Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Day 17: Manitou Beach

Great day for a lunchtime swim. Lots of interesting animals and the water was bright and clear, although a little murky near the end of the swim. Underwater pictures getting a little better, see below! Here's Murden Cove looking E to Skiff Point (left photo).'s a diver's eye view looking East across the Sound. You can just make out Seattle in the right background behind the pilings. This image is half underwater showing the bottom in the right foreground, the partly cloudy sky above, and the sky reflected on the mirrored surface (right photo). Wow, now you know why I keep coming back.

air temp: 44F
water temp: 46F
Jan 27, noon, mostly sunny
wind 0-5 from NE
medium tide, rising
visibility 15-25 feet
today's distance: 1.17 mile
total so far: 18.18 miles (1/3 around Bainbridge!)

today's notables:
infinite sand dollars
lots of geoducks
moon snails
big basket stars
huge sand/eelgrass flats

Getting back in at sand dollar heaven in Murden Cove was a treat. With some more time and better light, I was determined to get some good underwater photos and here they are.

It's interesting to swim over and look at the patterns of the animals (left). Here's a closeup (right), you can just make out their little tube feet if you click on the picture and enlarge it.

With the nice light, it was lucky to be in this area with so many fun animals like this big 20-arm sunflower star with the bright orange (right).

Also this anemone (left).

And one of my favorites, the moon snail (right).

As I left Murden Cove and turned north up Manitou Beach I saw a person fly fishing and tried to swim unobtrusively behind to avoid scaring any fish. The only problem was the shallow water, I had to pull myself through using my hands, it was too shallow to swim or even kick past.

Turning the corner to Manitou Beach also brought a cold, sweeping current running against me, strong enough that it was difficult to make forward progress. I had to put my head down and swim upstream hard for a few minutes to get through. After a couple hundred yards the current let go of me and the swimming was more reasonable.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Day 16: Murden Cove

Murden Cove is locally famous for large sand and mud flats, easily visible from Manitou Beach Road on a low tide. Swimming the bay on a medium tide means swimming over acres of sand flats in 8-12 feet of water. I ventured out further from shore than usual, since the water close to shore was only 3-4 feet deep.

It was a magical feeling to be slicing through glassy-smooth ocean waters as much as a quarter mile from shore, while looking down at the rippling sandy bottom. It's great fun to put my mask halfway above wagter so I can see both above and below the water at the same time, living in both worlds. I tried to get that in a photo, but it didn't quite work out. Meanwhile, just a few animals to see on the surface, but plenty of evidence of life in the sand.

air temp: 40F
water temp: 45F
Jan 24, 1pm, mostly sunny
wind calm, ocean glassy
medium-high tide, falling
visibility 10-15 feet
today's distance: 1.04 mile
total so far: 17.01 miles

today's notables:
sand dollars
lots of geoducks
huge sand flats

Once again today, I hoped to look for the Olney, as described by Lyon McCandless. However, today I have the rare treat of going out with my family. They dropped me off at Yaquina, and headed to Murden Cove to play on the beach and await the arrival of the strange daddy sea creature. So there wasn't much time to linger and search.

As I head north to Murden Cove, I hover over acres and acres of sand flats. The water is like glass and the sky is partly sunny so it's an incredible day to be floating on the ocean. I dive down to the bottom now and then to take photos and check out something interesting.

I found one dungeness crab posed nicely for a photo (right). Geoducks were plentiful, even with the geoduck dredging going on in deeper water offshore. It's a crazy thing, blasting the ocean bottom with a giant hose (hydraulic dredge) to blow away the sand and leave the clams lying naked to be picked up by divers. It's like tearing up the forest to get the animals.

Finally, nearing shore and the pickup by the enthusiastic team of my wife and kids, I found sand dollars. Too many to count. Here's a closeup of a careless-looking jumble, and a more distant shot showing a tiny fraction of this sand dollar riot. Wow.

Arriving at the beach, my family is visiting with a local woman and her young son. I'd love to stay and chat, but once I stand up in the 40 degree air, after being in the 45 degree water for 45 minutes or so, I only have a few minutes before I start to get REALLY COLD. Walking to my entry point is fine even when it's cold, I actually get sweaty walking in two neoprene wetsuits. Swimming is fine (except for the icy fingers on entry), so long as I stay active. But getting out wet into cold air is not good, it has to be very brief. I peel out of my wetsuits and into warm clothes and I'm fine in a few minutes.

Ahead, the gorgeous Manitou Beach and then some beaches I've never seen. They show up as being below some big bluffs on the topo map, so I don't know about access. Could this be a difficult stretch after Manitou Beach? Will I find some trouble in making progress soon?

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Day 15: Yaquina

I had to swim, even though the water was still a bit murky from the record floods of 2 weeks ago. Yeomalt to Yaquina was the sandiest part of Bainbridge so far. Visibility wasn't great but the sun was out so I could still see the bottom in 10-15 feet or a little deeper in spots.

It was fun to look backwards at some of the distance I've travelled (photo: taken from Yeomalt Point looking south, past Wing Point and Restoration Point in the far background). Wow, that misty point in the distance is a far piece for a swim.

I got out at Yaquina Road, just as dark was falling (2nd photo at right: from Yaquina looking north to Murden Cove.) I have a note from a local diver, Lyon McCandless, asking about the sunken barge off Yaquina and I don't know yet if it's still there, I was losing light fast when I got to Yaquina and didn't have a chance to look for it.

I did use my new underwater camera, and I have some beginner shots of some animals below. The photos above are taken from the water, from a swimmer's eye view while standing in chest deep water. I want to take more of these to try to capture the feeling of the swims.

air temp: 41F
water temp: 45F
Jan 23, 4pm, mostly sunny
wind from northeast, 5-10 mph
medium-high tide, falling
visibility 10-15 feet
today's distance: 1.32 mile
total so far: 15.97 miles

today's notables:
lots of geoducks
moon jellyfish
great blue heron (on a floating dock)
tern-like bird (?!) (seems unlikely, but I saw it!)

Yeomalt to Yaquina is a hard beach to see, mostly private. Not sure what I'll find. The beach is mostly rocky and gravelly at first, with some sand patches. Not especially dramatic but I hope I'll have an uplifting time anyway. I could use a boost.

I have to admit to feeling out of sorts when I start, I'm having a hard time getting into the spirit of this adventure. I'm relying on the underwater tour to take me somewhere. What will it be, and how will it happen?

I swim past the Yeomalt houses and cross over to the beach below a bluff. I can see the Yaquina exit far ahead, it looks a bit too far. Have I miscalculated my mile?

Ahead I see a great blue heron on a floating raft. How close will it let me swim? Magnificent bird, I used to live in Bodega Bay, California and watched great blue herons hunt in the fields near my house, pulling snakes and lizards out of the grass. I once thought they only hunted in water. That reminds me of the Osprey I saw from my house on Vashon Island a few years back. A lone Osprey that hunted in the field next to my house. I searched and searched the literature, and found info that uniformly said osprey hunt exclusively in water. Finally I found a reference that said very rarely hunts on land. Whew.

So now comes the impossible bird sighting. I saw an arctic tern crash into the water just ahead of me. I know terns from the Connecticut shore, and I might have mistaken a common tern for the arctic tern, but I'm positive it was a tern. Info says no, they winter in the southern hemisphere. Closest period when they could be here is either October or March. So, it probably wasn't a tern, but then again I think it was a tern. Maybe I can get some authoritative advice, I'm not a real birder and I won't pretend to be. Fun bird, nevertheless, and I can't find any similar birds that are expected here in the winter. Advice anyone?

The beach gets sandier and I expect geoducks but don't see any. I'll keep looking for their telltale chimney siphons sticking out of the sand. Eventually I see a geoduck smokestack sticking much further out of the sand than the typical short chimney. I pull my camera out of the fanny pack and try to get a picture.

With 2 wetsuits and no weights it's hard to get to the bottom. I'm swimming with no weights for safety, I like floating high for this swim. I can position myself vertically and float at neck level with no effort expended. Nice, except when I want to hit the bottom. I'm in about 12 feet of water and it takes the effort of Hercules to get to the bottom with one hand on my camera. And as soon as I quit paddling I bob immediately back up to the surface. I like it, but bottom photos now show up as a royal pain.

Kicking hard I manage to get one marginal photo of the geoduck (left).
You can't really tell because the photo is from about 2 or 3 feet above the bottom, but this geoduck had it's siphon about 8 inches out into the water. One thing you can see clearly in this photo is the fun little waves in the sand (1/2 inch to 1 inch tall). Like they're trying to provide visual contrast, the wavelets collect dark detritus on the trailing edge of the peak.

Shortly after seeing this odd geoduck, I found my first perfect jellyfish of this swim. I think it's a moon jelly, and I got this marginal photo. It's going to take some practice to get good underwater shots, but it's fun to start trying. Let me know if you like looking at the efforts (right). Again, nice view of the sand waves on the bottom.

And now I realize I'm fully into waterworld, my head is clear of the detritus of a lousy workday and tensions from getting what feels like undeserved abuse. Must have offended people by getting all mavericky. Who cares, under the water that all just dissolves away. Bye-bye.

This swim is definitely long, I'm fighting a modest current, getting pushed around a bit by a front quartering wave train that slaps just enough to throw off my stroke. Small but significant whitecaps that are stuffing me a bit and murking up the water. It's almost faster to keep my arms tucked along my sides and duck my head a bit to bull through the waves instead of reaching over them. The Yaquina exit is just ahead, and it seems to stay just ahead for too long.'s getting dark. It's getting dark fast. I realize I'm annoyed, just as I also realize that I'm into the swim so much that I don't really want to hurry to the end. Why am I pushing? I should have just enough daylight to reach the beach.

I know the answer, I love to push hard now and then, just for fun. I love to run up hills, more than flats and way, way more than downhill. I'm not efficient as a runner and I don't run very fast, so it's not that rewarding to accelerate on the flat. But if I'm any kind of athlete, it's an endurance guy (especially once I passed 40) and pushing up a hill gives me a rush of fun. Driving into Yaquina feels like that, and I'm having workout fun now.

Yaquina beach is not really a place name, but a road end park. Here on Bainbridge, some of the best water access points are old road rights of way that are city-owned still and legal for everyone to use. Many are undeveloped, but Yaquina has steps down to a sandy beach. I'm there, I fire off a few pictures and head up the beach to the car. Very nice. It's cold today, and I'm glad the car is only a few steps away. I strip down to skin quickly to get out of the wet gear. There's a bad moment until I get some clothes on, wet in the 41F air, but it doesn't last.

Lyon McCandless reports on "The End of the Olney" in his blog, reporting on a sunken stern from a submarine chaser. I found out thanks to a few nice emails from Lyon. I was planning to look for it, but I had to get out since it was getting dark fast when I got to Yaquina. I'll plan to look for it when I get in at Yaquina for my next swim. Sorry Lyon, I really meant to look.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Flooded out

Argh, I went down to the beach today and found the water totally out of shape. Recent floods have made the water too murky for a good swim.

Here on Bainbridge we avoided the flood disaster (nice to live on an island!), but the ocean has collected the mud from all of the area's rivers and our Bainbridge ocean has it just the same as the rest of the region. Might be another week until I can get out in the water and see something.

Too bad, with my new UNDERWATER CAMERA, calm weather and sun, I was looking forward to a great day. Here's a sample of what I can do now, as I'm teaching my kids to snorkel in the local pool, in advance of a trip to Mexico in a few weeks. They're doing great and the little guy's only just turned 4!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Day 14: Yeomalt Point

Inky-oily grey below and velvety grey above. The kind of grey that cheers the locals and tears the California transplants. Driving to the beach, most of the cars had their lights on at noon. January on Puget Sound.

Image: Wing Point looking east from Eagle Harbor on a grey day, with Seattle in the background

Swim around Bainbridge is back to normal, the snow is gone and Ocean Guy is back in the water. I wonder if anything will be different after the front page article in the Times, but nobody says anything to me. That is, none of the 5 or so people I pass while walking from my car at Yeomalt Point back to the Wing Point beach entry.

It's good to get wet again.

Image: Wing Point looking north from the ferry on a much brighter day, with Yeomalt Point just behind in the distance.

air temp: 47F
water temp: 47F
Jan 11, noon, cloudy
wind from south, 5-10 mph
medium tide, rising
visibility 10-15 feet
today's distance: 1.14 mile
total so far: 14.65 miles

today's notables:
moon snails

It's a fairly calm day, but very dark and grey. My first real chance to swim in over 3 weeks. Too long. I'm going even though I won't see much. I can't google up any answers on light attenuation by heavy clouds, but I'm guessing today has no more than 10% the light of a bright sunny day.

As I'm zipping into my wetsuit, catastrophe, the zipper separates at the fully open position. Only it's not the kind of zipper that's supposed to separate. Oh no, the damn thing's broken. Peeling out of the top half, I work hard and manage to get the zipper back together and run the zipper up a couple of inches. This might work. I re-enter the suit and close the zipper carefully. I think I'm good for today, but this bodes ill for the future. I can't afford a fancy new wetsuit right now...Argh.

But back to the matter at hand. Parking at Yeomalt Point, I walk towards Wing Point. It's nice to be out of town so I can walk to my entry point on little roads without many people. I feel odd hiking in a wetsuit carrying my fins, mask, hood and gloves.

Slipping into the cooler water at Wing Point-down to 47F now-it's dark underwater. A bit of murk, and the heavy sky means I have to look closely to see what's happening underwater. Just a few whitecaps and almost no swell.

The Wing Point sandbar is a long shallow point that reaches well out into the Sound. It'll be worth coming back here again on a day with bright sun and glassy water. Suddenly there they are again, moon snails. Lots of them. It's a quick swim out to the point, much quieter than last time I was here. I don't linger because the visibility isn't good enough for a big day exploring the underwater point.

Around the corner, there's a low bank beach rises up to a bluff that hangs over most of the swim, with a narrow beach at the water's edge. The bottom is similar to Wing Point, mixed patches of sand and gravel with a few boulders here and there.

I see someone trolling by in a small fishing boat, and one ferry. Otherwise I'm alone. Who would go out on the water on a day like this?

Between the two points the land indents a bit, and the water is glassy in the elbow. It's fun to put my mask half-in/half-out and kick slowly along watching both sea and sky.

This area was favored by Native Americans before European settlers arrived in the mid to late 1800s, and Yeomalt Point is rumored to be named for the currents that swept bodies to shore following accidents at sea. There is a bit of a current pushing me, but I'm not in the same boat as those early swimmers landing on Yeomalt.

One local told me to watch out for the rip currents here, Yeomalt is a place where two currents meet and push out to sea. With my flippers and the calm wind, I can't imagine a current strong enough to cause a problem.

I cruise to shore landing gently on a gravel beach, and rest there briefly and watch the grey, above and below. It's good to be back home.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Getting back in the water

Something about this swim around bainbridge is doing some real work on me. I’ve done a lot in and around the ocean, but nothing has made such a strong impression.

Consider late December...I couldn’t have been further away, standing in a blizzard in the Montana mountains. Yet the looking glass of Bainbridge ocean still seemed to be there, right in front of me.

All it took was one deep breath, a quick duck of my head, and I’m through, I’m underwater. I can go back at will. My ocean world is living inside of me now, and it's always at hand.

I haven’t had a swim in more than 2 weeks, and my schedule will keep me away even longer. I'm just back from a few days working in Texas.

I have a strong urge to get back underwater, I NEED to spend some time with the Wing Point sandbar. I’d like to see it on a glassy calm day. But I may have to go with some wind, since I can't wait any longer.

It's sooooo nice to have this reservoir of satisfaction I can tap at will. One look at the Bainbridge ocean where I’ve passed through—even just looking at a picture—and I find myself drifting down into the underwater world.

What do I find when I enjoy one of these dreamy dips? It’s not specific images, it's more of a soft ocean pulse, a sensation of being a part of the watery world, apart from the human world above.

Once upon a time I lived in a cabin in the Umpqua woods, southwest Oregon. I spent hours upon hours in the forest and alongside rivers and streams. I got to know where the elk hung out, and had a too-close encounter with a large bull that declared his territory. I found a skull with a large and fantastic uneven rack (antlers) that still lives in my garden. I drifted downstream through hallowed pools and tiny tributary streams, looking at the fabulous North Umpqua summer steelhead, large and small. I watched a bear rumble through my yard. I got a feeling of connection that remains to this day. But it was never as strong as this ocean surge.

I adore this through-the-looking-glass world I’ve found. It’s not all beauty and it’s not all drama, but it's magnificent because it has the power to take me outside myself.

I live surrounded by water.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Seattle Times covers Swim Around Bainbridge

Hey, I'm front page news! Here's an article that dominated the front page of the Seattle Times on December 26, 2008.

It's a great story and I've gotten a bunch of nice emails as follow-up. I've been away, but I'll get back to all of you soon, I promise!

Here's a link to the article, along with 4 pictures and some video. The text is pasted below.

Puget Sound's snorkeling "ocean guy" takes a fish's-eye view

By Michelle Ma
Seattle Times staff reporter

While most folks were bundle-d up against the cold and snow, Mark Powell slipped on his wetsuits and dived into Puget Sound.

It was one more leg in his ongoing quest to snorkel around Bainbridge Island and document what he finds there.

The waves churned as Powell's gloved hands scooped water in a furious, front-crawl stroke. The frigid water that had seeped inside his two wetsuits soon started to warm, and the 50-year-old swimmer from Bainbridge Island slowed his pace to look around beneath the surface of Puget Sound.

"It's a little bit of a roller coaster today," Powell said after emerging from the 49-degree water.

Powell has completed more than a quarter of his 53-mile trek. Using a mask and snorkel, he swims mile-long stretches once or twice a week when his busy schedule allows.

A vice president for the nonprofit environmental group Ocean Conservancy, Powell isn't trying to break records. Instead, the self-described "ocean guy" wants to see the underbelly of Puget Sound, especially around the island he knows so well. He also craved adventure outside his office job.

Powell is keeping a blog of his journey and hopes one day to write a book about the experience. He hasn't advertised his blog, but it's generated a small, loyal following. One reader offered to shuttle Powell from the endpoint of a swim back to his car, and others have expressed interest in joining him for part of the swim.

"Maybe I can do this swim to help raise consciousness," Powell said as he sipped hot chocolate after the recent swim. "By swimming the whole coastline, I'm not just diving to the pretty spots. I'm forced to look at the gross parts."

The Sound's pristine surface makes it easy to miss the reality below, Powell said. His swims have revealed to him a damaged ecosystem — plus many thriving critters.

After one swim, Powell wrote in his blog: "I haven't seen a single sand dollar yet this swim, and here's an entire city of them. I found a million dollars underwater, I'm a rich man."

Powell began his journey in mid-October along the south end of the island, near his home. Since then, he has dodged commuter ferries entering Eagle Harbor, swum through a toxic Superfund site and tiptoed across private property to complete his trips. He swims to depths where he can still see the bottom, then paddles slowly along the shore face down while breathing through his snorkel. Powell calls it "underwater touring."

Last week, Powell entered the water just north of Eagle Harbor on the island's east side. Menacing snow clouds rolled toward the island, and it was hard to hear over the crashing waves and blustery wind. Powell, encased in his two aging wetsuits, flippers, gloves and cap, wasn't cold.

"All right, let's go swimming!" he yelled, awkwardly sidestepping into the swirling froth.

But before jumping all the way in, Powell retrieved a ripped balloon and a plastic bag he found floating in the water. That kind of trash, Powell explained, is known to kill fish.

Trained as an oceanographer, Powell was a tenure-track professor at the University of Connecticut before deciding 15 years ago that he wanted to do active conservation. He joined Ocean Conservancy almost 10 years ago and works on partnerships with businesses to promote environmental conservation.

Despite an intimate knowledge of the ocean, Powell has discovered something new on every swim. Last Wednesday, he spotted an army of moon snails — critters with 6-inch-diameter shells and bodies that stretch to 1 foot when slithering across the seafloor. On an earlier swim, he found himself among thousands of small tubesnout fish, named for their slender noses.

"I'm really compelled now to complete this swim," Powell said.

He wasn't as gung-ho at first. He's an experienced ocean swimmer, but he hates cold water. And his gear wasn't completely up to par. But on a breezy October afternoon, Powell decided to just do it.

Now he's addicted to the thrill of new discoveries and seeing more of Puget Sound. He doesn't plan to alter his course, even for a section along the island where coliform bacteria sometimes are found. If he gets sick, that's part of the experience, he said.

Powell hopes to finish his swim by the end of summer.

Michelle Ma: 206-464-2303 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company