While most folks were bundle-d up against the cold and snow, Mark Powell slipped on his wetsuits and dived into Puget Sound. It was one more...

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While most folks were bundle-d up against the cold and snow, Mark Powell slipped on his wetsuits and dived into Puget Sound.

It was one more leg in his ongoing quest to snorkel around Bainbridge Island and document what he finds there.

The waves churned as Powell’s gloved hands scooped water in a furious, front-crawl stroke. The frigid water that had seeped inside his two wetsuits soon started to warm, and the 50-year-old swimmer from Bainbridge Island slowed his pace to look around beneath the surface of Puget Sound.

“It’s a little bit of a roller coaster today,” Powell said after emerging from the 49-degree water.

Powell has completed more than a quarter of his 53-mile trek. Using a mask and snorkel, he swims mile-long stretches once or twice a week when his busy schedule allows.

A vice president for the nonprofit environmental group Ocean Conservancy, Powell isn’t trying to break records. Instead, the self-described “ocean guy” wants to see the underbelly of Puget Sound, especially around the island he knows so well. He also craved adventure outside his office job.

Powell is keeping a blog of his journey and hopes one day to write a book about the experience. He hasn’t advertised his blog, but it’s generated a small, loyal following. One reader offered to shuttle Powell from the endpoint of a swim back to his car, and others have expressed interest in joining him for part of the swim.

“Maybe I can do this swim to help raise consciousness,” Powell said as he sipped hot chocolate after the recent swim. “By swimming the whole coastline, I’m not just diving to the pretty spots. I’m forced to look at the gross parts.”

The Sound’s pristine surface makes it easy to miss the reality below, Powell said. His swims have revealed to him a damaged ecosystem — plus many thriving critters.

After one swim, Powell wrote in his blog: “I haven’t seen a single sand dollar yet this swim, and here’s an entire city of them. I found a million dollars underwater, I’m a rich man.”

Powell began his journey in mid-October along the south end of the island, near his home. Since then, he has dodged commuter ferries entering Eagle Harbor, swum through a toxic Superfund site and tiptoed across private property to complete his trips. He swims to depths where he can still see the bottom, then paddles slowly along the shore face down while breathing through his snorkel. Powell calls it “underwater touring.”

Last week, Powell entered the water just north of Eagle Harbor on the island’s east side. Menacing snow clouds rolled toward the island, and it was hard to hear over the crashing waves and blustery wind. Powell, encased in his two aging wetsuits, flippers, gloves and cap, wasn’t cold.

“All right, let’s go swimming!” he yelled, awkwardly sidestepping into the swirling froth.

But before jumping all the way in, Powell retrieved a ripped balloon and a plastic bag he found floating in the water. That kind of trash, Powell explained, is known to kill fish.

Trained as an oceanographer, Powell was a tenure-track professor at the University of Connecticut before deciding 15 years ago that he wanted to do active conservation. He joined Ocean Conservancy almost 10 years ago and works on partnerships with businesses to promote environmental conservation.

Despite an intimate knowledge of the ocean, Powell has discovered something new on every swim. Last Wednesday, he spotted an army of moon snails — critters with 6-inch-diameter shells and bodies that stretch to 1 foot when slithering across the seafloor. On an earlier swim, he found himself among thousands of small tubesnout fish, named for their slender noses.

“I’m really compelled now to complete this swim,” Powell said.

He wasn’t as gung-ho at first. He’s an experienced ocean swimmer, but he hates cold water. And his gear wasn’t completely up to par. But on a breezy October afternoon, Powell decided to just do it.

Now he’s addicted to the thrill of new discoveries and seeing more of Puget Sound. He doesn’t plan to alter his course, even for a section along the island where coliform bacteria sometimes are found. If he gets sick, that’s part of the experience, he said.

Powell hopes to finish his swim by the end of summer.

Michelle Ma: 206-464-2303 or mma@seattletimes.com