Liquid Assets: A Water Guide to Puget Sound

From the Ballard Locks to Elliot Bay, here's the scoop on our beautiful Puget Sound hangouts.

Waterways: The Ballard Locks
Witness cool water workings at the Ballard Locks (aka the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, if you please), which are basically a series of gates and holding chambers that shuffles boats between the Ship Canal and the Sound (and keeps the salty Sound water from backwashing into Lake Union’s freshwater). Watch the fascinating process of boats “locking through”—but keep your valuables safely stashed. Every year, when the locks are drained for their cleaning, treasures emerge (including, sometimes, valuable jewelry) and there’s no “locks and found” here! With botanical gardens and bustling fish ladders on site, and live music on summer weekends, the locks are a captivating sunny-day diversion. Open daily, 7 a.m.–9 p.m. Ballard, 3015 54th St. NW; 206.783.7059; nws.usace.army.mil

Strait of Juan de Fuca: a Killer Experience
Spotting an endangered orca “killer” whale breaching in Puget Sound or the Salish Sea (the official name for the coastal waters of British Columbia and Puget Sound since 2009) is a Northwest rite of passage if there ever was one. If you see one of the 6-ton behemoths from a ferry, a boat or a kayak, thank your lucky stars. To maximize your chances, sign up for a whale-watch tour via one of dozens of licensed operators out of the San Juans, the Olympic Peninsula or Seattle, such as San Juan Outfitters or San Juan Safaris. When a skipper spots a breaching pod, he often alerts other tour operators so that everyone can get a look. Your odds of seeing an orca? About 90 percent, say tour operators, during the May–October feeding season (most operators allow you to return for free if an orca isn’t spotted). If you want to see orcas from land, head for Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island’s wild west side, especially in July and August, when the whales herd salmon up against the cliffs below the adorable lighthouse, which doubles as a whale-monitoring station. Also be sure to check out the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to learn more about this iconic Northwest mammal.

Elliott Bay: What a Dive!
Elliott Bay is a regular underwater party of Puget Sound marine life, making it a popular spot for divers. The giant Pacific octopus—the largest species of octopus in the world (100 pounds!)—fascinates with its freaky locomotion and surprising intelligence (it can maneuver mazes, unscrew jar lids and, in Germany, pick World Cup winners!). Get some firsthand, er, firsttentacle experience with these amazing invertebrates by strapping on tanks and learning to scuba with local diving pros. Seattle Scuba’s beginning open-water course ($395) can be spanned out over a couple of weeks, while time-strapped beginners will appreciate GirlDiver’s coed weekend Scuba Immersion class ($429). Already scuba certified? Hook up with other Seattle divers for group dives via Seattle Scuba (seattlescuba.com).