Sunrise Beach

Date Reviewed:September, 2001, updated June 2002
Location:South end of Colvos Passage, just north of Gig Harbor
Access:Shore or boat
Site Description:Wall dive
Main Attraction:Friendly Wolf-eels, huge Giant Pacific Octopus, abundant and varied marine life, interesting structure

Sunrise Beach Park is located just north of Gig Harbor, on the peninsula side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (about 45 miles from Seattle). The site is actually at the south end of Colvos Passage and is subjected to some very strong and unusual currents.

In my opinion, Sunrise is one of the best shore dives in Puget Sound. The main attraction of this site is a 25 foot high rugged rock wall that runs along the shoreline for about 200 feet. The wall starts at about 25 - 35 fsw, runs down to about 60 fsw, and is pocketed with cracks, crevices, fissures and holes which many marine creatures use for cover. At the base of the wall are large boulders and rocks that also serve as excellent structure for countless varieties of marine life. Above the wall is a gently sloping mud bottom that is interesting in it's own right (including eel grass fields, boulders, some kelp, and sand stone ledges).

Countless varieties of marine life can be found on the wall, however Wolf-eels usually steal the show. Numerous resident Wolf-eels live at this site, and are amongst some of the friendliest Wolf-eels I have encountered (the friendliest, however, have to be those on the Wreck of the Themus ). I have counted up to eight different Wolf-eels here on a single dive. Certain animals will take an offering of herring (that I bring along). If you dare feed or handle these animal, be careful and remember they are wild animals. NEVER restrain the animal, or hold it firmly. Remember, these timid creature have jaws and teeth that are normally used for devouring urchins, so your hand (or any other part of you, for that matter) would not present much of a challenge to an angered or frightened Wolf-eel.

The Wolf-eels hide out in various dens along the walls, or amongst the boulders at the base of the wall. If you are fortunate to dive here enough, you will eventually become familiar with the usual Wolf-eel haunts, and Wolf-eel encounters will become a certainty (currents permitting, but more about that later). Some of the places where I consistently find Wolf-eels on the wall are as follows:

There is a very large indentation in the wall just past the half way mark (heading south) highlighted by a huge fissure on the southern side (about 7 feet long). The fissure is horizontal, but slopes from almost the top of the wall down to the southeast. Giant Pacific Octopus sometimes occupy this fissure. In fact, the largest Giant Pacific Octopus I have seen to date used to frequent this den - her arms were at least 7 feet long. Unfortunately, she died, as most female octopus do, after hatching her eggs in 2001. Anyway, there are potential Wolf-eel dens at either end of this fissure. I often find a Wolf-eel pair in the top den, and occasionally find a juvenile in the bottom den.

At the very south of the wall, there is a very obvious "hole" in the wall, just big enough to fit a couple of Wolf-eels. Below the "mid wall" fissure, there are a number of large boulder. Under one of the boulders (in about 60 fsw), there is a den where I consistently find a very bold male Wolf-eel. This Wolf-eel almost always comes out of it's den for a herring handout.

On the north end of the wall near the top, there is a small "tunnel" that runs through a protruding portion of the wall. The tunnel is elbow shaped, and is just big enough for a couple of Wolf-eels. Often, I just find one Wolf-eel in this den.

There are countless other potential dens located throughout the wall. My observations are that most of these creatures switch dens from time to time. I know of at least one particular Wolf-eel that I have found in three different dens.

Although Wolf-eels are almost a certainty at this site, Giant Pacific Octopus are a little more hit and miss. This is the first Puget Sound site where I was fortunate enough to see a large Giant Pacific Octopus (about 8 feet across, 5 feet long) in the open. Most of the time, you will just see a part on an arm of an octopus as it hides in its den. If you find an octopus in the "mid wall" fissure, which is a bit more exposed, you can usually look the octopus right in the eye.

Other fish that will often accompany you on a dive here are Ratfish, Copper, Brown, and Quillback Rockfish, Lingcod, Painted and Kelp Greenlings, many varieties of sculpins (Red Irish Lords, Longfin, Buffalo, and Scalyhead), Green Sea Urchins, scallops (some of which will swim if disturbed), Rock Sole, Starry Flounder, countless sea stars, warbonnets, gunnels, different varieties of nudibranchs - the list goes on and on. If you bring herring with you to feed the Wolf-eels, be wary of the rockfish. On more than one occasion, I have had a bold rockfish dart in, startle me, and steal a herring from my hand. Also watch for Buffalo Scuplins. They are masters of camouflage and blend in brilliantly with the pink on the rock wall.

Above the wall, the marine life varies. Rock Sole, Starry Flounder, Moon Snail, Penpoint, Saddleback, Crescent Gunnel, shrimp, and hermit crabs always seem to be present. However, at different times I have found Pacific Snake Prickleback, Pink Nudibranch, and Ratfish. I even saw a small family of otters here once. The park at Sunrise is rather small. It is only open from dusk to dawn, so night diving here by shore is usually not option. There is dirt parking for about a dozen cars. Amenities here are minimal, and consist of a few picnic tables, a garbage can, and a porta-potty. There used to be a large picnic shelter here too, which was nice for gearing up when it rained. However, it has recently been removed and all that remains is the concrete slab it was based upon.

This dive can be done as a shore or boat dive. So far, I have always done it as a shore dive. However, be warned - the path from the parking lot to the shore is long and steep - very steep when you have a ton of scuba gear on your back. The vertical drop is about 100 feet (guestimate). I know many people will not dive this site by shore because of the hike. You should be in good shape if you wish to dive this site by shore. If not, get on a local charter and do it by boat.

Getting here by car is a little complicated, as you have to wind through a number of back roads. Here is how I get to Sunrise Beach Park: From Seattle go south on I-5, take Highway 16 across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and take the Gig Harbor "City Center" exit. At the stop light at the end of the off ramp, go straight (which I believe is Stingon Ave), and follow the road though a stop sign to the water. If you go straight at this stop sign, you will end up in Gig Harbor, start your dive early, and not see any Wolf-eels (but not encounter any current either). The best bet is to turn left onto Harborview Dr. and follow the road around the harbor to the right (there is a stop sign where you need to veer right), where the road becomes N .Harborview Dr. The road will eventually "T" again. Turn right on to Vernhardson St. at the "T". Lost yet? If not, follow Verhardson St. a short distance to Crescent Valley Drive NW and turn left. Almost there. Next, turn right by the fire station onto Drummond Dr. NW, and follow it up the hill. At the top of the hill, the road "T"s. A right onto Moller drive, a left on Sunrise Beach Dr., and the park will be down the hill on your left. Whew!

I typically gear up in the parking area and head down the dirt path through the grassy field that heads to the water (it is obvious). The dirt path eventually becomes gravel towards the end. (Note the picnic table to the left of this location - it may be a handy rest stop on the way back up!). To get to the beach, you need to step down a small pile of stones, which can be slippery or shift, so make certain you have a solid foothold before stepping on the rocks. I can't imagine that falling down onto rocks with 80 pounds of scuba gear on your back is any fun.

Once you get to the beach, head south. Please note that the public beach area is limited. Walk along the beach until you see the lone piling that very clearly marks the park boundary area. This is where you MUST enter the water. The property to the south is private. I have seen local residence taking pictures of trespassing divers, presumably making a case to stop shore diving in this area. I also have seen divers walk into the water at the piling, then walk there up the private shoreline in 1-2 feet of water (see, I'm in the water!). Legally, this does not cut it. Private property rights extend to the mean low low tide mark, which means that you really need to swim the 100 or so yards to the wall. This also gives you an "opportunity" to test the current conditions on the shelf. Respect the rights of others or we all may loose the right to visit this Puget Sound Eden.

Once you enter the water, swim south until you see a lone old deadsnag tree and a couple of pilings on the shore. I usually descend at this point and head out on a course of 115 degrees. I usually hit the north end of the wall around 30 to 35 feet. If I get to 45 feet and have not seen the wall, I know I have missed it (which I have not done yet!) :-)

Warning: This site is extremely current intensive. I would not consider this a beginner's dive by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the currents here have KILLED divers. It is absolutely critical that this site be done at corrected slack. I almost always do this dive at slack when the tidal exchange on both sides of slack results in currents of less than 2 knots at the Narrows. The current at this site also almost always runs to the north, even on floods. The one exception is the current tends to go slack, then flow south about 90 minutes before slack before flood at the Narrows, the go slack again, then head north right around the same time as slack before flood at the Narrows. If I time it right, I can ride the reversal south, dive during the slack, then ride the northerly currently back to the public beach and minimize the surface swim.

On slack before ebb, my experience has been that the current is at it's minimal about 60 or 70 minutes before slack before ebb at the Narrows, which means I am starting my dive about 90 to 100 minutes before slack before ebb at the Narrow. This is contrary to when NWSD says slack before ebb occurs at this site. I recently did a dive here on slack before ebb where I had a beautiful 60 minute dive in slack water. I was in the water about 90 minutes before slack before ebb at the Narrows. After about 60 minutes, the current really picked up quickly, and vis dropped from 15 to 3 feet in a matter of two minutes (no kidding). I rode the current back to the public beach, where a large group of students were just entering the water. Despite my warnings, they proceeded. After I hiked up the will and got out of my gear, I went back down to see how they were doing. They were all sitting in the shore wondering when the current was going to slow down. They had missed the window.

Keep in mind, current predictions are just that - predictions. When diving here, you need to let common sense prevail and be ready to abort the dive at a moments notice. I am a very strong swimmer (I lap swim 1 to 2 miles a week) and have been foolishly caught in a waterfalling current at Sunrise that I could not swim against. In this situation, I literally had to claw my way back up the slope to the shore. I have done about 30 dives at this site so far, and have had to abort two dives due to the current, even though I was diving at predicted slack. Remember, divers have been killed at this site.

One final note. This site is a marine preserve. Treat this site like the treasure that it is. If is a wonderful place to dive, and harvesting anything from this site is a crime (legally and morally). Having a site in our own backyard where we can feed and handle Wolf-eels is a real privilege. In fact, I think most divers who have handled friendly Wolf-eels all agree that it is an almost religious experience. Let's respect the habitat of these Wolf-eels so they hopefully do us the honor of sticking around.

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