|Date Reviewed:||July 2002|
|Site Description:||Awesome rock canyons|
|Main Attraction:||The best marine life in the Pacific Northwest!|
This is a poor picture of the fingers.
So, do you want in on the best kept scuba secret in the Northwest? Do you want to do some world class diving in our own backyard? Do you want to see more marine species than you will see at any other dive site in the Northwest? Do you want to cruise through breathtakingly rugged northwest topography that has been carved over countless millenniums by unrelenting currents and unforgiving storms? If so, dive Waadah Island Fingers in Summer. I have been fortunate enough to dive over 100 sites in the Northwest (including the best that Port Hardy has to offer). So far, Waadah Island Fingers blows them all away, hands down.
Waadah Island is a small island situated just north of Neah Bay. In fact, the island forms the northeastern reach of the breakwater that protects Neah Bay. Between the island and the mainland, there is a very lengthy man-made rock breakwater connecting the two. There are a number of dive sites around this island, and all are good to exceptional dive sites. However, the "fingers" dive site is in a class all by itself.
Located on the west end of the island, the dive site is easily located by the series of massive rocky fingers extending into the water. Follow these fingers straight out, and you have found the dive site. Pick your depth, carefully pick your current, and jump in!
I did not dive this site until the third time I visited Neah Bay. During prior trips to Neah Bay, we would race out to the Cape Flattery area and dive off of Tatoosh Island, Mushroom Rock, or down the coast a bit at Skagway Rocks, all of which offer good dives (visibility and swells permitting). During these trips, we would pass right by Waadah Island, not knowing that the best dive in the area was so close to Neah Bay. Learn from my mistake and save some gas!
Before I get into too much detail, please be warned that the diving out in this part of the state is advanced diving. Make certain that your skills, equipment, training, and experience are well suited to deal with visibility conditions that change quickly, strong currents, 80+ foot free descents, 50+ foot free ascents (again, in strong currents), surge, encounters with fishing gear (monofilament and stainless downrigger cable), and a ton of boat traffic ( I am convinced that most fishermen think a red dive flag means "come over here and buzz my boat going as fast as you can"). I also only dive out here when exchanges are minimal, but even then the currents are to be well respected and diving should only be done around slack.
OK. Warnings behind us, lets talk about the site. First, the topography. The rugged fingers you can readily see on the shore extend far out into the water, but become more exaggerated. Much more. The unyielding currents have cut sheer channels into the rocky fingers, creating dramatic canyons over 20 feet deep. The width of these canyons seems to range from about 10 feet to 40 feet. There are a series of these canyons, all running in parallel. You can literally scale up the side of one canyon wall, cruise over the top of the ridge, and descend back into a different canyon. There are at least five of these canyons side by side. It is simply an awesome environment to descend into through 80 feet of water.
The canyon floor is usually covered in broken white shells. You will also find massively rugged and rocky outcroppings, ruts, and boulder piles in places. The walls of the canyons are laden with deep ledges, small caves, holes, some swim-throughs, crevices, and cracks. The topography here alone is worth seeing. However, as amazing as the topography is, it is not the main attraction.
This rugged substrate serves as prime habitat to the majority of the common northwest species, and some not so common species too. The deep canyons offer some shelter from the hellacious currents that can really pound this site. On my initial descent into this site, I was greeted by massive schools of curious Black and Blue Rockfish that actually approached me in an attempt to figure out what I was. Kelp and Painted Greenling were darting about everywhere. Striking black and bright yellow China Rockfish were in incredible abundance, holding fast to their territory and facing me and raising their spiny dorsals as I approached. Shy Tiger Rockfish were easily spotted, playing it cautious by not straying too far from their protective lairs. Copper and Quilback Rockfish, common in Puget Sound, are also in fair abundance. Cabezon with heads the size of a basketball and Lingcod up to 5 feet long can be found waiting stealthily on rocks and ledges, waiting for an unsuspecting meal ticket to appear. With some searching, well camouflaged Red Irish Lords and Buffalo Sculpins can be identified, as can the colorful but wary Longfin Scuplins. Anywhere there is rock, invertebrate life thrives. The entire area is decorated with colorful and unusually shaped sponges, soft corals, hard corals (yes, hard corals!), sea stars, incredibly colorful and huge anemones, barnacles, different species of scallops, countless shrimp and crabs, and a wide variety of nudibranchs. One of the sponges we found looks just like an old, brown volleyball. Nudibranchs species include Sea Lemons, Monterey Dorids, Orange Peel Nudibranchs, Opalescent Nudibranchs, Orange Spotted Nudibranchs, Alabaster Nudibranchs, Ohdner's's Dorids, and some nudibranchs that I am still trying to identify. On top of the ridges (as you get shallower) bull and broadleaf kelp thrive, providing excellent habitant for even more Black Rockfish and Yellowtail Rockfish. Now, lets get to the really cool stuff:
Giant Pacific Octopus. On both dives here, we encountered Giant Pacific octopus in the open - both about 4 feet long, and spanning over 6 feet. The first appeared to have just caught a large Puget Sound King Crab, and was very put out that we wanted it to entertain us during it's lunch. However, despite some slight harassment, the octopus put up with us stroking it between the eyes and never gave up its bounty. The second encounter was much more hands on, and we actually got to hold the octopus and watch it swim. I even got to feel the jet blast from the octopus siphon as it swam - I was amazed at the amount of thrust!
Wolf -eels. What PNW dive found be complete without Wolf-eels? Yes, Wolf-eels are fairly common around Waadah Island, and the fingers are no exception. I saw free-swimming Wolf-eels on two dives, one of which was at the fingers.
Vermilion Rockfish. These rockfish are a beautiful shade of red with some silver accenting, and relatively rare in Puget Sound. However, on both dives at the fingers, I saw at least one Vermilion Rockfish hovering just above or lying on the bottom.
Yellow-eye Rockfish. I saw both juvenile and a 30" adult Yellow-eye Rockfish. I had never seen an adult Yellow-eye Rockfish diving before. These fish are now protected as they have been way over fished. They are often called Red Snapper, as there entire body is red, highlighted by a distinctive yellow iris. On my second dive here, I was amazed to find an adult Yellow-eye Rockfish hiding in a cave at 65 fsw. Yellow-eye adults tend to hang out in much deeper water (200 -300 feet). These fish can also live to over 100 years old. Heck - the Yellow-eye Rockfish I found was probably older than I was. What a treat!
As you might gather, this site is the naturalists paradise. You never know what you are going to find. I have never been to a site that offered such a comprehensive representation of northwest marine life, and most of the species are offered in incredible abundance. Add in the incredible topography that this site offers, and you have my overwhelming choice for the best dive site in the Northwest.
If you are interested, here is a little bit about how we dove this wonderful site. We determined our entry point by following the fingers to the depth that we wanted to start at. Both times, we chose an area where the tops of the ridges were in about 50 fsw and the canyon bottom was in 70 fsw (clearly evident on a depth sounder). As the current was stronger on the first dive, we drifted a bit deeper before we hit bottom (we ended up at 80 fsw). Also, vis varied greatly. At 70 to 80 fsw, vis seemed to be between 30-45 feet. However, it deteriorated as we moved shallower (to about 20-25 feet), although there were certain periods where it dropped momentarily to 10-15 feet.
When we dove this site, we did it on slack before ebb on both dives. There appeared to be a very nasty riptide here at slack before flood. However, even at slack before ebb the currents here are weird. On the first dive, we dropped in at 80 fsw. There was a strong current sweeping over the fingers to the southwest, but once we dropped into the canyons it was not too bad. We hopped canyons a couple of times. However, we did encounter a slight head-current as we worked our way up the canyons to the southeast and into shallower water. We ended up not getting shallow enough to do our safety stop in the canyon and had to do a free ascent from about 40 feet. Once we got up on a ridge, the current was howling, so we drifted in the currents during our safety stop.
On our second dive (which we also did at slack before ebb) we dropped into a canyon at 70 fsw and decided we would follow that single canyon all the way to the shallows. This time, the current was flowing up the canyon and lightly pushed us the direction we wanted to go. On this dive, we were able to easily do our safety stop at the top of a ridge in 18 fsw. We were diving the same tide, but the currents were acting very different. Go figure.
On both dives, the currents seemed to intensify the shallower we got.
With the currents and boat traffic, a live boat at this site is a must for me. The person on the boat needs to watch and follow the diver bubbles very carefully. They also need to keep speeding fishing boats returning to or coming from Neah Bay clear of the divers, which can be a bit of a challenge (we were there when salmon season opened this year).
If you do not have access to a boat, contact Captain Steve with Puffin Adventures and tell him you want to dive Waadah Island fingers. When we dove out here the first time in 2001, it was with Puffin Adventures and we had a great time and two wonderful dives. I believe he is the only dive charter in this area. Being a scuba diver himself, he knows his stuff.
A final note. Actually, this is a plea. Spear fishermen - please leave this site alone. I do not write these reviews about the marine life for people to "harvest" them. In fact, I write them in hope that others will explore them and appreciate the wonderful resources that we have taken for granted for decades - specifically or incredible rockfish and greenling populations. With a little luck, some of us will do something to protect these resources. This site is especially unique, and it is a jewel. Most species of rockfish take a LONG time to mature and reproduce. In fact, some varieties do not start reproducing until they are 14 year old. Taking the bigger fish severely undercuts the species ability to reproduce and sustain in an area. And as rockfish are territorial creatures, once a species is obliterated from an area, it will be a long time (if ever) before the area is repopulated. Just look at parts of Puget Sound and the San Juans. Anyway, what sport if there in shooting a fish that is hovering motionless two feet in front of you? If you are a real sportsman, catch the fish in your teeth. If you just want to shoot something, take a camera. I will now get off my soapbox.
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