Thursday, October 30, 2008

Diving under the covers with an alluring mistress

Dame Ocean is calling me with her siren song. I'm running along the water's edge at South Beach, my usual route, and gazing at the ocean eager to dive in. It's a strong feeling and a bit surprising since I've come this way probably a thousand times and not felt such a call. Since starting this swim, I've deepened my appreciation for this cool northern ocean. I've gotten below the surface, and it matters.

Funny, I knew about the value of "getting under the surface" in order to connect with oceans, but I didn't think it applied to me. I know the underwater, after all, so I thought I didn't need a deeper connection. Well, now when I run by the offshore boulders that hold the big surfperch, I can see them in my mind's eye. When I go by the salmon farm dock, I can see the swarms of fish. The fields of anemones wave at me when I go by.....etc.....etc..... All of this connects me to my local patch of ocean more strongly than ever before, and it's calling to me. M-a-a-a-r-r-r-k, come on in. Join us under the covers and roll around in a loving embrace.

The power of this swim is already getting a strong grip on me. In fact, I WANT TO GO OUT THERE RIGHT NOW, instead of sitting in my office and pumping electrons with my keyboard.

Yesterday, I ran around the corner and into the Country Club area, past the old money estates and past a bunch of new beaches I've never seen before. With this swim I'll soon be pushing into new territory, beaches I don't know and ocean that I've never seen. On my next swim or the one after that. How will it feel?

I got some advice from a gardener as I ran by, and with his blessing I slipped through a gate and past a no trespassing sign to make make my way from South Beach to Bean's Bight. Wonder how often I'll get yelled at as I try to complete my circle around the island? No matter, the pull is stronger than any worries about curmudgeons. I'll try to slip quickly through any private areas, and I'll tell them my story if I can't slip away. They'll get enthused and let me pass by, won't they?

Here are some South Beach scenes...

The pilings, where the cormorants hang out, sometimes joined by great blue herons, and rarely joined by bald eagles. The silly cormorants space themselves evenly at one wingspan apart when it's crowded, and the bigger birds get a much wider berth.

BTW, the bald eagles are definitely back for the winter, I saw a pair today out my office window, huge and magnificent as they flew over the trees, looking spunky if I can say that about birds.

Here's a couple of shots of the salmon farm, and one of the Bremerton-Seattle ferry cruising through Rich Passage.

On a clear day the Olympic mountains loom in the background behind the ferry and salmon farm. The fantastic and huge Tahoma (Mt. Ranier) is around the corner off near the end of the day 2 swim.

Thanks for stopping by, Mary, Emerald, Noelle, my niece Meghan, and you few others. And thanks for leaving notes here and over on blogfish. So long for now...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Day 2: South Beach

Today was a good day because I didn't get eaten. How's that for low expectations? I wasn't really too worried, but I have heard rumors of predators hanging around salmon farms. If true, I suppose they want salmon and not me.

If you want to see where I've been, check out this nifty Google map (below) and you'll see my progress. If you zoom out, you can even see noticeable progress looking at the whole of Bainbridge Island. Nice. And from this satellite photo you can even see the big honking salmon farm that I just swam by.

View Larger Map

Air temp: 60F
Water temp: 53F
1:30 pm, mostly sunny
High tide and rising, swimming against slight current
NW wind 5 mph
Visibility 10-12 feet, except a couple of murky places, 3-4 feet.
Today's distance: 0.89 mile
Total so far: 1.53 miles

Surfperch schools
Spider crab

And...the first bald eagle of the winter, they usually don't show up until more like January. Every year, I've watched at least two baby eagles grow up and fly away. Leaving the area around July for the salmon season in Alaska I suppose.

As I get ready to swim, all I can think about is the salmon farm. What will be there? The entry is easy, nice sandy beach in a public park. After today, my swim routes get a bit more challenging. Lots of private land so it can be hard to find legal entry and exit points, and some are fairly rugged banks.

As soon as I start swimming, the salmon farm looms. I debated whether or not to ask permission and advice (will I get eaten if I swim by your salmon farm?). Then I did what I knew I would do all along, just got in the water and swam by. No problems, of course. Nothing rushed out of the murk to grab me in hammer jaws.

As far as I can tell, the farm is run by a company called American Gold, and they claim their farmed salmon is "natural." A news article says they sell their salmon to Whole Foods, so it must be fairly good compared to other salmon farms.

Passing by the salmon farm, the only thing I can see that might be a problem is a fairly rich algae bloom on the bottom. But that can sometimes be natural, and a real study would be necessary to draw any conclusions. Nothing obvious like hordes of escaped salmon swimming around.

The bottom in the area is mixed, sand, some bedrock shelf areas, gravel, rocks and boulders. Enough bumpy terrain to expect to see some fish, and then swimming under the salmon farms dock I see a huge swarm of small surfperch, thousands of them. Mostly fairly small, up to about 6 inches long. My first big collection of fish on this swim. Can't be sure of the species, and there might be more than one present.

Moving past the salmon farm, I encounter a noticeable current working against me, and the water gets murky, maybe 3-4 feet visibility. Soon I turn the corner around the point on the southwest tip of the island and the water clears and current disappears. Back to clear water, clean bottom, and boulders to look around for fish. Just around the corner I find a very impressive school of large surfperch, probably redtail.

I'm starting to feel the drysuit zipper rubbing on my shoulders, and it feels like it's getting rubbed raw. Oh great, am I leaving a blood trail, chumming past the salmon farm? Later, I do see some breaks in the skin, I really was losing a bit of blood. Next time I'll go with my wetsuit, it will let me move my arms without tearing the skin.

Pulling up onto the beach, I see the impossible to reach public road end and a nice private staircase adjacent. Where will I go? Guess. I'm easily up the private stairs and nobody cares. A very nice swim, I'll be back again soon.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Day 1: Fort Ward State Park

Today's the first day with some real progress. I swam most of the length of Ft.Ward Park down the hill from my house. About 2/3 of a mile. Nice, especially since things started off so weakly.

Temp: 53F
Wind: calm
Tide: High, +10 ft.
Water: 53F
Visibility: 10-15 feet
11am, Oct 18, 2008
0.64 mile

Cancer magister-Dungeness crab (several)
Oncorhynchus sp-salmon (one juvenile)
Anthopleura elagantissima (lots, the star of the day)

I started gearing up at the boat ramp and immediately ran into trouble, before I even got in the water. The damn zipper on my dry suit got stuck. I stood next to my car, thrashing around trying to pull the zipper shut, and it wasn’t moving. The zipper goes across my upper back, and it’s always hard to pull since it’s waterproof and doesn’t slide easily. It hasn’t been worn much lately, and it was just plain stuck. What a pathetic start to my little under-prepared swim adventure. Grrr…

I decided to swim around Bainbridge Island, and I thought it would take awhile to get ready. Then I changed my mind, and dove in without getting ready. I’m an experienced ocean swimmer and I’ve done quite a bit of snorkeling, but I’m not really a diver. I don’t like cold water, and I really don’t like scuba gear, so I don’t get in the water much these days. I get cold easily so I mostly dive or swim when the water is above 65F. That never happens in Puget Sound, where the year-round temperature tends to be around 52F. Brrr. I took a scuba class once, and never did it again. I couldn’t stand messing with all that heavy and clumsy gear. The result? I don’t have the right gear for this little swim.

I have good gear for windsurfing in cold weather. I have a 3mm drysuit (with the zipper on the back so it doesn’t get in the way). I have thin gloves, hood, and booties, a decent mask and snorkel, and a pair of fins I bought a couple of days ago, just for this swim. The fins are the only good gear I own. I don’t really know how well I can swim in cold water with this gear. I’ll find out if I can ever get the #($&#(^$#(& zipper shut.

Several people have gone by while I’m getting ready, and I’m about to ask for help. Almost nobody dives or swims here, so I’m standing out a bit among the usual runners and walkers. Just as I’m feeling fully pathetic, a woman I know by sight stops and asks if I need help. Maybe she saw me doing the Hokey-Pokey with the zipper. She says her husband always needs help with his drysuit, so thank goodness she’s not too surprised. Even with her help it’s hard, but we finally get it. The omens are looking up, going from very-very bad to at least OK.

Thankfully, she doesn’t ask any questions, since I’m loathe to talk about my plan. I’m swimming alone, not a great idea. I have the wrong gear, and it’s easy to see for anyone who knows what they’re doing. And I’m nearly the only fool that gets in the water here. Even worse, I can’t possibly say I’m going to swim around the island before I even do the first mile. What if I don’t get very far and start to freeze? What if I get creeped out swimming alone in the murky water? I may not make it and I don’t want to embarrass myself by saying I’m going to swim around the island and then backing out after a hundred yards. I just want to slip into the water and see if this trip is going to work out. I’ve been planning to keep it a secret until I get maybe ¼ of the way around the island and have some sense that it’s not going to turn into a joke—the guy who swam 1/1000 of the way around Bainbridge Island.

Thanks, friend, now I can slink into the water and see if this is going to work.

It’s a little cold at first, and then really cold after about a minute. Damn. But after swimming a bit I start to get warm, so far so good. The water isn’t too awfully murky, I can see the bottom in ten feet of water. It’s a bit barren, nothing exciting to see, but I can see far enough to avoid the murky water creepy feeling. Again, so far so good. The dry windsurfing dry suit is fairly good for movement, thin and the shoulders are loose enough to move my arms in a crawl stroke when I’m not looking around. But the dry zipper is semi-rigid so I can’t really stretch out my arms. But it’s fine since I can still move with the big fins.

My plan is to mostly kick and look around, but add a crawl arm stroke to speed up when there’s not much to see. Probably looks funny from shore, but I try not to think about that. I know I’d scratch my head if I ran by.

This is my neighborhood. I run about 3 times per week, average, and I always go down through the park to the boat ramp, on a 1 mile dirt path through the big woods. Then along the water through the park, heading south just like I’m planning today’s swim. It’s an awesome home running route, about the best I’ve ever had. Bald eagles Jan-June, blackberries in the late summer, mountain views whenever it’s clear. Etc. Heaven, basically.

I settle in to a pattern of swim, pause, swim pause. Slow progress but I look back at the boat ramp and see I’ve turned a slight corner and made a good hundred meters or so. OK, this might work. I’ve seen enough to have fun, warmed up a bit, and actually put some distance behind me. This WILL work.

There are fields of sea anemones on the bedrock/boulder/gravel bottom. Carpets of them in some places. The star of the day, Xanthopleura elegantissima, the green sea anemone of the Pacific northwest. Beautiful. And a crab scuttles away, threatening me with it’s claws, the magnificent Cancer magister, Dungeness crab that is just about the best seafood on the planet.

I see plenty of boulders, from a few feet to about 6 feet across, covered with life, the perfect place to see fish. But there are no fish. NO fish. Nothing with fins. This is a bit odd. Yes, I’m in fairly shallow water, but I would expect more fish. Hmmm…. we’ll see. Finally, most of the way through the park, I see a lone fish. Quick, what is it? I slow and dip as placidly as possible, it’s a juvenile salmon. Nice, a glamour boy right off the bat. I’m pleased until it starts seeming weird. I dip a bit closer, then a bit closer, and the little thing doesn’t dart away like it should. I’m used to seeing these fish in rivers, and they are SKITTISH. Maybe they’re different in the ocean. Then it occurs to me. A refugee from the salmon farm up the way? Maybe. I can’t get close enough to tell which species of salmon, so maybe I’m reading too much into a lucky approach. We’ll see.

There is a salmon farm at the end of the park. Big open ocean pens where they raise farmed salmon. The scourge of the ocean for some environmentalists, an abomination of eco-damage. But I can’t hate salmon farms. I hear a lot of bad things, and I wonder. But I don’t hate them. I’m actually curious what I’ll find when I swim by the farm. Oodles of escaped fish, polluting the ocean with their invasive presence? Rotting food souring the water? Maybe aggressive sea lions ready to rip me apart since they’re used to slaughtering anything that swims around the pens? How about a few sharks that scrounge around the farm?

The farm makes me wonder, should I do this swim right? Should I talk to the owners, get permission to swim by. So they don’t wonder what’s up and maybe fire a shot at what looks a tiny bit like a sea lion. So they don’t get mad at me for trespassing, or just grouchy wondering what fool is swimming around their livestock. Do they worry about animal rights saboteurs cutting their nets to free Sammy the salmon? Should I do it right and let them know I’m coming, or just slink by? I should decide soon, since I pulled out fo the water just before I reached the farm, and my plan has me swimming by the farm the next time I get in the water.

I pull out at the end of the park, with a bit of confidence that this swim thing is going to work out. I feel good, heart pumping and the sun shining. I made it as far as I hoped, to the end of the park. It’s a long walk back to my car…I did swim a bit didn’t I?

The mansions of South Beach Road start here. Not mansions by some standards, but they start at $1 million for a fixer-upper and go up into the $millions for low bank waterfront. I’m a water guy, I deserve to live here, don’t I? But it ain’t gonna happen, not in this lifetime.

I know the next 2 miles of shoreline well, part of my running routes. A couple of more days of swimming, and then I’ll go around the South end of Bainbridge and into some places I’ve never seen. Rockier, a bit rougher, and some open water. But I have one good day in and I’m optimistic this swim thing is going to work out.

Walking back my car, I run into some friends. Vanessa and Patrick with their two kids in the jog-stroller, Eric and the little 1 year old girl who’s name escapes me. They’re stopped, talking with Mark and Jenny on their bikes. Hi guys. Yeah, I’m just back from a swim. Jenny knows a group of women who swim up at Fletcher Bay further north on the Island. She might join them in the summer. I wonder who they are, and whether they’ll join me for a swim once I get this thing started.

My fantasy is that I’ll recruit others to swim along, and we’ll get people more interested in saving the ocean around our Island home. In our watery region. There’s a lot that needs to be done to Save the Sound, and I’d love to help. For me, step one is to take a look around.

Next up, the salmon farm.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Getting wet

Day 1, October 13, 2008.
Columbus Day.

Weather: 60F, cloudy, wind 10 mph from the SW. Water: 53F

Blowing straight onto the beach where I'll start. A wee bit ugly, but could be a lot worse for October in Washington. Sun pops out just as I get in the water, nice.

Just have a few minutes, won't make much distance.

Star of the day, the purple sea star, Pisaster ochraceus. I saw several clinging to rocks near the shore, purple even in the dim light.

Wandered around, didn't really go anywhere. But at least I got started.

Location: Fort Ward State Park boat ramp.

View Larger Map

Swim Around Bainbridge

View Larger Map

I've got an itch. I'm indoors too much, and lacking adventure. So, thrashing around a bit on what to do, it came to me.

I'll swim around Bainbridge Island, my home island.

It's all here, 53 miles of shoreline with at least a small dose of almost everything you'll find in the modern ocean world.

We have a Superfund site, and pristine shoreline. Armored banks with fancy houses, and forests that reach the water. Some good fishing, and some sadness over what's missing.

From Bainbridge's shores, you can see Seattle and snowy mountain peaks. One northend park has a great view of Seattle's port traffic, and the southend park near my home overlooks the entrance to Bremerton's navy base and twice I've seen massive aircraft carriers plow by. The evening before my son was born, I saw a pod of orcas from the ferry.

That's me on the right, standing on the beach at Fay Bainbridge Park on father's day, 2008. And yes, that's a Seattle icon, the space needle in the background next to my left ear.