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Metro Parks manages two popular South Sound dive sites

November 1, 2016


Titlow Park and Les Davis Pier attract locals plus out-of-town scuba enthusiasts

Diving beneath the surface of Puget Sound offers opportunities for encounters with sea life most people only see in pictures or when visiting a marine aquarium.

Where to enjoy those experiences is not a secret to hundreds of scuba diving enthusiasts who enjoy the easy shoreline access Metro Parks Tacoma provides at two popular sites: Titlow Park and Les Davis Pier.

Divers seeking thriving underwater habitats are drawn to state-regulated marine preserve adjacent to Titlow and a lively area in Commencement Bay not far offshore from Les Davis Pier on Ruston Way.

The two locations are the most popular shore-dive sites in the South Sound. In fact, divers come from as far away as Oregon and Idaho to use them, said Jim Trask, president of the nonprofit Washington Scuba Alliance, which advocates on behalf of the state’s community of divers.

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Amy Rhodes, a scuba-diving instructor who lives near Puyallup, has been a dedicated Les Davis Pier diver for years and recently introduced her 12-year-old son to diving there. She’s got oodles of photos to show for her experiences.

“I can’t even name all the stuff that’s down there,” she said before she gradually ticked off an animal inventory: rockfish, perch, sculpin, sea cucumbers, crab, shrimp, anemones, eels and the occasional six-gill shark.

Part of the reason the pier area is so popular is access. In 2005, the Scuba Alliance spearheaded construction of a concrete staircase. That makes it easier for divers carrying loads of heavy gear to descend the steps from the street level to the beach and climb back up the steps to return.

The other attraction also is manmade. Sometime in the 1980s, chunks of concrete, perhaps the remains of a demolished bridge, were dumped in the bay and have become an artificial reef, a magnet for marine life, Trask said. White and orange plumose anemones, which look a lot like flowers, carpet the slabs. Creatures such as octopuses, which seek places to hide, find havens in holes in the narrow edges of the concrete.

Manmade structures also are key to why divers are drawn to Titlow. Pilings from an abandoned ferry dock attract a dense and diverse array of marine flora and fauna. “It’s a delight to go diving there,” said Ron Nilsen, a diver and  Bellarmine Preparatory School science teacher. “It’s shallow and totally rich in marine life.”

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It was Nilsen who spearheaded a campaign to persuade the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to designate the area as a marine preserve in 1994. The conservation rule permanently prohibits the taking of all sea life at the site but salmon.

Since then, hundreds of Bellarmine students have benefitted from firsthand encounters with the marine life at Titlow. “We’ve fully adopted it as our other classroom,” said Dave DeGroot, also a Bellarmine science teacher and director of the school’s marine chemistry program. Students track the abundance of all kinds of living things. In addition to what Rhodes has seen near Les Davis Pier, the list includes jellies, nudibranches, cabezon, greenling, sanddabs, sole, and various kinds of sea weeds and kelp.

As part of the program, students learn to dive. Titlow serves as a practice site. Caution is imperative because of the currents that rush through the Tacoma Narrows. So outings are scheduled to coincide with slack times. In addition to providing habitat, the pilings offer the safety of a recognizable landmark where students can hold on if they become disoriented, Nilsen said. At all times, students are chaperoned by master divers, among them teachers such as Nilsen and DeGroot.

The emphasis of the Bellarmine program is scientific research. This year, two seniors, Miranda White and Sophie Fiacchi, periodically dive in to take an ongoing census of sea stars around the pilings. They are curious about the lingering effects of the sea star wasting disease which decimated the Puget Sound population in 2013 and 2014. “I love being in the water,” said Fiacchi, after admitting that learning to scuba dive was initially scary. “I like how condensed all the sea life is on the pilings. If you go, you’re guaranteed to find lots of different species.”

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