When most people think of diving or snorkeling they think of tropical beaches and warm waters. What few people know is that the San Juan Island’s cold water and big tides make our waters some of the most biologically diverse and rich waters in the world. It is why our underwater ecosystem can support animals as large as Orcas and Humpback Whales. Those brave enough to dive underwater here are rewarded with an amazing array of aquatic life. If you are a scuba diver, freediver or enjoy spearfishing, we at the Edenwild Boutique Hotel encourage you to get underwater while you visit Lopez Island. There are plenty of opportunities to snorkel for those who are not avid or extreme divers. We believe that the best way to appreciate and protect our waters is to dive in. While there are no dive charters or dive shops in the islands, Lopez has a number of shore dives to match anyone’s skill. Let’s go over what you should expect as you explore our depths and how you might make a dive or snorkel happen on Lopez Island even if you are traveling without gear.
Lopez Island Diving Conditions and Aquatic Life
Lopez Island has a wide variety of diving conditions and underwater environments. Our rocky coastline and the tiny islands that pepper the coast create excellent structure for wildlife and awesome diving opportunities right from shore. Ledges, deep walls, cracks and underwater caves provide habitat for an abundance of life. Vast kelp forests can also be found teaming with life. During a dive you might be lucky enough to encounter the Giant Pacific Octopus, Wolf Eel, Lingcod, Cabazen, Otters, Seals and Sea Lions. Divers of all skill levels can experience beautiful creatures such as Sea Stars, White Giant Plumose Anemones, delicate Frosted Nudibranchs, Sea Cucumbers, Rock Scallops, Dungeness Crabs, Spot Prawns and so much more. Much of this life can be seen in less than 15 feet of water and even a snorkeler has a chance of seeing many of these magical creatures.
Visibility and Currents
Visibility varies greatly in the islands but a rule of thumb is that the best clarity can be found from October through May. During this time of year visibility can reach 30 to 40 feet but 10 feet is the average in most locations. During the Summer algae blooms can drop visibility to just a few feet. Tides do play a major role in safe diving conditions for many of the advanced diving locations on the west side of the island. The tides between Lopez and San Juan Island funnel currents in a way that the water can act like a raging river and these locations can only be dove safely during slack tides by experienced divers. Locations like Odlin Park or just off the Mackaye Harbor Boat Launch can be dove safely during any tide and are better locations for beginners. On nights when the moon is new and the sky is dark, night divers can experience bioluminescence. There is something magical about seeing your profile illuminated as you move in the underwater darkness.
Spearfishing, a Sustainable Movement
In recent years spearfishing has been recognized as the most sustainable form of fishing. Spearos select individual fish for their meals. Being so closely connected to the underwater environment gives them a deep appreciation for the health and welfare of our planet’s oceans. Canadian Spearfisherwoman Valentine Thomas is a good example of someone who advocates for sustainable seafood through her sport. She recently partnered with Dr. Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington to start a blog series on seafood with a simple mission: to make the world a more sustainable place by being conscious of the food we eat. British Columbian Spearfishing Youtuber Chris Samson (PNW Samson) uses his channel to also advocate for our Northwest Waters and the sustainable spearfishing lifestyle. His channel documents and protects these underwater ecosystems through sustainable spearfishing, underwater cleanups and environmentally responsible diving. He made Northwest news in 2021 for discovering and stopping commercial crab poachers in BC. Chris and family stayed and freedove with Edenwild recently to check out his Lopez Island Youtube Video.
Underwater Harvesting on Lopez Island
Spearos in the PNW spear a variety of fish but Lingcod is definitely the most popular fish to pursue. There is a special season for spearing lings and most years the season begins in late May through June. Hand harvesting Dungeness and Rock Crab can be done during the Summer and Winter season. Even a novice snorkeler can be successful with this type of harvesting. Sea cucumbers, sea urchins, shellfish and seaweed can also be sustainably harvested by divers, just make sure you read the regulations carefully. All we ask is that visitors only harvest enough seafood to make a meal to feed your family while on island. The San Juan Islands are a unique and fragile ecosystem and we all have a responsibility to help protect and preserve them.
What Gear to Bring or Were to Rent
Diehard divers will already know what gear to bring to be comfortable and even warm in our cold pacific waters but for those who are new to cold water diving, expect temps to be in the mid 40s. Some scuba divers opt for dry suits while others dive with 7mm wetsuits. Novice snorkelers will usually dive in a closed cell scuba diving wetsuits and scuba fins. More advanced free divers and spear fisherman opt for 7mm open cell wetsuits and long fins. None of the San Juan Islands have a dive shop but there is a well established shop right in Anacortes which is only 3 miles from the San Juan Islands ferry terminal. At the Anacortes Dive Shop you can rent scuba and snorkeling gear before you get in line for the ferry at very reasonable prices.
Lopez Island’s landscapes are beautiful above and below the surface. We hope you consider diving into our cold waters on your next island visit. The brave visitors that jump in will be rewarded with a vibrant and colorful ecosystem just below the surface. Most importantly, they will surface with a greater appreciation for why we must protect our wild waters here in San Juan Island.