to Puget Sound and hung out in the shallow water. It took no more than an hour, and we were back at Frank’s buying gear.
There were a couple of guys who said they’d think about becoming SCUBA divers.
Practicing in that pool with a tank was all it took to get another friend into it. A bunch of us from Madison Park followed through and took the tests. We attended the various SCUBA club meetings, and when Bill and Sheila LeClerq, owners of the Lighthouse Dive Shop, offered dive cruises to remote areas, we were there.
One bright Saturday morning Frank called saying it was time to stick our heads under water. “Hell, yes!” was the reply from the group.
We loaded our gear onto Frank’s 20-foot catamaran, and it was full throttle to Orchard Rocks on south Bainbridge Island. It was low tide, so we ran the boat onto the beach and suited up. Our dive was to be on the west side of a sheer wall covered with plant and sea life.
Frank shot a 15-pound ling cod with his Arbaletes — a spear gun powered by two big rubber slings with a striking power of a .30-6 shotgun but not the distance.
Even with the low tide, we were able to go 80 feet down. We looked around taking in all the sites and even saw a wolf eel. He watched us while carefully guarding his den — they can grow to be 9 feet plus and are not dangerous if left alone.
Time for lunch, so we headed up and sat on the beach near the boat. Suddenly something went, “Bang!” and again, “Bang!” It was raining seashells onto the boat’s bow. The seagulls were taking advantage of the low tide by prying sea life loose and then flying high and dropping it on the rocks below. We pushed the boat away and continued to watch their skill. Another boat nearby also moved swiftly away from the beach. We all surmised that sporting a 6-inch divot in our skulls was not from a shark bite, at least, but from a really big seagull!
Gaining more skill on each dive, we felt the equipment needed upgrading. California was usually ahead of us in new gear. Our previous suits were called dry suits, unless you tore a hole in it as I did on the boat rail while entering the ice-cold sound. Underneath we wore long johns, several pair of socks, sweaters, an alpaca jacket and a wool cap. It usually took two people to get a good seal.
Since it was a deep dive, I felt nothing because the pressure forced the water in and it warmed to body temperature. When I surfaced, I put on some 40 pounds because of the weight of the wet clothes. Pants and jacket were made out of rubber the thickness of an inner tube and were rolled together at the waist. There was an opening at the chest, and you climbed into it and tied the excess rubber into a tight knot.
Then came the arrival of the wetsuit, Neoprene. Jump in, zip up. Water did enter but became body temperature. It was more comfortable in the water then out of it. A few years later the crème de la crème dry suit was invented. They are made of foam Neoprene, crushed Neoprene, vulcanized rubber or heavy-duty nylon. They are fully sealed and use a combination of wrist seals, a neck seal and a waterproof zipper across the shoulders to keep you dry. The look of them reminded us of James Bond when he walked onto the beach, dropped his tank and climbed out of his suit wearing a tuxedo, smoking a cigar and joined the party.
But being it was 1954, we wore the old dry suits. The various dive clubs occasionally had speakers, and one special guest was Dr. Washburn from UCLA. He was curious to see the appeal of the Puget Sound, so we had a 30-minute dive meet in his honor. The location was “Three Fingers” near Vashon, and on the dive the doctor noted there was more prolific sea life than what he had seen in California.
A few used their spear guns to capture dinner, but I did not have any luck.
What I did see below me was a hell diver mud hen — a bird you would see while waiting for the ferry. They would dive and eat crustaceans from logs. I casually grabbed said mud hen gently and cuddled it to surface. Later for the group photo with everyone else holding a fish, I proudly displayed my new friend. Quite pale in comparison to the 30-foot ling cod others caught, but it got an honorable mention for best waterfowl.
A dive reminiscent of the attack of the seagulls was one morning at Alki Beach. It was a clear bright Sunday morning.
Frank Wolf, two new divers and I decided to go past the sunken wreck to see what was deeper. There were a lot of onlookers, as early as it was, watching us suit up. It was a short 67 years ago, but it was to be a dive we would never forget.
We walked out and then under. We swam beyond the wreck to about 90 feet of water, looking at points of interest. Suddenly, it felt like something was near, a feeling of movement, maybe just shadows? Running short of air, we surfaced and snorkeled in. Then, just before we surfaced, we heard it, loud and close! It sounded like large dogs barking, but they were elephant seals from Alaska, easily weighing 4,500 pounds and maybe 20 feet long. That really made an impression. When they barked, their mouths opened just wide enough for maybe one diver. We stayed in a tight group, slowly moving toward shore. Were we concerned? Scared as hell, for sure.
When our fins hit bottom, we were relieved. People were there! We made it! We cracked a few beers and toasted our becoming one with sea life.
I hope anyone venturing into SCUBA finds it as thrilling as we did and also realizes the fragility of this underground society.