Underwater wonders

Posted: Sunday, March 09, 2008

From Annette Smith's window at the top of the State Office Building, the gray, flat, opaque water sitting between downtown Juneau and Douglas Island appears impenetrable. But for Smith, a diver, it's merely covering the vast and varied landscape whose topography and creatures she has come to know well.

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Courtesy Of Annette Smith
Courtesy Of Annette Smith

Smith describes an underwater forest of soft orange sea pens, nudibranchs like quills that stick into the sediment for about 12 miles from Douglas Island's Sandy Beach south. She has seen slugs like zinnias in full bloom, nudibranch eggs like strings of ramen noodles encased in clear jelly, and thumb-size, techno-colored anemones. Near Sunshine Cove lives an octopus who once stole part of Smith's camera.

"I could see it down there," she said, apparently not very angry at the presumptuous invertebrate. "I never got it back."

Smith has done advanced dives in caves and in wrecks; she has been stalked by a bull shark. She loves diving at night; she has recovered bodies on a search and rescue team. This winter she has dived three times a week in 34-degree water. (Recently it has warmed up to 37 degrees, which is a big improvement.)

"When I hit about six feet under water, it's instant relaxation," she said. "It's my beer after work."

Yet most of her life, Smith, 56, was afraid to get water up her nose.

She nearly drowned once as a child. She remembers everything, "down to the lights going out," she said. She wasn't exactly a prime candidate to become a diver, in her own estimation, until an instructor in Fiji took her on, 11 years ago, as a challenge. She was hooked.

Yet Alaska is a little different from Fiji.

"It's not for everybody," said Rob Martin, veteran Juneau diver, who estimated about 25 people dive recreationally in the winter. "But it you get trained in a drysuit, you're a far, far better diver than being trained in the tropics."

Diving here requires garb to avoid hypothermia, as the water stays between about 34 and 45 degrees. The inch-thick, quilted stuff that goes under the drysuit may be the least sexy underwear ever invented. These days Smith's usual drysuit is out for repairs. She has been wearing an old one she dubbed 'Old Pink.'

But some parts of the body are always wet. To an extent the body must simply adapt. The first dive, Smith warns 'baby divers,' is bound to be miserable. Her own body now turns on the engines when she drags out her drysuit.

In Fiji, you may go down and are immediately surrounded by a fish fiesta. Here, you may see nothing sometimes. Especially in the summer, when the water is clouded by silt the rivers pour in.

And then sometimes you may turn to see something spectacular, whether wild or manmade.

In 1918 the Princess Sophia sank and killed 368 people and several dozen horses on it. It has since transformed into a garden of sea anemones like giant soft cauliflowers. Brave divers explore the inside of the wreck.

Smith has photographed a horse's leg bone she saw, and she once found the BAR sign to the once-luxurious ship's bar.

"And then I hid it," she said, grinning.

She has the photograph, at least. For Smith the pictures are a constant delight. She never dives without her Sea & Sea camera filled with slide film, and a bright strobe for the dark waters.

Those after-work dives this winter have been particularly dark. Night diving is not for everyone, Smith said. The disorientation can be troubling. A diver who surfaces in blackness must trust her compass when her eyes tell her nothing. It is the sort of diving that tests one's good training and judgment.

Smith, after getting over the initial fear, now finds night diving the most extraordinary.

"There's a whole different set of critters that come out here at night," she said.

And Smith, who directs data processing for the Alaska Permanent Fund, was no expert on sea life when she began. But she asks and observes, takes pictures constantly, logs everything, and makes a point to learn everything she sees.

Her logbook notes, for example, the largest Toquina ever recorded, at 24 inches. That is the scientific genus of an orange blob with filigreed edges that lives around here.

In a few years Smith will be ready to retire. She has worked for the state for 32 years. She may compile an underwater guide to Southeast, or publish a book of photographs.

Even the most uneventful dive causes her to wonder what she did right to land here.

"I don't care if it's the simplest anemones," she said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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