Roadtrippin’: Snorkeling in Ketchikan, a chance to see a vibrant underwater world

Roadtrippin’: Snorkeling in Ketchikan, a chance to see a vibrant underwater world
Updated: Jun. 10, 2021 at 1:02 PM AKDT
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KETCHIKAN, Alaska (KTUU) - Beneath the inky black surface of the ocean off the coast of Ketchikan, there is an unseen world filled with life and color.

“I think a lot of Alaskans are blown away, having literally no idea what’s in their own backyard,” said Fred Drake, the owner of Snorkel Alaska.

Drake has been taking tourists and locals out snorkeling in Ketchikan for over 20 years, partnering with cruise lines to offer tours.

The temperature of the water is a question he’s always asked.

“The water is cold, but you’ve got a totally thick wetsuit,” Drake said. “Totally keeps you warm.”

A wetsuit that’s three-quarters of an inch thick and a neoprene hood, gloves and boots makes the 50-degree water comfortable.

When snorkeling around coral reefs, the rule is to not touch anything because the delicate coral can be easily damaged.

Drake says he has found that is not the case in the Pacific Northwest.

The shallow waters just off the coast are known for their many invertebrates. Red, orange and purple starfish, abalones, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and red rock crabs.

During an hour-long tour, Drake swims down and brings them up to the surface. He stresses that should only be done by guides who know how to do it safely and carefully.

Some of local sea creatures, like scallops, are harvested for food. Others, like sea cucumbers, are harvested commercially, mostly for Asian markets.

After allowing guests to handle the invertebrates, Drake swims down and carefully lays them back where he found them.

He says in over two decades of snorkeling he has not observed any damage to the creatures he handles. Protecting them is a priority, he says.

Snorkeling tours off the coast of Ketchikan can see other attractions, too. A pod of killer whales can swim close by, so can humpback whales.

Last Wednesday, the highlight of a trip around Mountain Point was a wolf eel guarding a clutch of lingcod eggs. It was electric blue and five-feet long with a thick, bulbous head.

Drake says while it looks vicious, wolf eels are actually docile. This one likely pushed a lingcod off its eggs for food.

“That was really a treat,” he said.

The waters around Ketchikan are warmer and typically have better visibility than other parts of Southeast Alaska. The glaciated fjords mean there is deep water and sheer sea walls right off the coast which is great for scuba diving.

A divemaster for decades, Drake says what drives him is getting to show a first-time snorkeler what lives beneath the surface of the water and blow their minds.

“I love that, that’s my passion,” he said.

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