Each year, tens of thousands of Americans learn to scuba dive. At most, a few hundred of them complete their training in Alaska.
The majority of these hearty Alaskans take their first swim beneath the waves in, of all places, Whittier. They pass through the city's famous one-way tunnel, park out past the ferry dock, pull on thick dry suits, strap on tanks and the extra weights needed to make those marshmallow-thick dry suits sink, and follow their instructor down a boat ramp into the not-quite-emerald waters of Smitty's Cove.
I asked Emily Craver, dive instructor and owner of Last Frontier Diving in Anchorage, why people would seek dive training in Alaska. "Because," she said, "they live here." And I asked if most of them kept diving in Alaska. "No," she said, "they don't." And why not? "It's cold, it's gear intensive, it's expensive, and for some people it's just a little overwhelming."
When I asked a few newly trained divers about their first dives, they often talked of the cold, the gear and the cost, but they also reported there is nothing much to see at the bottom of Smitty's Cove.
As a long-term Alaska diver, all of this saddens me. Fair enough, it is cold and expensive, but so is downhill skiing. Diving requires a truckload of gear, but no more than snowmachining or backpacking or kayaking. And any new challenge can be a little overwhelming. But nothing to see at the bottom of Smitty's Cove? Here I cry foul.
A trained diver, with a bit of experience, open eyes and a bright light, will see northern ronquils and wolf eels, rockfish and lingcod, tube worms and hermit crabs, nudibranchs and basket stars, sea grass, sea whips, anemones and kelp. That same diver, on that same dive, might see concrete balls, concrete pyramids and a sunken airplane, all placed to create habitat and to provide divers with training opportunities, and all covered with marine invertebrates and kelp. More interestingly, that same diver, once experienced enough to take on a long swim, will find actual wreckage — stuff that fell from a long forgotten pier.
According to Jerry Vandergriff, a diving instructor who once called Whittier home and who has logged more than 1,700 dives in the cove, the pier was built around 1941 and burned sometime before 1947. When the pier burned, bent and tangled railroad tracks and steam pipes fell to the seabed, along with an old cylindrical tank that held fuel for the pier's crane and the crane itself.
Nothing to see? Words, it turns out, cannot do justice to Smitty's Cove. Firsthand experience is needed. Or video. Or pictures. For now, we can settle on pictures. And the next time someone says that there is nothing to see at the bottom of Smitty's Cove, these pictures might come to mind. Along with a simple piece of advice: "Go look again." Team up with a friend or a more experienced diver, get comfortable with the thick suits and the weights and the cold, and go look again.
And by the way, winter is the best time to dive Smitty's Cove. Why? Without runoff from rain and without much of the sunlight that promotes phytoplankton growth, the water is clear. Plus, those winter air temperatures, even in Whittier, add to the Alaska experience and the Alaska stories.
Bill Streever, a biologist and affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is the author of the best-selling book "Cold" as well as "Heat" and the recently released "And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind." As a scientist, he has worked on issues ranging from the environmental effects of underwater sound to the evolution of cave crayfish to the restoration of tundra wetlands to climate change.