On any given weekend, the parking lot at Brackett's Landing overflows with hefty pickups and loaded station wagons sporting telltale red-and-white stickers on their bumpers. From dawn to dusk, divers mill about their tailgates and hatchbacks as they squeeze into dry suits, pack weight pockets and check air gauges. For most people, the small town of Edmonds, Wash., is little more than a place to catch a ferry across Puget Sound, but for divers, it's a destination itself because just past the waterline lies one of the state's most popular dives: the Bruce Higgins Underwater Trail.
Formerly known as the Edmonds Underwater Park, these 27 acres of submarine real estate are a bona fide city park. Over the past 30 years, Bruce Higgins, a longtime local diver with a background in ocean engineering, has developed the area's underwater attractions for the city. He and his team of enthusiastic volunteers have scuttled ships like the Triumph, an 85-foot tug boat, and constructed adult-sized jungle gyms out of concrete blocks, plastic tubing and any other materials the crew can haul into place. They've also connected the 15 major features of the park with a network of underwater cables and signs to create more than 2.5 miles of dive trail. For $10, you can buy an underwater map at the Edmonds Underwater Sports dive shop just across the street--the proceeds go toward park maintenance and future development.
Once you squeeze into a parking spot and gear up, it's a short walk to the water. Puget Sound is an inland waterway, so waves and swells are nearly nonexistent; you can wade right in and surface swim past the shallow sea-grass beds. There are 12 individual trails laid out in a grid pattern that you can follow depending on what area of the park you're headed for. Underwater, all those artificial reefs and 30 years of marine-sanctuary status give this park one of the highest concentrations of marine life in the Sound. As you follow the trails, lingcod and cabezon rest lazily on the decks of small sunken boats or nestled among clumps of seaweed. Unencumbered by spearfishermen, these fish have room to grow, and they do. Some of the largest lingcod in the Sound can be found here, growing to four feet or more. White plumose anemones plant themselves onto any available solid surface, and divers with a keen eye can spot thumb-sized, ornately decorated nudibranchs clinging to kelp fronds and sea grasses.
The park is a great place for beginners and advanced divers alike, but if you're looking for something a little deeper--and a little less crowded--the old UNOCAL oil dock down the road offers an alternative. Weatherworn and crumbling, the topside view of the dock does little to advertise what lies below the surface.
At this site, you can gear up in the Marina Beach parking lot and scramble to the water's edge over the piles of driftwood that litter the beach. Depending on the tide, the bottom will be shallow enough to walk out for 10 to 20 yards. The depth doesn't get past 20 feet until near the end of the pier--about 200 yards out--at the large platform where tankers once offloaded fuel. The northwest end of the dock sits in about 70 feet of water, and there the bottom slopes steeply into the dark waters of the Sound. Currents can be strong in this area, so consider this an intermediate to advanced dive.
Supporting the platform is a tightly grouped forest of pilings with a top-to-bottom congregation of marine life. White anemones--some three feet long--grow horizontally from every square foot. Giant barnacles as big as a child's fist take root in the empty spots between and wave their feathery legs in the plankton-rich currents. Decorator crabs covered with algae perch like spiders on their spindly legs. Broken shells litter the bottom, a gory carpet left in part by sunflower sea stars--the world's largest--that prowl the seabed mercilessly hunting shellfish, sea cucumbers and anything else within pouncing distance. And prehistoric ratfish, looking vaguely like their far-removed shark cousins, patrol the shaded areas, their black nocturnal eyes ready for nightfall.
When the dives are over, you can use the showers at the park to rinse the sand off your feet and the salt out of your gear before packing up and heading out. Edmonds is just a short drive from downtown Seattle, so there are plenty of post-dive options to consider. This is the Pacific Northwest after all, where the rainy weather has inspired more than a few breweries to create belly-warming brews that go nicely with some dive-day decompression.
Brackett's Landing and the underwater trail are next to the Edmonds-Kingston ferry dock. The park is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. May through September, and 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. October though April. To reach the oil dock, cross the street at Brackett's Landing and head south on Admiral Way, which dead-ends at the Marina Beach parking lot next to the dive site.
Currents can be strong at both sites during Puget Sound's large tidal flows. Check tide tables and don't stray from the designated diving areas. Visibility fluctuates between pea soup and about 40 feet, often tending closer to the former. The temperature stays between 45 and 55 degrees. A thick wetsuit will work, but a dry suit will make your day.
The underwater park is a great spot for beginners, and the local shop regularly conducts classes here. The oil dock is deeper with a greater chance of strong currents--be prepared.