Edmonds Underwater Park

Divers' Playground on Puget Sound

By Linda Lee Walden

No, it doesn't have swings and sandboxes, but it is well-stocked with underwater features designed to entertain scuba enthusiasts. The 25 submarine acres of Edmonds Underwater Park are crisscrossed by intersecting trails connecting 30 named stations , from an old dry dock and a variety of boat wrecks to exotic assemblages of concrete, plastic and steel. Each creates a unique attraction not only for students and recreational divers, but for communities of marine creatures as well.

Topside, the park encompasses 2 acres of Puget Sound beachfront adjacent to the Kingston-Edmonds ferry terminal in the city of Edmonds, Washington. Also known as Brackett's Landing, the site became popular for scuba training and recreational diving as early as the 1960s. The sole attraction in those days was the remains of a 300-foot-/91-m-long dry dock lying in less than 35 feet/11 m of water.

Sunk in the 1930s, the dry dock served as a gathering place for marine life and divers alike. Unfortunately, by the late '60s, uncontrolled spearfishing had severely depleted the fish population. In 1970, however, the Marine Technical Society and the Washington Council of Skin and Scuba Diving Clubs convinced the city of Edmonds to designate the area an underwater park. Since that time, under sanctuary rules, a strict "no harvest/no boats" policy has been enforced. Within a decade fish counts returned to previous levels.

The development of the Edmonds Underwater Park shares another attribute with many community playgrounds , it has been planned, built and maintained by volunteers. As is frequently the case with grass-roots efforts, the call to action was fueled by tragedy. After a series of scuba deaths in the mid-'70s (a number of these uncertified divers), Edmonds' mayor temporarily closed the park while a safety committee looked into the problem.

Bruce Higgins, a scuba diving and oceanography instructor at nearby Shoreline Community College, routinely conducted open-water training dives at Edmonds Underwater Park. Appointed to the safety committee, he was instrumental in designing a management plan for the park's future and to this day remains the sanctuary's staunchest caretaker.

Park Planning

The plan incorporates a four-step process: safety, security, maintenance and enhancement, with safety the primary focus. Buoys were obtained from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and placed at the park boundaries, providing reference points for surface swims as well as alerting boaters to avoid the restricted area. Over the years marker buoys have been added to assist divers in locating specific underwater features.

The security and maintenance steps require conducting ongoing inspections and repairs to prevent the loss of buoys to storms and natural deterioration.

The placement of enhancements is the final step in the plan. By the late '70s the dry dock site was becoming over-dived, but there was little else within the park's boundaries to hold the interest of either divers or marine creatures. As a solution, the first enhancement, no more than a jumble of concrete footers and earthmover tires, was placed in 1979. It was followed a couple of years later by a 76-foot/23-m tugboat, the Fossil. By 1983 a five-year plan had been developed for placing features about 100 feet/30 m apart all the way to the northern boundary in an "oasis" approach. Today, the five-year plan is still a work in progress.

If it were not for the persistence and insight of Bruce Higgins, the park plan might never have gotten off the ground, especially since there is no budget to support it; time and materials must be donated. Higgins gives much of the credit to the Underwater Park stewards. Under his direction, this small group of volunteer divers spends virtually every weekend inspecting and repairing existing buoys and features, or placing new ones. This amounted to almost 2,000 hours of underwater volunteer work in 1998!

The reward for this heroic effort is a well-thought-out underwater playground for an estimated 25,000 divers per year. They come from Oregon, Idaho, Montana and even from across the border in British Columbia, Canada.

Trails and Attractions

The framework of the enhancement system is a grid of rope trails that makes navigation easy. Six 1-inch/2.5-cm lines run due west along the bottom from the tide line to the outer sanctuary boundary trail at about a 30-foot/10-m depth. Thicker lines extend south to north the length of the park. At intersections, as well as at intervals along the lines, divers encounter all sorts of weird and wonderful structures.

One of many interesting features is called "Tube Henge." It consists of a 60-by-100-foot/18-by-30-m ring of concrete arches placed in a pattern to resemble England's Stonehenge. They are linked together by 30-foot/9-m lengths of railroad track, out of which varying lengths of plastic tubing protrude at crazy angles. The tallest piece of the structure rises 12 feet/4 m off the bottom. In the six years since the first elements were placed, the feature has become home to a wealth of marine creatures.

Another feature, "The Slinky," is a 72-foot-/22-m-long springlike coil of plastic tubing. The coil forms the outline of a 10-foot-/3-m-diameter swim-through, which becomes overgrown with kelp in summer months. Like other features, each of the "Seven Dwarfs" is constructed from whatever material has been donated. Due to varying size and structure, each dwarf attracts a unique community of marine life. The best way to describe the Edmonds Underwater Park is to say that you've got to see it to appreciate it.

New features are planned and trail lines upgraded as donated materials are received. The city of Edmonds takes care of necessary permits. Underwater Sports of Edmonds provides air fills and meeting space for volunteers. Another feature is an 85-foot/26-m tug, the Triumph, which was sunk along the Northern Lights trail.

According to a study by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, some of the biggest fish in the state are found within Edmonds Underwater Park. Typical species include cabezon, perch, sole, flounder, various rockfish, tubesnout and blackeyed gobies. Volunteers have recently completed their annual survey of lingcod nesting sites within the park. Sunflower sea stars, frosted and lemon nudibranchs, dungeness crab and harbor seals are also commonly seen.

Site Specifics

Although the winds and topography of Puget Sound can at times produce tricky currents, Edmonds is a popular training site. A protected area has been made available north of the jetty, with attachment points for instructors' floats and flags. In addition to Open Water certification courses, rescue and advanced (except the deep dive) classes often dive here. The park is especially good for teaching navigation and marine life specialties.

Divers are active at Edmonds Park year-round. Those not familiar with the local water conditions should seek an orientation before planning a dive. Tidal changes average 6 feet/2 m but sometimes measure twice that. Slack water intervals are difficult to predict because they don't always coincide with high and low tides, due to a lag in water movement through Puget Sound. Although the area is protected from direct ocean swells, high winds occasionally create surf.

Visibility can also be quite variable. During the plankton bloom in late May, it sometimes drops to as low as 3 feet/1 m. The best visibility , 40 feet/12 m or more , occurs in late August/early September. Storms and the Snohomish River, which empties a few miles north, may cause turbid water any time of year. Water temperature is more stable, varying seasonally between about 45 F (7 C) and 54 F (12 C).

Topside, between the parking area and the grass-bordered beach is a building containing restrooms and changing areas. An outdoor shower for rinsing is situated nearby.

The emphasis at Edmonds Underwater Park is squarely on what the park stewards call "passive safety." Every aspect of underwater development is geared toward preventing accidents. Should a problem arise, however, 911 response has been clocked at less than five minutes. The stewards point out that 911 response does not include an underwater search-and-recovery team, which could take over an hour to arrive. The nearest recompression chamber is located a few miles south in Seattle.

Use of park facilities is free, but certain safety rules apply. For instance, divers who stray beyond the southern boundary into the path of the ferry are subject to a $1,500 fine. Divers also must have a buddy.

Edmonds Underwater Park is one of the few cold-water dive and training locations designed specifically to maximize both the safety and enjoyment of divers. There's so much to see that it routinely takes five or more dives just to visit all the features. Traveling divers and locals alike are drawn again and again to this underwater playground on Puget Sound.