The Grizzly’s roar was getting louder with every passing second. An early morning mist made it more difficult to tell from what direction it would appear. I slowly made my way through a sparse stand of straggly trees and climbed to the top of a large boulder. There I waited, shivering from the bite of an early autumn chill. It was questionable if I would be able to hold my ground when I saw the bear. My blood was on fire. Was I too close?
Suddenly, a female Grizzly appeared in the clearing. Two small cubs silently paused in her shadow. She raised her mighty body in a maternal display of defiance towards her would-be challengers, a small pack of wolves. Giving second thought to the situation, they carefully retreated and moved on.
I could not believe I had just witnessed such a rare sight. On a dive trip, no less. Yet, it was only the beginning of the adventures that brought my dive buddy and I to this vast wilderness.
A Burrowing Sea Cucumber feeds in
the nutrient rich currents.
Our two-week September journey-we squeaked in before the weather went from generally cold to damn cold-began in Anchorage, Alaska, the largest city in the state. We found rental tanks, weights and an abundance of helpful information from several local divers. Although 6-7mm wetsuits may be tolerable during the summer (50-60°F water), even hearty divers prefer drysuits during the winter (30-40°F water). There are several easy shore sites south of Anchorage and, if planned ahead, the possibility of arranging boat diving through some of the fishing charter operations.
A remote fishing village called Seldovia was our first dive destination. It was a good three hours on the Seward and Sterling Highways to Homer, but the postcard-worthy fields of tall pink fireweed and conifer dotted landscape made the 230-mile journey pass quickly. Sure-footed white Dall sheep, beaver dams and several moose grazing dangerously close to the roadside made us feel like we were driving through an IMAX film. Once in Homer, Seldovia can be reached via the Alaska Marine Highway’s auto ferry or by bush plane. We opted for the ferry and enjoyed a relaxing ride across Kachemak Bay.
Smitty's Cove is popular for both recreational
divers and dive training.
Seldovia offers a mecca of excellent above and below water adventure opportunities and numerous sites for shore-diving. After checking out two excellent sites near town-Old Cannery Dock and Inside Beach-we decided to head out to nearby Jakolof Bay (a body of water that ought to perhaps be given a different name), just 20 minutes north of town, and Outside Beach, where we set up camp.
Watching for Black Bears and smelling the sweet aroma of ripe cranberries, I almost missed the winding turn to Jakolof’s small wooden L-shaped boat dock. Parking was plentiful, and like most places to dive in Alaska, location signage and restroom facilities were pretty much nonexistent.
Once underwater we followed the pier pilings, each covered with more colorful life than the previous one. After making our way down a gently sloping bank to 30 feet, we found an explosion of bright yellow clusters of sponge and burgundy plumed tube worms, which gave shelter to tiny pink juvenile Alaskan King Crabs, shrimp and hundreds of small, timid Sculpins. The terrain seemed littered with relics of the past. Giant forgotten tires covered in orange and white anemones told of Seldovia’s mining history, while huge cages of bent steel are all that’s left of the area’s once prosperous crabbing industry. Shrimp pots, still covered in net, were slowly being engulfed by invertebrates. California Sea Cucumbers, Staghorn Bryozoan and delicate nudibranchs laying their spiral egg casings greeted us at every turn. Following a young adult Wolf Eel, I anxiously watched as it moved through old bottles and pottery to a dark spot inside a discarded, antique oven. More than a dive site, this area was also an awesome look into Seldovia’s earlier days.
Starfish and scallops
brighten this cold underwater world.
For several more days we dived Outside Beach, a half-mile wide, crescent-shaped cobble beach a few hundred feet from our campsite. Not far from Seldovia, we had privacy as well as easy access to the local fire department for air fills. Waiting until high tide made the long walk to the water bearable, especially when carrying two underwater cameras.
Once in the water, a quick swim over what seemed like a desert of sand brought us to one of the many reefs running parallel to the shore. I paused just outside a dense oasis of kelp in 40 feet of water. Like a pied piper, my fin wake had attracted a following of little flat fish, and in front I waited for the passing of an enormous Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. Giving it a wide berth, I ventured into a kelp thicket, where I found a blanket of pink and lavender coraline algae covering the reef. Also covering the rocks were limpets, chitons, Ringed Snails and small abalone. Redrock Crab and shrimp hid in the many crevices, while burrowing sea cucumbers, Tube-Dwelling Anemones and Lacy Bryozoans filtered the water for a meal. As for fish, blue-green Kelp Greenlings posted random territorial watches near the bottom as groups of perch glided silently overhead. Aside from the occasional rockfish, Red Irish Lord and Cabezon, my favorites were the tiny Painted Greenlings scrambling about, playing hide and go seek with us. Exiting the water, I felt we could have easily spent several weeks exploring this place, but time was limited. Grudgingly passing up the kayaking, aerial sightseeing and trophy size halibut fishing that made Kachemak Bay famous, we set out for Whittier.
Back towards Anchorage, over Turnagain Pass, we hurried to Portage to catch the Alaska Railroad’s Whittier-bound rail ferry just in time to motor onto a flatbed rail car. Noticing several other divers loading gear and tanks, we soon learned that Smitty’s Cove in Whittier was often used as an open water training site. Once in Whittier, we followed the group to Smitty’s Cove, past a boardwalk of tourist shops and a tame reindeer.
Soon this little feller will grow into one of
Alaska's famed trophy-sized halibut.
Entering the water down a wide broken-up concrete path we headed out to the center of the cove underwater to a series of artificial reefs. Finding what was left of an old bush plane, I hesitated to disturb a huge Ling Cod resting inside the encrusted cockpit. Painted Greenlings, Dungeness Crabs, and orange and white Burrowing Sea Cucumbers found shelter in a thick forest of kelp surrounding what was left of a sunken steel barge. An array of schooling Tube Snouts moved mid-water in unison, while clouds of salmon fry stayed close to man-made reefs of old tires and concrete blocks. The bottom went from about 25 feet (mid-cove) to 90 feet at the outer perimeter where we found 20 to 30 white Sea Whips enjoying a mild, nutrient rich current.
After playing with a resident adult Wolf Eel and several Swimming Scallops, a friendly sea lion demanded a bit of attention. In no time at all it drew several divers into its graceful dance of spins and circles.
Like many previous travelers who tried to do and see everything Alaska has to offer in only two weeks, we begrudgingly ascended one last time and left vowing to return one day soon. As we flew off, the first storm of winter moved in, and snow fell lightly from the sky, landing on the shoreline of Seldovia, in the waters of Jakalof and a million dive sites we missed. Below, Wolf Eels still prowl, giant halibut continue to grow and skittish Painted Greelings wait for the next bubble blower to join their hide and seek game.
The Alaska Marine Highway
(800) 382-9229 or
Alaska Division of Tourism
Alaska Railroad Corporation
(800) 544-0552 or
Seldovia Chamber of Commerce
Alaska SeaLive Center
(800) 224-2525 or
Sunshine Sports (dive store in Anchorage)
Denali National Park
(800) 622-7275 or