Point Defiance

Date Reviewed:August 2002
Location:Point Defiance, North Wall
Access:Boat dive
Site Description:Series of rugged clay walls and ledges
Main Attraction:Wolf-eels! Cool topography

Point Defiance. Just listening to this name makes it sound like a bad idea to dive here. When I look at this point on a map and consider the tidal exchanges to and from southern Puget Sound that rush by this point four times a day, I can think of a million other dives that I would rather do. However, the "defiant" part of "Point Defiance" is that this current swept point harbors two awesome dive sites.

The first dive site is on the Tacoma Narrows side. It is known as "Point Defiance West Wall", and I have been fortunate to enjoy this dive seven times now. The massive, shear clay wall here is a great place to find small and even some mid-sized Giant Pacific Octopus out in the open, in addition to Mosshead Wabonnets and Grunt Sculpins. For more detail on this wonderful dive site, see my "Point Defiance West Wall" review. This year, however, I finally got around to doing a couple of dives on the other side of the point, or the North Wall.

Both times I have been here, the plan has been to dive the West Wall on the flooding tide, then catch the North Wall on the ebbing tide. The way Point Defiance is situated, the West Wall is only divable on a flooding tide. Typically, the main current rushes past the point, missing the West Wall. The current back-eddies on this wall and normally flows toward the point on a flood. The same is true of the North Wall on an ebb exchange - the current coming out of the Narrows jets past the point and creates a small back-eddy on the North Wall.

First dive here:

Having never done this dive before, I picked a day where the maximum ebbing exchange was minimal - 0.9 knots at the Narrows, which is about as weak of an exchange as you can hope for at the Narrows.

After a good hour-long dive on the West Wall, we headed over to the North Wall. I might note that I was actually in the water at the West Wall when the tide started to ebb, and the current REALLY started to pick up quickly, even with the exchange being very minor. I actually surfaced down current of my anchored boat, and had to descend and pull my way across the bottom in 10 feet of water to get back to the boat. However, I was rewarded by finding a 3' long Giant Pacific Octopus sitting out in the open in 10 fsw, which I spent about three minutes with until it got bored with me and literally jetted off. Very cool! Once I finally got on the board, we pulled anchor, rounded the green navigational marker at the point, and headed for the North Wall.

Finding the West Wall proved to be less than easy, which is why I have not done this dive before. According to my hand-help GPS receiver, the coordinates listed in NWBD would put you several hundred yards on land - which would give you great bottom time and no deco concerns, but you are not going to see many fish either. I got a second set of GPS coordinates from a friend, but the depth sounder revealed a somewhat uninteresting topography at these coordinates. Therefore, I relied on old faithful and cruised around, looking for something that looked interesting on the depth sounder. Right off the second prominent bluff along the north side of the point, we found what we were looking for. The terrain dropped from about 15 fsw to 70 fsw, and looked very rugged. We anchored the boat in about 10 fsw, and geared up. The bluff on the shore looked to have a lot of horizontal black earth layers stratified through it, and there was a huge dead tree sitting upright on the beach in front of the bluff (although the next big storm could change that!)

When we anchored up, we noted there was very little current (if any), but vis looked AWFUL. I could not see the bottom in 10 feet of water. On the previous dive, not more than 60 minutes earlier and 500 yards away, we had about 20 feet of vis. So the three of us in my boat entered the great debate - "Vis sucks. Do we REALLY want to do this dive? Do we really want to dive into this muck and see a whole lot of nothing?" The deciding factor was that with all the fishing boats out and about, the boat ramp was heavily congested. We knew it would take at least 45 minutes of waiting before we would get out. The last thing we wanted was to spend more time in line at the boat ramp than actually diving (kind of an investment/return thing I guess). And what the heck - we were here anyway! So, over the side we went...

The thick, green water only offered us about 8 feet of visibility when we entered. We found the bottom (thanks to gravity and negative buoyancy), and followed it straight out from the shore. We quickly ran into a series of spectacular small walls, ledges, larger walls, broken blocks, submerged trees, kelp, and small caves. Unlike the West Wall, which is a very sheer, almost homogenous clay wall, this site offered a striking contrast. The formations here were comprised of the same clay material as the West Wall, and similarly pocked full of holes by Piddock Clams. But the terrain here was very uneven. The rugged substrate cascaded down to about 70 fsw, where it gave way to a cobblestone bottom, which itself was occasionally littering by big rectangular shaped clay sections of the walls that had fallen from above. Fortunately, visibility also improved a bit with depth, opening up to 10-15 feet. Some of the ledges here are very substantial - in fact, I thought one ledge was the bottom, but following it out a bit further revealed another wall that dropped 15 feet. This place is a blast to explore!

We worked our way east along the wall. The rugged terrain never seemed to end. Neither did the Wolf-eel sighting. Descending the first wall, I found a 5 foot Wolf-eel, just sitting on the ledge, basking in the slack current. Eventually it swam off, but did not seem too disturbed my presence. Later in the dive, we found four other Wolf-eels, three of which were laying out in the open or swimming. I never get tired of being with these magnificent creatures, even when they are not as tame as their Sunrise neighbors.

In addition to Wolf-eel, I sighted two Giant Pacific Octopus, one rather large living in a deep den (we could only see tentacles), and the other rather small (about 18" long), peering out of one of the countless Piddock Clam holes.

Other inhabitants we encountered where armadas of Striped Sea Perch cruising the still waters, Red Irish Lords of various sizes exhibiting some brilliant colors, stealthy Buffalo Sculpins, small Brown Rockfish, and occasional Ratfish sculling along on their pectoral fins. Painted Greenlings could be found on almost every ledge, keeping a close eye on us as we finned by. Bright orange Sunflower Stars added some spectacular color to the seascape. A huge assortment of tiny shrimp, snails, and crabs seemed to occupy almost every Piddock Clam hole. I even found one of the largest White Spotted Greenlings I have ever come across. If I wasn't preoccupied with the Wolf-eels and topography, I am certain we would have found some gunnels and warbonnets.

I really like this site. On a good vis day, it would be spectacular. The unevenness of the terrain makes it fun to explore, and at 70 fsw max depth, you can rack up some good bottom time. My concerns with this site are current, boat traffic, and discarded fishing line. Point Defiance is a very popular fishing spot, and there are old fishing sinkers, lures, and line lying about the bottom. I would only dive here on a weak ebb current with a good buddy and a sharp dive knife.

My second dive here:

On a beautiful October day, I got my second chance to dive this site. I was especially excited as vis was 30+ feet earlier in the day when we dove on the West Wall. Instead of anchoring off the second prominent bluff, however, we anchored a bit closer to the point off of the first prominent bluff (about 300 yards closer). My depth sounder was showing a massive wall that ran from 20 fsw down to 80 fsw. We dove this site just after slack before ebb, with a 1.7 knot maximum current at the Narrows.

In the relatively clear water (20-25 feet of vis), I was shocked to see how different the terrain was at this location compared to where we did our first dive, just three hundred yards away. The topography here was almost exactly like that of the West Wall; a sheer clay wall riddled full of holes created by Piddock clams. Although the wall was very sheer in places, in tended to step down, with shelves ranging from a few feet to at least 25 feet in width at various depths. However, the structure here was nowhere near as uneven as we encountered on our first dive in this area. At the base of the wall in about 80 fsw was a moderately sloping bottom, dotted with big square chucks of the wall that have previously fallen off.

The marine life on this wall was similar to that of the West Wall as well. Upon descent, we found a small Giant Pacific Octopus peering out of one of the bigger Piddock Clam holes. Cruising the wall revealed massive bright orange Sunflower Stars and Sun Morning Stars scaling the walls, Brown Rockfish tightly tucked in to some the countless lairs, and well camouflaged Buffalo Sculpins and Red Irish Lords clinging motionless to the vertical clay structure waiting for a careless shrimp to wonder too close. Close inspection of some of the Piddock Clam holes revealed countless shrimp and small crabs, with an occasional small sculpin, gunnel or warbonnet. Dozens of perch seem to relentlessly patrol the wall. However, the highlight of this dive was crashing what amounted to a Grunt Sculpin convention. We found at least a dozen of these cool little fish, many sitting out in the open basking in the very light current. The size of the Grunts ranged from B> of an inch to three inches. I never get tired of finding these cute little fish!

All said and done, I would prefer diving the site at the second bluff over the first bluff, as the wall nearer the point is very similar to that of the West Wall. Plus, there are more nooks and crannies to explore (and therefore places for Wolf-eels and Octopus to hide) at site at the second bluff. But if it is Grunt Sculpins you want to see, you can't beat the site at the first bluff!

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