Diver prepares for another dive "Hi, you need a lift?" Standing outside Valdez Airport with our stack of diving and…
“Hi, you need a lift?”
Standing outside Valdez Airport with our stack of diving and photographic gear, without visible means of transport, this offer from a friendly stranger named Jeff, who worked at the airport, was music in our ears. We had just arrived after a cross country flight and this was the beginning of our Alaska Dive adventure. The unwanted offer to drive us to town was symbolic of the kindness and willingness to help what we would encounter during our time here.
Words and images of Michael Salvarezza and Christopher P. Weaver [1
9659003] Our diving expedition started seriously the next morning after a restful night in a hotel by the water. We loaded our gear, boarded a ferry boat and set out from Valdez port to Fidalgo Bay, about 3-4 hours away. Our goal of the trip was to experience Alaska’s underwater world, to immerse ourselves in the Alaska wilderness, and possibly find salmon sharks in Prince William Sound’s waters.
But before we even arrived at Ravencroft Lodge, our base of operation for the week, we found ourselves in ice-choked waters near the Columbia Glacier. Icebergs, both small and large, and of different shapes, sizes and colors, bobbed in the cold water. Unlike other arctic areas where you could see groups of seals hanging on the iceberg, we were treated here in dozens of Otters where they hit these floating pieces of ice. The interest in snorkelling the iceberg became irresistible!
Our trip to the lodge continued, with observations of Bald Eagle, Stellar Sea Lion and False Killer Whales that keep us and our cameras occupied. Finally we arrived at a well-equipped wilderness cottage and our attention turned to the dives ahead.
Fidalgo Bay water is somewhat protected between two bands and some high mountains, but they are open to the exposed stretches of Prince William Sound and can be fast fast. We were lucky that for our time in the area the garden was calm. Our first dive was directly in front of the lodge and we immediately became fascinated: A lush garden of seagrass was home to beautifully decorated opalescent Nudibranchs, small jelly, different crabs and a variety of starfish while we further into a deeper water we found brilliantly colored starfish and foot long cucumbers wandered a bed of bull kelp. One of the dives in the group was in an oxymoronic little giant sea uncoalus hiding in a rocky camp. We did not see this person, but we came across one at our last expedition dive.
Back in the seagrass we found an old abandoned ore truck, a relic of the past history of copper mineral mining in the area. Ravencroft Lodge is built on a former mining site and besides this submerged carriage there are some artifacts scattered around the lodge and a short walk into the woods will take visitors to the original mine. Mining for copper occurred to a large extent during the early 20th century th century before abandonment due to a drop in copper prices.
Before we set up our sights on deeper dams, we utilized favorable tides to explore a glacier-lined river where salmon begin their migration from the ocean upstream to their preferred slopes deeper into the forests.
Here, in just 5 feet, we graduated the hard rush of tumbling water to stay and photograph hundreds of Chum and Pink Salmon as they raced off in desperate pressure for to pass through fallen trees, waterfalls and rocks to travel upstream. Some would dive past us at an incredible rate, while others could find rest in the eddies and pools as if they would have the breath before they made another pressure upstream. As we hiked back to our slate we were all exhausted, excited and happy to have seen one of nature’s wonders.
Dawn arrives early in Alaska during the summer months and the next day we woke up before breakfast eagerly awaited our first search for the mysterious salmon shark. When we fell with our cameras and mounted our gear we reviewed the details of what conditions we would look for and how to dive with dirty sharks. According to the experts at Ravencroft, we need flat, calm water to detect the small spine that cuts through the water. Once discovered we have to find a “player”. This is a shark that is interested in feeding and not too bad to be unauthorized. It may take time we were told, and it actually did. The fact is that after several hours of viewing we found no one. This pattern would be repeated in the next few days. We saw an individual on the surface, but we could never get into the water with one.
Nature is unpredictable: an unusually cold summer may be the reason we did not find salmon sharks during our visit. Theories about why lax sharks frequent these waters and long for the surface during the summer months focus on the water temperature. A warm-blooded shark, they can rise from deeper, colder waters to suck in the warmer surfaces of the ocean. The season to catch them is short, only a few weeks in June and July. Our pursuit will continue in a future journey with the hope of finally catching photographs of this elusive creature!
After our search for sharks we decided to pop up some rocky outcroppings nearby. In a place called “The Magic Garden” we found carpets of large plumos and metridium anemones that adorned the stone blocks. In addition, we photographed Black Rockfish and other species of Alaskan codfish. The dive sites generally consist of a rocky sloping terrain to about 70 or 80 feet deep, when they usually fall into a vertical wall to depth of 600 feet or more.
We continued our survey the next day to several previously undeveloped places. It’s always exciting to dive a new place and see what’s next. We were not disappointed. Our first dive placed us in the relatively clear water with a beautiful bottom topography of rocks and cracks. We found several lined Nudibranchs, as well as a couple of Lemon Peel Nudibranchs. These measured the size of a baseball and were stunningly beautiful.
Alaska is famous for large groups of jellyfish, sometimes called “smack”. When we investigated the other of our “undiscovered” dive sites, we found ourselves in a soup of Moon Jellies, Lion Mane Jellies and Big and Terrible Look Sea Nettles. Protected by a dry suit and dry hood, the only vulnerable stain on our bodies is against a stitch area around our mouth … and that’s clearly what we were stabbed! Lion’s Mane Jellies feed on Moon Jellies and we saw, transfixed, as a slow exercise after a Lion’s Mane of a Moon Jelly took place just in front of our eyes. Moon Jelly, in this case, avoided catching and swimming safely away.
Diving Prince William Sound is very border diving. It makes diving on the timetable and the wishes of Alaskan wilderness. Sometimes the salmon sharks are there, sometimes they are not. Sometimes, big smacks of Moon Jellies so thick you can lose your mate a few feet away pops up and sometimes they do not. The visibility varies from a few feet to 50 feet, and divers who do not look at their flow power can easily mess up clouds of silt without a doubt. The weather in Alaska plays a big part in what takes place on and under the water. This is the essence of adventure!
As we continued exploring Prince William Sounds water, other dive sites led us to meet colorful decorator crabs, groups of crinoids and flag flakes dancing and flipping away as we approached our cameras.
Our last trip on the trip gave us face to face with a red Irish herring fish lurking hotly on the ground in anticipation of the change. But it was the sight of a huge sea-scale calf in a rocky crack that made the dive worthwhile. As it pointed to us from the safety of its lair, Octopus seemed to be sizing us up. What were these strange bubble blowing creatures? Are they a danger? The octopus decided we were … and remained safe in his rocky home. We decided to respect their wishes, ascension to the submarine and start planning our return trip.
Visitors should plan to arrive at Anchorage International Airport. From there it is a five to six hour drive to Valdez or a short 30-minute flight at RAVN Air, a domestic regional operator. Note that RAVN aircraft have small luggage areas, so travelers may need to check large carryon bags at an additional cost. Divers will plan to arrive in Valdez one day before the assigned download time. The only access to the lodge is through float plan or boat transport. A water taxi to the lodge costs $ 700, so be sure to be in town in time for the lodge’s ordered pickup.
Diving and accommodation
Accommodation in Valdez is available in several hotels. We recommend Best Western for its friendly staff, great service and proximity to the quay where boat pickups take place.
Ravencroft Lodge is a fishing and dive lodge located in Fidalgo Bay. This is the only dive operator in the area. Dive sure, for the nearest recompression chamber is in Seattle!
When to Go
The only season to dive in Alaska is the short summer, generally June and July.
US dollars and major credit cards are accepted at the lodge and in Alaska.