Edmonds Underwater Park
Divers' Playground on Puget Sound
By Linda Lee Walden
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
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.
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
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.