|A mother sea otter with a baby on her belly watched as we entered the water. The Alaskan water felt refreshingly cool as I entered through the shimmering sunlit surface, during what would normally be considered dusk. Distant snow-powdered mountains, draped in a blanket of pine trees, gradually disappeared as we submerged.
Alongside my dive buddy Ed Lindquist, an experienced dive guide and charter operator from Sterling, a city in Alaska. I felt excited to explore a place few have ever seen. With camera in hand, I set out to document my first dive in this land of the midnight sun.
Pausing in front of a kelp forest, I looked up to take in the grandeur of it all. Such a rich diversity of marine life lay before me. Multitudes of silver, pencil-length tubesnouts moved in unison near the tops of flowing bull-kelp ribbons, which waved like flags in the mild surface current.
Dark shadows of larger fish lingered in and out near the central section, careful not to venture too far from the safety of the fronds. At the base were huge lingcod, positioned like soldiers across a purple and pink coralline algae-coated boulder terrain.
It wasnt long before we were greeted by the wrinkled expressions of two 2-3m-long specimens of a sub-Arctic wolf-eel. Boldly, the grey male came out of its den and circled us several times. The light-tan female watched intensely but held her ground, possibly guarding a ball of precious eggs. Soon the male tired of us and returned to the females side. Catching my breath, I almost forgot about my camera!
Diving was just one of the many adventures that had lured me to Alaska, the largest state in the USA. My journey began in Anchorage, an international hub for travellers from around the world. From here you can arrange dive charters to Prince William Sound, Resurrection Bay and Kachemak Bay, the three main regions in south central Alaska.
Hire cars and scuba gear can also be acquired in the city. Talking with several local dive guides, before heading out, provided me with a helpful insight.
Many of the divers wear 6-7mm wetsuits year-round, I was told by seasoned diver Tim Ferguson. Wetsuits are OK during the summer when water temperatures are 10-15C, but most prefer drysuits. In the winter we get 3-7C, he went on, shivering just thinking about it. I guess this could pose a chilly challenge, especially when divers have to trek through fallen snow often higher than their cars to reach the site!
Our best diving is during the winter months, added Tallen Patrick. Visibility generally exceeds 18m, especially near Seldovia in Kachemak Bay. A lot of the kelp dies off too, revealing reefs full of life.
Its when the glaciers start thawing in the summer that we get a silt-cloud in the water, says Tim. The layer will be 4.5-12m deep. Once youre under it, viz clears to 15m or more.
heading for Homer
All good advice, I thought, as I set out for the 230-mile trek to Homer, a small town on the edge of Kachemak Bay. The drive was non-stop postcard scenery from the minute I left, heading south on the Seward Highway. Majestic Dall sheep paraded on jagged cliffs wrapping around Turnagain Arm, a stretch of water reaching inland from Cook Inlet.
Mountains, railway tracks and river estuaries bordered my route. Anglers, lining several riverbanks, were hauling out salmon, some next to airboats (flat-bottomed boats with aircraft engines). Avoid the mud flats at Turnagain Arm - theyre like quicksand, and bore tides in the shape of a wall of water can strike without warning.
Turnagain Pass, 300m high, came next. In winter, snow-trekking, snowmobiling and snowshoeing as well as cross-country skiing are popular here. Snow falls to an impressive 3.7m minimum in the pass, and this is a great place to view and photograph the Northern Lights as they dance across the sky.
In Homer, I met Ed and one of his divemasters, Rick Van Hatten. Ed usually takes out four divers in his 6.6m Sea Sport boat, organised through his store, the Dive Shop.
You have more than a dozen sites to choose from, Ed told us. Or we can check out a site no-one has been to before. I rarely turn down a virgin site, hence the kelp-forest dive described above, near McDonald Spit.
We also have a no take policy, added Ed. Youre welcome to take as many photos as you like, but we leave the life for future visitors.
Visibility tends to vary from month to month, Rick told us. Spring and fall are usually the best, with glassy-calm water on an ideal day. There are plenty of islands to tuck behind if not.
Away from the kelp-forest, I was happy to find an assortment of nudibranchs, tunicates, urchins, sea cucumbers and an octopus for my close-up framer, while the beach-towel size sunflower stars and wolf-eels accommodated my wide-angle lens.
The remote fishing village of Seldovia was my next stop, via a ferry. It offered a selection of secluded shore sites, and air-fills were available from the local fire department.
The Old Cannery Dock, in the main part of town, proved an excellent choice. With my travelling companion Wayne, from British Columbia, we entered from a small beach and headed towards the pier. Water clarity was surprisingly good, and the bright sun lit up all the life on the pilings.
Clusters of black, purple, orange and white plumes protruded from long thin tubeworms. As in most dockside areas, the bottom was littered with an assortment of junk, tossed over or dropped from commercial fishing vessels (avoid the pilings when boats are unloading).
The highlight of the dive turned out to be a playful sea-lion that kept swimming around us, occasionally munching one of the many huge swimming scallops.
The following day we headed out to Jakolof Bay, 20 minutes from town. Entries and exits are done off an L-shaped dock or from the beach, keeping an eye out for boaters, and the dive is carried out using an SMB.
Winter access is also possible and often preferred, because of crystal-clear water and a lack of boat traffic.
Once under water, we followed the pilings to 9m. Each was covered with a variety of colourful macro life - bright yellow clusters of sponge and white tunicates gave shelter to tiny pink juvenile Alaskan king crabs, shrimp and hundreds of small, timid sculpins. The landscape seemed to be littered with relics of the past, and California sea-cucumbers, bryozoans and nudibranchs laying delicate spiral egg casings contributed to Jakolofs distinctiveness.
Seward was next on my agenda. Once a bustling commercial fishing port, the town has gradually transformed into a thriving corner for tourism.
While having great boat diving, Resurrection Bay also offers salmon-fishing, whale-watching and kayaking opportunities.
Exit Glacier will give you a chilling look into remnants from an Ice Age long past, while the Alaska Sea Life Centre is helpful for identifying less-obvious marine critters.
I met Loic Thomas, owner of Last Frontier Diving out of Anchorage, and his group of divers for a fun-filled weekend at Kayakers Cove. The plan was to dive, catch fish for dinner and pick berries for the pancakes.
Rugged mountains lined the bay as we passed weather-beaten islands sculpted into extraordinary shapes over centuries of unrelenting weather. Enormous sea-lions lay atop many of the islands, noisily barking.
inquisitive red octopus
Kayakers Cove was a small yet sheltered spot. Divers were exiting the water as we approached - it was like a massive dive-retreat with gear everywhere. A huge log cabin provided a dry place to sleep, with a wood stove for heat.
The next day I was able to dive a sunken barge off Fox Island. A fat lingcod watched as I made my way down one side of the kelp-covered wreck. A pair of wolf-eels peered out from beneath a sheet of wreckage. Viz seemed to grow better with depth. Large rock scallops and yellow zoanthids filled my view near the bottom of the wreck at 18m.
I was soon face to face with an inquisitive red octopus the size of a basketball. It perched amid some wreckage, surrounded by swimming scallops and colourful anemones, and stretched its ruffled body as high as possible for a better view.
Without fear, it moved along the bottom in my direction. Intrigued, I brought my dive light out for a better look. Instantly the octopus latched onto it, and stayed there for the rest of the dive. Perhaps it was the warmth. But it wasnt long before I lost my hitch-hiker to something even more appealing - a tasty selection of decorator crabs in the shallows.
Today we will visit a very special place, said Loic the next day. Barwell Island is on the outer perimeter of Resurrection Bay. Youll love it!
He was right. The great chunk of rock towered before us, revealing scars from prior storms in the Gulf of Alaska. While commonly pounded by enormous swells, today was unusually calm, permitting us to do several exploratory dives.
Unlike its harsh topside, Barwells underwater terrain was carpeted in encrusting yellow northern staghorn bryozoans. The occasional sea star, clusters of strawberry soft corals, gorgonians, sponges and anemones helped to make up a kaleidoscope of colour.
I was in awe at the blueness of the water. Looking into the abyss, I saw schools of rockfish huddled together in mid water, and near the island, more were hovering in patches of kelp. Crevices, riddled throughout the steep descent, sheltered lingcod and rock greenlings.
Soon it was time to head back to Anchorage. After a quick visit to Portage Glacier, a Big Game Alaska sign caught my attention. The large animals at this facility provide excellent opportunities to photograph the sort of wildlife not readily seen by tourists - moose, reindeer, buffalo and elk.
We didnt have time to dive it, but there is year-round dive training at Smittys Cove (also called Divers Cove) in Whittier. An old barge, a bush plane and several structures have been placed to attract marine life and give divers something to look at. The bottom is between 8m in mid-cove and 27m at the outer perimeters, where a field of tall white sea-whips resides.
Like so many before us, we just couldnt do and see everything. There will be plenty for next time - ice-diving included.
|Octopuses use their suction cups to taste and smell |
|an adult lingcod cautiously watches from a reef |
|frilled anemones come in many colours in Alaska |
|mother sea otter with a baby on her belly in Kachemak Bay |
|a curious painted greenling comes a little closer |
|plumose anemone |
|Divers prepare to enter at Kayakers Cove |
|A huge sea-lion suns himself in Resurrection Bay |
|An orange plumed anemone |
|a Red Irish Lord, a variety of sculpin |
|Barwell Island offers clear water and abundant life |
|Resurrection Bay, lined with rugged mountains |
|Ed Lindquist from the Dive Shop prepares to dive |
GETTING THERE: Several airlines offer flights from Heathrow to Anchorage from around£550, including KLM via Amsterdam; British Airways via Seattle, connecting with Alaska Air; and Air Canada via Vancouver.
DIVING: Last Frontier Diving, Anchorage (001 907 2226706, www.lastfrontierdiving.com); Dive Alaska, Anchorage (001 907 7701778, www.divealaska.net); The Dive Shop, Sterling (001 907 252 9017, www.scubaalaska.com)
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, with high tourist season May-August. Some dive operations shut down November-January because of snow or bad weather. Best underwater visibility is found April-June, September and October.
COSTS: Hotels, cabins and B&Bs from£50-170 a night in summer, half to a third less in winter. Log cabin rooms are available through the Dive Shop for£30 single,£40 double, two-tank boat charters are£45 a day (youll need a rental car at£30-40 a day). Dive Alaska offers two-tank boat charters for£70 per day.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.alaskavisitorscenter.com; www.anchorage.net; www.akinformation.com
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