The Magic of Open-Water Swimming in the Puget Sound

Swimming into the sunset by SCJ’s Chelsea Lee.

Author Susann Babaei, a project engineer with our Seattle Transportation Design team, recently joined a swimming group that ventures the open waters of the Puget Sound. Susann is a motivator and resource for open-water swimming, among other activities, through SCJ’s Health and Wellness group.

Alki Point Lighthouse selfie

As a triathlete, I’ve been swimming for a while. We race in open water, but train almost exclusively in the pool, mostly working on form and speed sets.

I’ve always enjoyed the open water more than the pool, but I was too busy training to explore that feeling. When COVID hit, every part of my routine got shut down, including the pools. I didn’t swim for three months. I did keep running and biking, but in isolation.

I live on Alki Beach, but since the Stay Home order was issued the crowds keep me away during spring and summer peak seasons. I came up with different running and biking routes to avoid my favorite spots. Like so many others, I grew depressed.

Then on Memorial Day weekend, I discovered an isolated beach in West Seattle. I call it Secret Beach and started visiting it every day to take a short dip in the water. At first it was just to play. The sea has always cheered me up in hard times, and this was no different.

Susann Babaei jumping into the Puget Sound by Stacey Sterling

I invited friends, including some SCJers, to Secret Beach for socially distant beach days complete with tacos and blue drinks. Gradually, I could stay in the water longer and longer. I started swimming farther and farther out.

One day a group of swimmers passed by and ended up inviting me to join them on Wednesdays at a nearby cove for a swim and some pizza. I couldn’t say no! I hadn’t done a real swim in almost six months, but I trusted my triathlon training and went. I was hooked from the first day. Now I swim with them five days a week.

The group is known as the Notorious Alki Swimmers and has about 50-100 regular swimmers. Before COVID everyone swam together. Now we swim in small, socially distant pods. There are 10 swimmers I regularly swim with. We mostly swim parallel to shore and wear buoys so we’re visible to boaters. Everyone looks out for each other.

Members of the Notorious Alki Swimmers by the blogger at

Mostly I swim in West Seattle, but I’ve also swum to and from Cutts Island, around Blake Island, and in the Pacific at Westport. I wear a wetsuit for any swim longer than 1.5 miles. Currently, I can’t really push beyond an hour without it. I’m aiming to do the Bremerton-to-Alki swim next summer. It’s 10 miles and wetsuits are not allowed.

I will keep swimming through the winter to build my cold-water tolerance. There are many studies showing the health benefits of cold water, both physically and mentally. My hope is that as the Sound cools, I will acclimate with it. It’s already cooled from 57 to 52. The low will be around 46 in February. Then as it warms up again, hopefully I can push beyond that hour mark and do longer swims without my wetsuit.

I love swimming in the Sound for so many reasons. The water is beautiful, the sea life is interesting to look at, the waves are fun, and the scenery is gorgeous. I feel alive when I’m in the water, more so than I do at any other time. I’ve pretty much been neglecting triathlon training for open water swimming. It’s my new passion.

Underwater selfie

Open water swimmers are also the friendliest and most welcoming people I’ve met. I’ve made so many friends through this sport, and it’s meant a lot to me during the loneliness of COVID. The depression I felt earlier in the year is completely cured.

I’ve encountered a variety of wildlife out in the water. Seals are very curious creatures and will swim very close to you. Mostly harbor seals, but I did see a female elephant seal one day. I’ve also had several encounters with lion’s mane jellyfish. They pack a pretty bad sting, so I try to avoid them. I’ve only been stung once.

Now that it’s getting dark earlier, we’re doing night swims. We put lights in our buoys to make us visible. I never knew the Sound had bioluminescence, but it does! Swimming through the dark water, seeing light everywhere you touch, is so magical.

Puget Sound night swim by Oscar Brain



  1. Jeez! Amazing and I am so proud of you. I love this story and it is very inspiring!

  2. Fun! I’m going to start open water swimming along Alki (I too, live on Alki). I’m researching kits. I used to scuba in the Sound (and other locales), and yes! The wildlife is extraordinary – so are the warm personalities. I think water draws out the best in us. I’m hoping some swimming will help with some Pandemic/loneliness-onset depression.
    All the best – if you ever do have a chance, I highly recommend a night dive with scuba gear, after you’ve been certified (and with friends). The seals come out frolicking, and you’ll see a plethora of creatures who’d otherwise be sleeping or hiding during the day~

  3. I’m been actually wanting to start open water swimming, and I don’t know the first thing about it or how to do it , was wondering if you could point me in a direction . I found your blog trying to find a place to start . I’d appreciate any help I can get, thank you.

  4. I’ve been swimming the sound for several years now. Usually from about mid May thru October. IT IS FANTASTIC !!! Only 25 to 45 minute swims, but it is so invigorating and mood boosting. Mostly swim at the beach in Edmonds by the Ferry dock. Amazing to see Mount Baker and the Olympics and the ferrry coming and going while swimming. Enjoyed reading your story. Thanks

  5. I have been thinking about swimming Clinton to Hat Island for fun this summer. Would you have any suggestions for an appropriate type of wetsuit? I have not done a lot of open water swimming so don’t know why I don’t know about the water temps there. This story is inspirational. Thanks much.

    1. A triathlon wetsuit would be best. I like Roka because I feel like it gives you the most flexibility in the arms, but others like blueseventy. If you are really worried about the cold, they each have a thermal suit which is rated for as cold as 46 degrees (about 10 degrees colder than what it’ll be this summer). You could also look into the neoprene hat that blueseventy makes, and some sort of glove or bootie. But I think more important than the wetsuit is to spend time acclimatizing yourself to the cold water. It can take several months. Now would be an excellent time to start! Also, if you’re crossing a channel, make sure you have a boat with you!!! Good luck!!! Enjoy the Sound!!! It really is a magical place!


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