“A Visitor On Their Planet”: Looking Below the Surface with Laura James

Laura James, after a dive from Seacrest Park in West Seattle. Seacrest is a popular beach for divers. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Laura diving off Alki in West Seattle. Photo by Kees Beemster Leverenz

Most of us admire the Salish Sea from the shore. Lots of us enjoy it from boats. But only a handful of us get to experience these waters from below the surface.

This week KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty chats with veteran scuba diver Laura James. She answers Liam’s first question from 30 feet below the surface …

Click to listen to the story

Liam Moriarty: I’m standing on the beach in Seacrest Park in West Seattle. I’m looking east over Elliott Bay and across the bay is downtown Seattle. And I’m speaking with Laura James. I’m on the beach but Laura, where are you?

Laura James (on intercom speaker): I’m swimming through an amazing school of different types of small fish. There’s hundreds of them, and they’re swimming along with me.

Liam: Laura, why don’t you come in to the beach and we’ll talk some more.

Laura: Roger that.

Liam: Welcome ashore, Laura.

Laura: Thank you, Liam!

Liam: That looks like a huge amount of fun.

Laura: It is unbelievable. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.

Liam: It occurs to me that when you’re diving, you’re seeing the Salish Sea in a way that very few people do. What were you seeing down there?

Laura: Visibility was just gorgeous. I was able to swim right to the octopus den. And there was one very large octopus home. You know, I was able to peek in and get a look at the very, very large suckers. It’s a huge octopus. They kind of accept the fact that I’m peering in its den. They don’t seem tremendously bothered.

Liam: What’s the appeal?

A juvenile wolf eel near Alki in West Seattle. Photo by Laura James

A red octopus near Alki. Photo by Laura James

Laura: It’s seeing all the creatures in their environment. Aquariums are great for introducing kids to different sea creatures, but it’s so much different to actually be out there in their world. You’re a visitor on their planet.

Liam: What’s their world like?

Laura: So, there’s little animals like the barnacles that when they’re babies, they float around in the water column and then they plant themselves on a rock or a piling and they spend their whole life just cleaning the water in their area. You’ve got other animals that swim hundreds of miles, porpoises and our six-gill sharks and things …

Liam: Not to mention the salmon …

Laura: I’ve actually seen salmon out here. You can see them swimming along underneath the big balls of herring. And then they dart up into the ball of herring and you’ll see the herring scatter and the herring will usually swim and they’ll hit me and they’ll be like pummeling me and the salmon will go for ‘em. Some of the animals actually learn to utilize the divers for their hunting.

I remember when I was a brand new diver and I was out at the Edmonds oil docks, or Marina Beach as we used to call it. And was seeing one of my first little ruby octopus, little red octopus, and my dive instructor kind of threw it up into the water so I could see it floating down and get a really good look at it. And I was shining my light on it. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, came this bigger fish, came across and went “gulp” and my little octopus that I was so mesmerized by was suddenly gone!

Liam: It had joined the food chain (chuckles) …

Laura: It had joined the food chain, for sure! (laughs)

Liam: Now, how long have you been diving in these waters?

Laura: For about 20 years.

Liam: Over those 20 years, have some things changed? Are you seeing things different, are you experiencing it differently?

Laura: I think there is a tremendous garbage problem. Too many people, they look at the pretty beaches and they think, “Oh, it’s so nice!” But they can’t see what’s under there.

Laura spoke to Liam Moriarty from under 30 feet of water. The white wire is the underwater intercom system she used to communicate with Liam on the beach.

Liam: What kinds of things do you see?

Laura: Plastic bottles and cans, old car batteries, tarps, clothing, towels … If you read the articles about that gray whale that washed up on the beach …

Liam: That whale washed up on West Seattle not long ago, right?

Laura: Yeah, correct. And they looked in its stomach, and in that whale’s stomach was a huge amount of human trash, including, like, a pair of sweat pants … People will protect what they love. But they won’t fall in love with something they don’t know. That’s why I go out and shoot pictures and take video is so that I can show it to people , I can teach people about how amazing it is.

Liam: Now you said that you’ve been diving near storm drains when it’s been raining. And all the rainwater that comes off the buildings, off the streets, off the sidewalks, it all washes into the storm drains. What does that look like when it comes out?

Laura: It’s gray, it’s billowing, it just looks incredibly dirty. And then after a rain storm, if you go out near those areas, you’ll see this kind of film of tire rubber and brake pad and washer fluid and road grime covering the bottom around the storm drains.

Laura checks her SCUBA equipment before diving at Seacrest Park. Photo by Liam Moriarty

Liam: The rest of us, when we want to go into the wilderness, we get in a car or whatever and we’ve gotta drive 50, 80, 100 miles, and then go walking out to try to get away from civilization and see something in it’s natural state. We’re sitting here in West Seattle but you head under the water and there’s a way in which you’re kind of in the wilderness, arent’ you?

Laura; Oh, absolutely, And that’s one of the beautiful things about it. I can go out and kind of commune with nature without having to drive basically anywhere.

Liam: Well Laura, thanks for inviting me out and letting me have this little window into your underwater world.

Laura: It’s been a pleasure, Liam. Thank you!

Laura James shot and produced this video of a recent dive near Alki www.fearlessoceanproductions.com

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3 Responses to ““A Visitor On Their Planet”: Looking Below the Surface with Laura James”

  1. +1 on the trash problem its horrible, just got done with a dive in a local lake and around the docks found at least 50 lighters and an uncountable amount of aluminum cans. That isn’t including all the other things like a roll of carpet and a toilet. This ruins the waters for fishers, local seafood, local divers etc..

    We don’t allow people to throw trash on the side of the road, but underwater no one sees it so no one cares. Take time to take your trash to the proper place! and get diving so you can help clean it up!

  2. Great interview and great to see the initiative and personal dedikation that Laura and others show to help protect the local waters and wildlife. I especially liked the underwater part of the interview :-)

    Alex

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