Hacktreks under water
Why I Stopped
The seafloor under the pier is a nightmare world of death. It
is littered with the remnants of once living animals
Photo of prize winning Sturgeon
by Jeffrey Beyl
I have always wanted to venture into the underwater world. Since I
was a young boy I longed to enter the "silent world" that
Jacques Cousteau wrote about in his book of the same name. Cousteau
was, at least to me, every bit the hero that Scott Carpenter and John
This yearning to go underwater cemented into my psyche when I was eight
years old. I was swimming in the ocean below our house. I was treading
water about ten yards offshore when suddenly, to my amazement, an octopus
jetted by. An octopus! I was able to catch it by an arm and drag it
into the beach where my mother promptly freaked out. The octopus was
scared to death also, Im sure. It measured about four feet from
tip to tip. I remember my father jumping up and dragging it back out
into the surf to let it go. But I was snagged. An octopus, wow! To an
eight year old kid that was about as cool as it could get.
I remember another occurrence around this same time frame; we were all
at the beach again. My brother and I were out body surfing when my mother
suddenly rushed out into the water, grabbing both of us and dragging
us back in toward shore. Parents were running around hysterically yanking
their kids in from the water. It was like that scene from the movie
Jaws. What was happening? A pod of Orcas, although in those days we
called them Killer Whales, were swimming out beyond the breakwater.
I remember standing on the beach transfixed and I wanted, oh so badly,
to see one of them up close. What were these things, I thought. What
is this ocean that houses so many strange and wonderful things? I was
scared. I thought theyd kill and eat me but I was still fascinated.
I had to find out.
So I learned how to scuba dive. I spent most of my teen years snorkeling
out over the inshore reef in front of our house. Id grab a handful
of kelp, pull myself down under the waves to simply hold on and watch.
Sometimes I used a Hawaiian sling to spear fish. I would frequently
build a driftwood fire on the beach before submerging under the water
so that whatever I speared I could eat right away, fresh. Not only did
I eat the various fish I speared but I also cooked many types of shellfish
and kelp. I had visions of being "One" with the ocean.
I sometimes dream I can breathe underwater. Like a fever dream that
reoccurs, I sense that Im under the water and have no air and
Im too deep to reach the surface in time. But just at the moment
of panic when the realization hits me that I may die, I part my lips
..inhale. When I open my eyes under the water I can see. This
amazing ability comes true for me every time I scuba dive.
I love it. Ive dived all over the world. I have dived Australias
Great Barrier Reef. I have dived in Hawaii, the Caribbean; the giant
kelp forests off the coast of southern California, the glacier cut walls
of the San Juan Islands in Washington State. I live in the Pacific Northwest
so I often dive in Puget Sound which is considered world-class diving.
I now have, indeed, seen Orcas underwater. I have photographed the Big
Skate (Raja binoculata), petted wolf eels (Anarrhichthys ocellatus)
and helped capture the giant Pacific Octopus (Octopus dolfleine) for
tagging and research that measured up to eleven feet across tip to tip.
One of my favorite dives in Puget Sound is under a local pier called
The Edmonds Oil Dock. It lays out into a section of water where the
currents flow quickly by. When diving the Oil Dock one must be cognizant
of the ebb and flood of the water. It is best to dive here at the slack
before the flood. That way when the dive is nearing its end and you
are swimming back toward shore you use the flooding current to help
you in. If you did it on the ebb youd be fighting the pull of
the current and could tire and be swept out into the middle of the sound.
It is a picturesque scene with the rugged, snow peaked Olympic mountain
range looming in the distance and the southern end of Whidbey Island
off to the right. Container ships pass through carrying their cargo
down to Seattle and ferries cross the water to Kingston and back. The
Oil Dock itself stands out over one of the better dive sites in the
region. It is looked upon by local divers as a site with "a lot
of life". The pilings are covered with mussels, anemones and tube
worms. Swimming around and through the pilings divers get to see an
incredible array of invertebrate sea life. To look through the plate
of a face mask one would say it is beautiful. There are colors and textures
and swaying patterns one can only imagine. There are undulations and
hypnotic movements as mesmerizing and entrancing as anything we can
see on land.
This is why we dive.
I have dived below this pier many, many times both in daylight and in
the darkness of night. I carry an underwater camera now rather than
a Hawaiian sling as I did in my youth. The walls of my study are adorned
with many photographs that I have taken from under the pier. I particularly
enjoy submerging and just sitting on the bottom in anywhere from twenty
to forty or fifty of water, out before the steep drop off near the end
of the Oil Dock. I calmly sit or lay on the sandy bottom, breathing
slowly and watching. Invariably after a few minutes of doing nothing
the world below the pier begins to move and go about its day around
me while I watch. Dungeness Crabs (Cancer magister) lift up from the
bottom, sand cascading from their carapaces, and crawl away sideways
in search of food. Sometimes they rear back and brandish their claws
at me in defense. Various species of rock fish and sea perch tentatively
fin inward to look at me while staying just beyond arms reach. Plume
worms (Eudistylia vancouveri) along the base of the pilings slowly,
tentatively poke their maroon and purple feathery plumes out of their
tubes. Giant Barnacles (Balanus nubilis) sweep their fanlike cirri in
and out to catch any passing microscopic plankton. Huge, white Plumose
anemones (Metridium senile) billow forth thick and muscular to sway
in the current. Rays of sunlight shaft down through the water column
casting an eerie yet spellbinding luminosity to the exotic scape.
The longer I sit, the less movement I do in all of my unwieldy equipment,
the more my breathing slows and the more I am accepted by the denizens
of this curious littoral world.From out of the green eelgrass a Penpoint
Gunnel (Apodichthys flavidus) snakes its green body along the sand,
a dark, black line running through its eyes. It sees, or senses me,
its six inch, eel-like body coming to a halt in a S-shape on the sand
by me. I lean slowly toward it, taking my time. I place my 20 mm macro
lens in front of its face and shoot its photo. I have that photo on
my wall. There are other bottom dwelling fish nearby and as I become
more accustomed to the great variety of life around me they blend more
into my vision. Just to my left, next to one of the pilings is a Sturgeon
Poacher (Agonus acipenserinus), (I have its photo on my wall as well.
In fact, I won 2nd place in an underwater photo contest with this picture).
With shiny plates along its sides and its whisker-like cirri pointing
downward it resembles a prehistoric creature.
One of the prettier fish of the area is the Mosshead Warbonnet (Chirophis
nugator). One is sitting among some rocks to my right. He blends in
so well with his surroundings that had I not been so attuned to what
was going on around me I would never have seen him. I take his photo
as well. Then I notice another of my favorite fish, the Sailfin Sculpin
(Nautichthys oculofasciatus) with its long dorsal fin undulating along
the length of its six inch body like a flag in the wind. It is truly
a beautiful fish. I have held them in my hand and watched in awe at
the sinuous waving of their tiny dorsal sail fin.
When divers swim frantically along, making noise in their ungainly way
they scare away more marine life than theyll ever see. I prefer
to sit on the bottom and let life occur around me. I try to become a
part of the life going on around me rather than an intruder, an invader.
I photograph the fish and creatures as they happen by. There are always
many Hermit Crabs skittering across the sands inhabiting many types
of shells. I like to think of the Hermit crabs as my principle friends
under the water. They usually come right up to me. One time I reached
out slowly to one and it actually left its shell house and crawled exposed
and unprotected right into my hand. I always thought that was the ultimate
in trust. When I set it gently down it inched back into its shell and
And yet. Yet through that same face mask and from a different frame
of mind these capturing visions can seem oh so different. I had a mishap
one time under the pier, a friend had kicked his fin into my face and
dislodged my mask and knocked my regulator right out of my mouth. I
was ninety feet down. It was dark that deep. I couldnt see and
I couldnt breathe. I was well trained, however, and I found my
regulator and my mask and I was okay. I then lay on the bottom, calming
down, and I thought, Whoa, that was weird! I looked around me and the
same things that I once looked upon as beautiful and alluring were now
rapacious and relentless incarnations of death. I looked at the world
under the pier as a world of life and death on an almost sub-basic level.
Every creature, vertebrate and invertebrate is always on guard of impending,
imminent, sneaky, fast approaching and gluttonous death while at the
same time out to inflict that same end upon another unsuspecting animal.
Had I not found my regulator and drowned, they would have come to my
..well, thats what I lay there thinking.
This is truly an outlandish and very hostile landscape. The Sunflower
Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) for example, the largest sea star in
the world, reaching at times upward of four feet across, is the most
sanguinary, insatiable creature of the littoral zone. This creature
has no eyes, no brain, and no head as we know, yet it is possibly the
most voracious creature to crawl the surface of the earth. It is every
bit, pound for pound, the predator monster that any T-Rex or Velociraptor
ever was within its environment. The thought of drowning and descending
to the bottom to be consumed by this monster is revolting. When it encounters
prey (such as a clam) it wraps its muscular, ray-like arms around it,
pulls it apart, everts its stomach to wrap around and slowly digest
the hapless animal. I have a series of photographs of sea stars with
their stomachs disgorged and feasting in this manner and I thought of
this as I lay on the bottom that day.
The seafloor under the pier is a nightmare world of death. It is littered
with the remnants of once living animals. I lay upon layers of shells
piled up to twelve and eighteen inches deep like dead bodies. There
are creatures crawling and slithering over this killing field in constant
search of other creatures to consume, leaving their calcareous, skeletal
remains to pile up on top thus continuing the process. The ocean floor
below the pier is home to a never ending quest for food and sustenance
thus inflicting death. At the same time it is an unending existence
in fear of horrific massacre and utter consummation by another. And
these were were my thoughts as I lay there gathering my wits after my
friend kicked my mask and regulator away.
The Moon Snail (Polinices lewisii) is another common predator that crawls
around under the pier in constant search of food. It has an interesting
and reviling way of consuming its prey. It licks the preys shell
with its rasp like tongue, or radula, thus creating a hole through which
it tears out tiny pieces of meat and sucks them into its mouth. If you
have ever found a clam shell on the beach with a tiny hole in it this
is evidence that this clam was killed and eaten by a Moon Snail. Oh
yeah, thats real nice.
My next dive under the Oil Dock I decided to do a different kind of
dive. Instead of taking my camera I took a baggie filled with small
chucks of baitfish that I had bought at a local tackle shop. As I found
various creatures I held out pieces of the fish to watch them eat. In
each case the animal took the piece of food and in its own specialized
way consumed it while I watched in fascination and horror. I hand fed
these little pieces of fish to other fish. I fed them to anemones, sea
stars and watched as crabs took them from my gloved fingers and tore
them apart in their pincers to stuff them into their mouths. During
this dive I picked up any Cockle shells I found so that I could place
them next to a Sunflower Star or a Moon Snail and watch as the terrified
Cockle pushed out its muscled foot to flip itself frantically away from
Wow! No wonder I got creeped. These were living animals I was playing
with. I thought about it after the dive. What if I had drowned that
day? How would I feel? We all know how it works in the ocean. Every
fish is eaten by a bigger fish. Life and death, the circle of life;
call it what we will. I started having bad dreams. Tyrannosaurus Rex?
Saber-Toothed Tigers? These animals under the pier could be used as
monstrous aliens in any scary science fiction movie. That was it! I
decided I had had enough. I cleaned my diving equipment and put it away
in the shed.
People began asking me "Why dont you dive anymore?"
How could I explain what was going on in my thoughts? My usual answer
became a quick one geared toward getting off the subject fast. "Oh,
Ive been busy." Sometimes I blamed others, "Ive
been helping out on my sons basketball team." How could I
tell people that I had given myself the willies? Soon enough people
stopped asking and I stopped diving for over two years. My dry suit
and gear bag collected more and more dust in the shed. My underwater
camera reposed in its case untouched.
But one day a friend was over and he was looking at the photos on the
wall of the study. He asked me about them and as I explained them to
him my interest rekindled. Later on I dug out my underwater slide show
and as I looked at my own collection of photos cast upon the wall I
began rediscovering what had been so interesting about the underwater
world all along. I realized that I had many books about the ocean and
diving. I had many shells that I had collected the world over and I
went about touching them and remembering finding them, I thought back
to my last dive under the Oil Dock where I had fed the various denizens
of the deep. I began to understand that, yes, it is the circle of life
I had been a part of. And I realized that that was okay. It is nature
in all of its glory. This is what had so fascinated me about the ocean
and its strange inhabitants.
This and very act of diving itself. The freedom while under water is
something I have always loved. The weightless, buoyant feeling of passing
freely through the water column surely must be what the astronauts feel
in gravity-less space. We may have a steel tank strapped to our back,
we may be all wrapped up in our dive suits, breathing through a hose
but it is a feeling of freedom and release. I remembered how I would
sit on the bottom and blend into the underwater surroundings as much
as I could and how the animals under the pier began accepting me and
allowing me to witness their life and death. I remembered that little
hermit crab leaving its shell and crawling into my hand. I remembered
that this was precious to me. I began to understand all over again the
balance of nature and our place in it.
So, did I stop diving or did I just get busy doing other things for
a while? Those other things are important and I will continue doing
them but not to the extent that I no longer don my face mask, place
the regulator into my mouth and descend to the silent world that Jacques
Cousteau told me about when I was young.
© Jeffrey Beyl
reviews the new Atlantic DVD
More World Destinations in Hacktreks
all rights reserved