With underwater camera in hand, I slowly descended with my 17-year old daughter, Tallen, beneath the cool emerald water off Orcas Island, the largest of Washington’s San Juan Island group. At 40-feet, we meandered over lavender and pink coralline algae coating numerous sandstone formations. A small Grunt Sculpin played hide-and-seek with my framer while a curious octopus held Tallen’s attention. Looking up, bull kelp stretched to the surface with sleek ribbons gently flowing in a drift. A garden of colorful anemones, nudibranchs, tunicates and clusters of yellow bryozoan covered a wall, creating a mosaic like no other. Life was truly abundant in this small half-mile stretch, near Bell Island, as was the diversity.

Surfacing beside Lu Jac’s Quest, a customized 42-foot vessel, comfortably accommodating 12-14 divers, Tallen and I glowed with anticipation of our next dive. Owners, Phil and Judy (born in the Oakland Bay area) Jensen bought the charter business a year ago, and now hail from the homeport of Anacortes. Phil offers over 33 years of diving and boating experience, while Judy’s homemade soups are scrumptious.

“We have access to over 50 dive sites in the San Juan region,” exclaims Captain Phil. “Weather is rarely an issue because we can easily tuck in behind an island and still get in two or three different dives per day.”

The boat pulled up next to Lime Kiln Lighthouse on the western side of San Juan Island for the next dive. As I grabbed my camera, Tallen took a fish/invertebrate ID slate to record the different species.

Shearwater TERN

We descended next to a lush bed of kelp, filled with light brown northern kelp crabs at the top and brooding anemones on the stocks. At 30 feet Tallen pointed out a juvenile Puget Sound king crab, a grunt sculpin and a huge sunflower star. My mask almost flooded from laughing when a startled swimming scallop caught her off guard. She backed up with wide eyes, her shade almost matching the huge red urchins! In all, she listed over 25 names to her list, including tiger rockfish, lingcod, painted greenlings, clown nudibranchs and yellow clusters of Staghorn bryozoans.

Once up, Phil headed for Kellett Bluff on the south end of Henry Island. Kellett Bluff reminded me of northern California diving. A school of rockfish just watched us as we examined a wall section, dotted with orange cup corals, shrimp, more anemones and the occasional white-lined Dirona nudibranch.

For those visiting this unique area, a 6.5mm wetsuit or dry suit works for the 49-59 degree water temperatures during the summer, and 42-49 in the winter. Vis varies from 20-80 feet, with the best found during fall and winter months. Access to most of the San Juan Islands is possible with a vehicle via the Washington State Ferries. Rental dive gear is available from Bellingham, Anacortes or on San Juan at Friday Harbor.

For more information consult:
* San Juan Islands Visitor Information Services – 888-468-3701

Shearwater TERN