It seemed like we had crested a mountain top: looking into the distant valley below we saw ridges and depressions, with the low areas filled in with a whitish fog. But the view that had opened up was much smaller and less than 20 yards away, and that fog went by another name – krill.
It was Labor Day weekend, and our dive club had come to Neah Bay, Washington for our annual diving, camping, touring around, and potlucks that make a mockery of combining the terms “camping” and “roughing it.”
At 50 years old, the Sea Searcher dive club has been around for what seems like forever, and if you did a grey hair count on the members you’d get the idea they’ve been around forever too. This is both good and bad. On the plus side, as divers we’ve done it for so long we know the range of what might be expected and how to deal with it, and as campers we’ve accumulated plenty of gear and recipes. We’ve also become something of a family; while many dive clubs just go to a site to dive, we bring our non-diving significant others and the trips end up being as much social occasions with old friends as they are excuses to see the underwater world. On the minus side, contorting ourselves into our dive gear is not as easy as it once was, nor is climbing back aboard the boat with 100 pounds of tanks, weight belts, soggy gear, and fish at the end of a dive. While we once would sleep on the ground, we now need air mattresses, cots, and some have even graduated to tent trailers. Even with softer beds the morning creaking of joints and their owner’s vocal accompaniment sometimes startle the birds. Or perhaps those songs are just a mating call for the coffee pot.
They say that the tides wait for no man. The corollary is also true: man must wait for the tides. In the Pacific Northwest, tidal changes can cause enough ocean current to trigger safety concerns – we have to time our dive windows for when the tides slow down and change direction. This particular weekend the dive window was mid afternoon, giving us an excuse to go touring around the area earlier in the day.
The Neah Bay region is on the most northwest tip of Washington, and is the domain of the Makah Indian nation. Archaeology suggests that the Makah people have inhabited the Neah Bay area for more than 3,800 years, surviving as fishermen. Should you find yourself in town, check out the museum – it shows artifacts from their long history and is quite interesting.
A short excursion from Neah Bay, which faces the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, took us to Hobuck beach which faces the Pacific ocean to the west.
Walking along an ocean beach is nice at any time, but when it’s an empty beach on a warm, sunny day, and the surrounding landscapes are sublime it both soothes the spirit and gives it a lift. It also sets a lovely mood for mucking about in boats.
After returning from our excursion, we did some mucking about just outside the bay of Neah Bay, on the north side of Waadah Island. At the west end of the island multiple rock shelves jut up at an angle with valleys between each ridge, creating an underwater topography similar to the slightly spread fingers of a hand. The gaps between the fingers provide slanted rock walls covered with life of different sorts: sponges, corals, anemones, scallops, hermit crabs, and various other creatures where a quick peek would make you question if they’re plant or animal. Fish too were present: Rockfish of different sorts, Lingcod, Wolf Eel, and Red Irish Lords. Old adult wolf eels are curious looking creatures, they have a face like a 900 year old man. Red Irish Lords like to lie camouflaged on the sea bottom or ledges, their colors a mottled mess of reds, pinks, purples, golds, and browns; each fish patterned a little differently, each barely noticeable unless you nearly stumble on them.
The northeast end of the island is home to some more rock walls and a sea bottom with various depressions, which on this day contained a certain funny looking fog.
Krill are smaller cousins to shrimp, and provide an important link in the lower end of the oceanic food chain. When they swarm, they can create masses so thick you can’t see through them, it’s almost vertigo inducing swimming through when all you can see is a mass of motion. They’re also a favorite food of whales. So, it wasn’t surprising when, back on the surface…
Thar she blows! The spume from a California Grey whale rocketed up into the air. The mist of the spume dissipated away, and we saw the Grey was headed our way.
Or at least it seemed that way. Spume is not a whale’s method of blowing off steam, they’re just exhaling before grabbing a lungful of air for their next dive. When they go down, it’s anybody’s guess when and where they’ll come back up.
This time we were lucky. This one passed within 15-20 yards of our boat (possibly attracted to the other grey heads in the neighborhood), giving us a good look and an appreciation for just how big those creatures are. We learned another thing too; despite their majestic size and the ease in which they pass through the water, they have a downside.
Whale breath. It isn’t pretty. One of our divers commented that it smelled like a cross between a paper mill and a busted sewer line. Let that be a lesson: should you be fortunate enough to be that close to a whale, try to be on the upwind side.
As the day progressed, we had multiple other whale sightings, but none so close. And despite the krill we encountered under the water, we didn’t see any whales down there. Maybe that’s a good thing; if I saw something that could be as much as 50 feet long and 35 tons swimming at me with its mouth open, I’d probably wet my dry suit.
So we finished our dives, and headed back to camp. Freshly speared blackened or deep fried fish, fresh scallops sauteed in garlic butter, and various other potluck delights for dinner set the cap on our day. Some of those other delights had their own backstories. Ever tasted alligator?
All in all, I think we can agree – it was a whale of a day.