A Dusk Dip in a Bottomless Lake

Trip Start Aug 08, 2009
Trip End Aug 19, 2009

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Flag of United States  , New Mexico
Monday, August 10, 2009

I admit it--I'm overstimulated. It takes a lot to keep my interest--so just seeing America on the surface during my cross country drive to Boston is not enough. I want to see the USA underwater too--the sinkholes, lakes, quarries and other non-ocean waterways that dot the American landscape. So in addition to my mountain bike, camping gear, cameras and  and all the other stuff I packed into my Xterra for my road trip east to begin a year-long journalism fellowship at Harvard--I've also crammed my mask, regulator, backplate, dry suit, tank, lights, fins, weights  and other assorted odds and ends I'll need for my "Dive Across America." Tour.

First stop, a little spot 12 miles south of Roswell, New Mexico called Lea Lake--part of New Mexico's Bottomless Lakes State Park.


But before heading out of the UFO capital of the world, I stop at the Scuba Shop in Roswell to get an air fill. I meet Terry Davis there, an affable retired 24-year veteran of the Roswell Police Department who opened the shop with a friend in 1998.

But the economic downturn has not been kind to the New Mexico diving industry--and Davis tells me the shop will close its doors on Friday.

"We just can't afford to pay the rent," he says, " Business is down 75-percent."

Davis says on normal years the shop would train and certify over 200 divers. Last year
they certified only 25. And his isn't the only casualty. Davis says that out of the 12 dive shops
in New Mexico -- eight have closed or will close later this year.

I load my tank and wish him luck as I head south for the Bottomless Lakes State Park. According to the Park's website--the lakes are actually just spring-fed sinkholes with 2.5 million gallons flowing through Lea Lake--the one I'm going to dive.

Because of their greenish-blue color, the lakes appear bottomless--although they actually range in depth from 17-90 feet. Legend has it that cowboys tried to find the bottom of the lake by tying their saddle ropes together.

The bottom is covered with a silty-gypsum, similar to what's found at the White Sands National Monument.

By the time I arrive and string up my hammock in a copse of trees (the park has both RV and tent sites) it's already 5pm but the sun is still high and the temperature hot. I decide to make my dive, but skip the dry suit and wear only my 3mm with a dive skin underneath. 

I backfin to the east bank of the lake and a cove like opening that Davis told me was called "Mecca" by local divers because of the occasional ultra-clear 70-100 foot viz. Today I'm not so lucky and can barely see bottom at the shoreline--likely because of a strong breeze.

At the surface the water temperature is a manageable 80 degrees but quickly cools on descent. At 30 feet, visibility improves and I find myself in a canyon-way of rock structures that Davis told me had collapsed into the lake from the surrounding rock face. These passageways provide a swim-though Labyrinth of fun. I go deeper to 50 feet and find myself in a chilly thermocline that has been clambering back up to more temperate water.

I'm thrilled at the unique beauty surrounding me--including a bubble like algae that attaches to whatever hard surface available.

But only one thing seems to be missing: fish. I start to think that the gypsum covered rlake is  devoid of creatures, but as  I continue to ascend from the rock canyons to an algae covered pinnacle at 24 feet, I'm suddenly swarmed by curious sea life--flashing silver Mosquitofish and bold Green Sunfish.

Initially spooked by my bubbles--they become less and less cautious, swimming circles around me and the pinnacle. One particularly surly Sunfish, he must've been a California Garibaldi in a past life, begins to nip at me and and makes fearless bluff charges  into my mask and camera lens.

After 45 minutes--I realize--even in shallow water, the 3mm isn't providing enough warmth. My legs are cramping and I'm beginning to shiver. I follow the shoreline back to my entry point, rising up to 15 feet and burning off my safety stop along the way. When I finally emerge--I take in the golden light of magic hour and try to remember the last time I enjoyed a dive as much as this--my 200th.
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sarah on

well sombody is picky

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