Deception Pass' beauty is awesome, but it can give boaters, divers the willies
Seattle Times science reporter
Burgundy, pink and white anemones and sea urchins bigger than dinner plates lined the underwater canyon. On his second dive, Holman felt the pass's dark side.
A sudden upwelling dragged him 40 feet toward the surface. Charts consulted before the dive said the current would soon change directions. It didn't. He and his diving partner, low on air, surfaced and spent an hour swimming against the current to their starting point.
"It was not our finest moment," he said.
Of all that Deception Pass offers — riotous tide pools, old-growth giants, the most photographed bridge in the state — the heart of the pass is the rocky notch through which flows some of the fastest, trickiest and most dangerous currents of our inland sea.
These beautiful, beguiling waters have drowned swimmers, tossed kayakers and weakened the knees of even experienced skippers. Cargo-burdened tugs and low-powered sailboats refuse to chance the passage in all but the small window of a slack tide.
At a peak flow of nearly nine knots, 2 million cubic feet of water pour through Deception Pass per second. That's eight times the average flow of Washington's mighty Columbia River. It's more than 50 times the average flow of all the rivers emptying into Puget Sound.
Without the scouring currents of the pass, sediments from the nearby Skagit River would have so filled in the Sound to the east that one might have been able to walk from Camano Island to Whidbey Island, said Ralph Haugerud, a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey at the University of Washington.
Deception Pass, which sits at the narrow end of the big bathtub of Puget Sound, focuses and redirects the sloshing of the tides in ways that the people who make tide charts have yet to fully understand.
Four times a day, the waters of Saratoga Passage and the Strait of Juan de Fuca try to shoulder their way through the pass. Actually, it's two passes, Canoe, at about 50 feet across, and the 500-foot-wide main channel, Deception, separating Whidbey and Fidalgo islands.
The pass, now crossed by a 186-foot-high span, is a dramatic showcase of awesome and unique natural forces. Where much of what we see in nature is driven by the sun, from photosynthesizing plants to our winds and rains, the pass is driven largely by the moon and its gravity and the island geography that turns it into a powerful sluice.
John Aydelotte is more succinct.
"It's a river," he said.
As the owner of Vessel Assist Northwest, Aydelotte has spent a quarter-century pulling ill-fated boats and spooked scuba divers from the pass. He claims to have transited it more than any man alive.
"That little bitty short passage, if you think of it like a river and go with it, it will flush you out," he said. "If you're going agin' it, you have to row like hell."
A week ago Sunday, he came to the rescue of a boater who let a guest pilot through Canoe Pass, where their boat was brusquely beached.
"People scared, boat sinking, calling Mayday," is how Aydelotte describes it.
"It was a substantial crash," he said. "It hit hard enough that the cabin separated where it meets the deck."
Geologists have yet to nail down what ancient acts made the pass. A fault may be involved. Water, possibly from flows beneath the last ice sheet or tidal currents, did the carving. It would have taken only a few thousand years — water is that powerful.
"Hey, look at the Grand Canyon," explains Dave Norman, assistant state geologist. "That's all water cut. Water cuts through a lot of things."
The sculpted canyon is not only beautiful to take in, but the pass itself is so unexpected that it fooled early explorers.
The namesake deception lay in Capt. George Vancouver's thinking that Whidbey Island was a peninsula. He named the island for his assistant, Joseph Whidbey, who was standing nearby at the time, and named the pass Deception.
Pass' hydraulic action
The currents can be credited in large part to the tides, the daily bulging of the planet's waters as they are pulled by the sun and moon's gravity and the centrifugal force of the Earth's rotation.
Tidal currents are usually more subtle affairs, but the labyrinth of Puget Sound focuses them in several spots, the most noticeable being Deception Pass. Only the Tacoma Narrows, with a peak tidal current of less than six knots, comes close.
There are more than just tides at work. As a flood tide's twice-daily wave rolls through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it can take a relatively straight route to the pass by shooting across the top of Whidbey Island. But some current also slips around the island's southern end and up Saratoga Passage.
When that tidal surge arrives at the island's north end, the pass effectively becomes a moderator between two different tides, one from the west and one from the east. It becomes both hydraulic and tidal, said Kathy Newell, a UW oceanographer.
"Because of that lag in time, it sets up a difference in water level," she said, demonstrating how the water pulses through the pass by using a fiberglass model built to study the Sound's currents. "It can be as much as a 4½-foot difference between the inside and outside of Deception Pass."
The difference in water levels is barely visible, but it creates a dramatic and powerful "waterfall effect," shooting water through the pass, said Richard Strickland, a UW oceanography lecturer.
As a result, a strict reading of a tidal-height chart, versus a tidal-current chart, can be deceiving.
The chart might tell you when high or low tide is occurring, but the slack tide won't come until the water level is even on both sides of the pass. That can happen as much as 90 minutes later, said Strickland.
Meanwhile, an unwitting diver, who can reasonably be expected to swim no faster than a knot, could be carried off by up to three knots of current pushing toward Lopez Island or La Conner.
"In some places, maybe there never is a slack," said Strickland, who uses the pass to teach Oceanography 101 students about tides. "There's enough eddies and heterogeneity in the flow through there that you have to take the concept of slack with a grain of salt. The whole thing doesn't come to a complete halt and then start up again."
Add the potential for a storm and you've got one wild stretch, said Bill Overby, now entering his 20th year as ranger of Deception Pass State Park.
"At 8 or 9 knots, it is ripping," he said as he recently piloted a 19-foot skiff with a 140-horsepower engine out of Coronet Bay east of the pass. "I'm not going to say it is Class V rapids, but there's plenty of white water for you, plenty of water activity: whirlpools, eddies, some of that stacking stuff."
Add a storm surge, he said, and the waves through the pass can hit 10 feet. Then the pass that acts like an unpredictable river resembles a raging sea.
Eric Sorensen can be reached at 206-464-8253 and email@example.com.