Diving Alaska

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Alaska, USA

AlaskaUSA
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Country: USA  Area: USA

Water Temp: 2 - 55°C (36 - 131°F)

Visibility: 2 - 80m (7 - 262 ft)

Depth Range: 12 - 67m (39 - 220 ft)

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The state of Alaska has over 17,703km (11,000 miles) of coastline, more than any other state in the United States of America, most of it untamed wilderness.  The coastline weaves its way through a maze of inlets, fjords and sounds, making boats an integral part of day-to-day life.  Town boat docks serve as parking lots while Alaskan natives do their shopping.

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Breathtakingly wild and beautiful, Alaska does not suffer fools.  The snow capped mountains, lush vegetation, endless waters, spectacular wildlife, and remoteness can make for one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.  But she can be a cruel mistress.  The harsh terrain, extreme temperatures, dangerous wildlife and isolation can just as easily take your life.

The people of Alaska (indigenous tribes, petroleum workers, fishermen, fur trappers, and survivalists among them) are as rugged and untamed as the land.  These tough, self-reliant people are bound together by a strong sense of independence.

Moose, Alaska, Credit

Marine conservation

The United State Federal Government owns approximately 65 per cent of the land in Alaska, most of it set aside as national forests and wildlife reserves.  Within these protected lands, however, the government has also allowed petroleum companies to drill oil and to move oil across hundreds of kilometres of pipeline to tanker ships on the coast.

In 1989, a spill of over 42 megaliters (11 million gallons) of crude oil blanketed Prince William Sound, reaching 1800km (1,100 miles) of coastline.

Currently, there is much heated debate over the proposed ‘Pebble Mine’ near Bristol Bay on land owned by the State of Alaska.  The proposal is to use large-scale operations to mine low-grade copper-gold-molybdenum sulphide deposits.  Escaped mining effluents hold the potential to destroy the Bristol Bay watershed and, along with it, the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

The Renewable Resources Coalition, Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association, Bristol Bay Native Association, and the Alaska Independent Fisherman’s Marketing Association are but a few of the organizations that have banded together to fight the mine.

Too Beautiful, Credit

Climate

From oceanic to artic, climate in Alaska depends on the region.  The state is separated into six regions: south central, southeast, interior, southwest, north slope and Aleutian Islands.  Nearly all scuba diving takes place in the southeast and south central regions.  Southeast Alaska includes Glacier National Park and is the wettest and warmest region of the state, with up to 152cm (66 inches) of rain per year.  It is also the only region where average daytime high temperatures are above freezing during winter.  South central Alaska is drier, receiving more snow, often greater than 254cm (100 inches).  The summers are cool and brief here.

In the land of the midnight sun, you can expect highs from 16°C –21°C (60°F – 70°F) and anywhere from 18 – 21 hours of daylight during the summer.  From the end of November through the end of January, 18-21 hours of darkness is the norm.

 
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The Diving

Scuba diving in Alaska means rising to meet many difficult challenges: frigid waters, poor visibility, large marine mammals, strong currents, steep topography and very deep water.  So many miles of coastline can mean great distances between dive sites and complicated logistics.  Trips often last for days, with rustic accommodations.  Dry suits are necessary and, depending on the dive, nitrox and decompression stops are commonly involved.  But for those experienced divers who are willing to give it a go, the experience is like none other.

Diver, Credit

The ethereal play of light and color through the ice is enough to make a mermaid weep.  The sea bottom is littered with shipwrecks and other debris.  Rocky ledges covered with invertebrates and soft corals are countless.  Divers are likely to encounter the giant octopus, wolf eel, sturgeon poachers, halibut, rock-fish, jelly fish, crabs, starfish, anemones, nudibranches and spiny lump suckers.  Most diving takes place in the winter months when visibility is at its best.  During the summer, plankton blooms and glacial runoff significantly reduce visibility.  However, there is a short season in June and July.

Glacier Bay National Park and Reserve covers 1.3 million hectares (3.3 million acres) of sheltered fjords, wild coastlines, dynamic glaciers, rugged mountains, temperate rainforest, and freshwater rivers and lakes.  Recognized as a ‘World Heritage Site’ by the United Nations, the park is part of one of the largest biosphere reserves in the world.

The steamer, ‘The Princess Sofia’, sits on a slope in 24m – 46m (80ft – 150ft) of water, 56km (35 miles) west of Juneau.  She sank in 1918 after hitting Vanderbilt Reef during a storm.  All 350 people on board perished.  The passengers of ‘The Princess Kathleen’, a large passenger liner, were more fortunate.  All were rescued after the ship ran aground off of Lena Point in 1952.  She sits on a slope in 24m – 43km (80ft – 140ft) of water.  Both of these sites have strong currents and poor visibility.

Shore dives are not abundant in Alaska and most are off of the coast of Juneau.  The dive sites have a muddy bottom, small walls with many invertebrates, and more than a few remnants of manmade structure and debris in water 12m – 21m (40ft – 70ft) deep.  Visibility if often poor.  Salvaging collectible objects such as glass bottles, crockery and china is a popular hobby for many divers.

River Sculpin, Credit

Operated by the Diocese of Juneau, the Shrine of Saint Thérèse, sits on a peninsula in Tongass National Forest, 135km (22 miles) north of downtown Juneau.  Divers need to show great respect and consideration for this holy place.  Do not dive or Sundays or any other time when parishioners are gathered. On the seaward side (opposite of Pearl Harbour), there is a nice wall and you are likely to encounter sea lions.  These mammals are playful and seemingly unafraid of humans, but they are also large wild animals.  They have been known to charge or chatter their teeth at divers, but attacks on humans are rare.

Resurrection Bay in Kenai Fjords National Park is a fjord, over 305m (1000ft) deep, running along the southeast coast of Kenai peninsula.  Seward, Homer and Whittier are the nearest towns.  With names like Hidden Treasure, Humpy Cove, Mary’s Rock, and Shark’s Tooth, to name a few; there is no shortage of great dive sites, all reached by boat.  Diving in the summer is most rewarding because of the abundance of wildlife.  Sea lions by the hundreds, king and Dungeness crab, breaching Orcas and humpback whales, puffins, cormorants and bald eagles are common this time of year.  Because of the deep waters and strong currents, a local guide is recommended.

Starfish, Credit

Another dive that takes place during the summer months is off of Port Fidalgo on the eastern side of Prince William Sound.  During July, the salmon sharks come into the sound to 

salmon during the annual salmon run.  An apex predator, the salmon shark looks very similar to the great white but only reaches 3m (9ft).  The shark’s ability to regulate its body temperature makes it quite unique and ideally suited for the cold water.  Divers have been able to get quite close to these fish.

In 1929, the ‘Aleutian’, an Alaska Steamship Company ocean liner, sank in Uyak Bay off of Kodiak Island.   She was an iron steamship 114m (375ft.) long with a 15m (50ft) beam.  In 2002, 73 years later, shipwreck historian, Steve Lloyd discovered the ship in 67m (220ft) of water.  He was the first to dive and photograph the wreck, which sits upright with her masts in tact.

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How to Get there

Most of the cities and villages in Alaska are not served by road, but can only be reached by sea or air.  The Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the closest airport served by most major airlines.  From Anchorage, it is a 2.5hour drive to Seward and an hour, twenty minutes to Whittier.

Juneau can be reached by boat or plane.  Alaska Marine Highway provides a year-round ferry service between Juneau, Alaska and Bellingham, Washington.  The trip takes three days.  Staterooms are available but not plentiful.  Many travellers simply bring sleeping bags.  A connecting ferry can take you to Whittier.  Alaska Airlines is the only airline to serve this city.  Chartered bush flying services are a popular alternative.

Fish in Alaska, Credit

Cruise ships are also an option and many have short diving excursions.  The disadvantage is a lack of time to set up and dive some of the more spectacular sites.

A boat is the very best way to get around the diving grounds of Alaska.  In remote areas, plan to be self-sufficient and hire a guide.   

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Where to Eat & Drink

Chances are you will find ‘fine dining’ only on a cruise ship or at an exclusive resort.  In general, the restaurants are modest affairs serving really good food.

Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Pinwheel, Credit

The human body burns an enormous number of calories in this rugged environment.  As a result, restaurant portions are tremendous.  King and snow crab, halibut, salmon, moose steaks and reindeer sausage are but a few must-try Alaskan dishes.

Craft breweries are a thriving industry, with seven breweries in Anchorage alone.  Most restaurants and bars offer a wide variety of fine craft beers.

In Juneau

For warm, velvety crab bisque, huge succulent king crab legs, and tender but crunchy crab cakes, Tracy’s King Crab Shack is the best. You may never be able to eat crab legs anywhere else again!

Randy’s Rib Shack, only open from May through September, serves legendary BBQ ribs, pulled pork and chicken.

Hang out with the locals at the Yukon Bar.  Listen to a live band, play a few games of pool, or trade adventure stories with the locals.

A glass of wine, Credit

In Seward

Make sure to visit Nature’s Nectars Café for your morning cup of coffee or smoothie.  Have lunch at

Le Barn Appetit.  They serve American style cuisine, however, their specialty is crêpes, both savory and sweet.

Seward Brewing Company is more than just a brewery.  Watch boats going in and out of the harbour while enjoying a craft beer with your king crab legs, burger or Korean beef tacos.

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Other Activities

Alaska is often referred to as ‘The Sportsman’s Paradise’.  Try fly fishing for trout or salmon, hunting for moose, reindeer or beer; or racing through the snow and ice on a sled pulled by a team of well-trained canines.  Hiking, wildlife watching and photography are immensely popular as well.

Kayaking, Credit

Alaska Sea Life Center in Steward has aquariums and wildlife exhibits allowing a close-up look at some of the local wildlife.  An educational and interactive center, this is a great place to visit if you are traveling with kids.

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Tips

• Carry a well-stocked first aid kit.  Be prepared to respond to medical emergencies in the backcountry.  Medical facilities will likely be a long way away.


• Learn the causes and symptoms of hypothermia.  Plan to dress in layers (preferably wool).

Low tide, Credit

• Dive insurance through DAN at a master or preferred level is required for many dives.


• You cannot plan too much!  Pack the appropriate clothes, gear and provisions  (including handheld VHF and GPS) and choose your travel partner(s) wisely.


• If you plan to rent a car and drive, get a copy of ‘Milepost’, the number one road guide for western Canada and Alaska.


• Be sure to take bug spray if you are visiting in the summer.  The mosquitos swarm in the millions.

 

• If you are traveling with children, your best option is a cruise ship or an all-inclusive resort.

Alaska has one of the highest rates of rape and sexual assault in all of the fifty United States.  While endemic in the Alaskan native population, it is advisable that woman and young girls not be alone.

Carry a well-stocked first aid kit.  Be prepared to respond to medical emergencies in the backcountry.  Medical facilities will likely be a long way away.

·  Learn the causes and symptoms of hypothermia.  Plan to dress in layers (preferably wool).

· Dive insurance through DAN at a master or preferred level is required for many dives.

·  You cannot plan too much!  Pack the appropriate clothes, gear and provisions  (including handheld VHF and GPS) and choose your travel partner(s) wisely.

· If you plan to rent a car and drive, get a copy of ‘Milepost’, the number one road guide for western Canada and Alaska.

· Be sure to take bug spray if you are visiting in the summer.  The mosquitos swarm in the millions.

 

 

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Sylvester diving

Alaska31 Dec 2014 - 1 Jan 2015

Sylvester diving with ice

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