Twenty steps down the beach left me exhausted before I even reached the water.
As a participant in a Seattle dry-suit diving class, I was feeling like an overstuffed marshmallow lumbering on the shore.
Strapped to my waist and ankles were more than 30 pounds of weights in addition to a metal air cylinder, fins, BCD (buoyancy control device), mask, snorkel and gloves. My face was held tight in a thick neoprene hood, making it difficult to turn my head or hear the instructions from my divemaster.
Until that day, my scuba dives had always taken place in warm, tropical locations, where minimal gear makes diving feel weightless and free. This would be my first venture into cold Puget Sound waters, and so far the bulky gear had me feeling like a proverbial fish out of water.
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I sat in the shallows of Alki Point’s Cove 1, rolling in the surf while trying to strap my fins in place. Despite the bracing water, I realized that I was sweating.
Unlike wet-suit diving (where neoprene gets wet but the fabric helps to prevent heat loss), a dry suit encloses a diver in a gigantic air bubble, allowing users to wear street clothes such as Polar fleece and wool socks. With the exception of the hands and face, it’s possible to stay fairly warm underwater.
That’s what makes dry-suit diving such a great winter activity, says Craig Gillespie, owner of Seattle Scuba Schools. “Most people think it’s too cold here. People think it’s going to be freezing, but the suits are well-designed, and made for the frigid Pacific Northwest waters.”
While the water temperature remains consistent year round, there’s one huge advantage to dry-suit diving in the winter, he says. Between dives, you don’t have to stand around dripping wet and shivering as you would in a wet suit.
And because local waters are generally clearer in winter, meaning better visibility, dry suits help get you comfortably in the water when you’ll get the most from the experience.
Into the drink
Finally, my fins were on, and our class dipped a few feet underwater and knelt in a circle on the bottom to test our buoyancy. With numb fingers, I fiddled with the Ironman-like button on my chest that would inflate my suit and the valves that would vent it should I become overinflated.
One of the worst things a diver can do is surface too quickly. This can cause a life-threatening air embolism — an air bubble being forced into the bloodstream as air pressure decreases during surfacing, often blocking blood flow to the brain.
In a dry suit, we learned, you have to be careful not to allow your feet to fill with air, which can send you rocketing to the surface upside down.
I remembered that ankle weights would help prevent this, but I could also feel the uneasiness welling in me — an emotion that only grew stronger when our divemaster kicked a fin and disappeared in a cloud of silt.
“Don’t let your instincts take over,” Gillespie had told our class. “We’re land animals. We’re not used to breathing underwater and it’s easy to panic and want to bolt to the surface.”
With visibility reduced to the distance of an outstretched arm, I was beginning to wonder why I was giving up a perfectly good Saturday to bumble along at the bottom of Elliott Bay.
But right about then, a strange object began to emerge from the murky fog. It looked like someone had planted a small African tree in the silt. As we neared, I realized I was looking at an orange sea anemone, which stood about four feet tall and was swaying in the current.
That’s the moment dry-suit diving took a turn for me. Instantly forgotten were my stinging lips and the struggles with my gear. The squishy creature was like some cosmic alien. And when I finally got my buoyancy right, I could hover next to it like an astronaut.
A new (cold) world
Another anemone appeared, and then another. A ring of them clung to a car tire half buried in the mud. Before long I was swimming among a forest of the spongy creatures whose outstretched arms were fine, delicate tendrils.
“Now this isn’t something you see every day,” I thought.
We cruised a few feet off the bottom while hunting for critters. Hanging off a rock, we found a ghost-white nudibranch about the size of a thumb, with translucent skin and spiky frills standing out in all directions.
If a shark and a jet airplane could have a baby, it would probably look like the footlong spotted ratfish I saw. Crabs the size of dinner plates skittered to and fro among the sea cucumbers and brilliant sea stars that littered the seafloor.
By the time our dive finished, I was buzzing.
There’s no greater feeling than conquering a new challenge. Cold-water diving was totally worth the effort. For the rest of my life, whenever I look at Puget Sound, I’ll be able to imagine what wonders lie out there, waiting just below the surface.
Seattle-based writer Jeff Layton has been scuba diving around the world for more than a decade. In November he will blog about diving in Samoa at www.MarriedToAdventure.com