The United States of America is an amazing country for divers looking for adventure because it has some of the best sites are that off-the-beaten-path.
Bonne Terre Mine
First among the USA’s great dive sites is the Bonne Terre Mine in Missouri, which is about an hour’s drive south of St. Louis if you take Highway 67. Composed of seven miles of abandoned mine tunnels, the Bone Terre Mine is the only aqua-subway system in the world. Before it was abandoned in 1962 when groundwater started seeping into the tunnels, Bonne Terre Mine used to be a source of lead for more than a generation.
The wonder of this dive site is that it runs directly beneath the town’s train station, a funeral parlor, a pharmacy, a bank, and even the City Hall. The divers can even get a glimpse of what the old mine used to look like – there are still some old mining equipment, train tracks, ore carts, shovels and steam-powered jackhammers underneath millions of gallons of crystal clear water.
More than offering a one of a kind diving experience, Bonne Terre Mine dive tours ensures the welfare and safety of divers. Before diving into the abandoned mine, divers are required to demonstrate their diving skills before a team of professionals guides go with them on to the first of the 24 progressive dive tours that ranges from basic open water caverns to diving into cave-like tunnels. Though there are halogen lights to simulate an open water experience, subterranean diving is definitely not for all.
Bonne Terre Mine is open on weekends, but you need to procure reservations for the guided tours. Because of the cold water (55 degrees all year round), artificial lights and cavern/cave-like environment, Bonne Terre is strictly for competent divers only.
Another dive site worth visiting is the Copper River – 45 minutes west of Charleston, South Carolina, Copper River offers a black-water diving experience where you can get a chance to see fossils and other wonders. Its tannin-stained water give the river an eerie feel. At 28 feet deep, it would be difficult to see through the pitch black water even with a light. It seems creepy at first but wait until you reach its floor and scan its crevices and troughs. There, divers will be in awe to find dislodged artifacts and fossils of shark teeth and whale ribs some dated to be about seven million years old.
A local dive shop in Goose Creek provides visitors with access to Copper River. Assembly is at a boat landing for a 3-to10-mile ride up to the dive site. Timing is also very important since the river may only be explored during flood tide. Professional guides will bring divers to the best places to dive and also ensure their safety. Because the water is murky, to avoid disorientation during ascents and descents, divers need to check their gauges constantly. A goody bag is also a must.
Next stop is Tailrace Diving in any of the following destinations: Garrison Dam which an hour drive north of Bismarck, North Dakota; the chute below Lake Oahe Dam just outside of Pierre, South Dakota; and Colorado River in Willow Beach, Arizona. Tailrace diving is a type of drift diving where the diver goes head first through a rapid outflow of a major dam. The diver drops into the middle of the current and cruises downriver just a few feet above the bottom while watching out for and dodging obstacles.
Worth noting still among the Tailrace Diving sites is that depths may vary from a few feet to more than 40 feet, and that in all of the three sites, the water is always freezing. This is why participants should wear extra neoprene, not just to shield them from bumps and snags along the way, but also to provide extra warmth. These dives are for advanced divers only and be sure to seek knowledgeable guides from a local dive shop.
There is also Homestead Crater in Homestead Resort – about an hour ride east of Salt Lake City, Utah and near Heberville. Homestead prides itself for giving guests a Journey to the Center of the Earth experience. The only difference this time is that instead of a going through a mine, the site is a natural geologic crater. The Homestead Crater is a natural hot spring inside a rock dome – its grotto is 60 feet across and has a small opening at the top. Below is 70 feet of clear and unusually hot water that ranges between 90 and 96 degrees even in the dead of winter.
Homestead has a 100-foot tunnel that cuts into the base of the crater, a space well enough for a tiny dive shop, and access to a floating dock where divers suit up. Inside the bell-shaped crater there is a suspended wagon wheel and mineral deposits lining the walls. The crater also has a lot of natural and artificial lighting, but dive lights will still come in handy in some of the darker portions. The site is open year-round to divers, swimmers and guests of the resort. Divers have to share it with ski bums taking a soak between runs during winter season.
Another natural wonder is the Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming wherein diving at 7,600 feet above sea level is already an adventure in itself. Within the crystal clear waters of the lake are underwater geysers and some strange lava-like spires (scientist can’t quite figure this out) called mystery spires, the topside scenery ain’t bad either.
Rising up to 20 feet off the lake bottom, the mystery spires look something like rough stone chimneys, which some people think may in fact be the skeletal remains of living creatures. Whatever they are, it is definitely something you will not see elsewhere.
The cold-water, high-altitude dive in Yellowstone is for advanced divers only. Bringing dry suit, taking it easy and not pushing the limits is advised. And, be careful not to touch the spires.
Further south, about 20 minutes southwest of Abilene, Texas is the Missile Silo – a remnant of the Cold War. This site will bring divers to an underwater tour of what was once a secure military facility.
Way back in 1962, this underground bunker contained an Atlas F ICBM that has an equivalent firepower of 50 Hiroshima bombs. The nukes however, are all long gone, and what remains today is 130 feet of peaceful, clear groundwater. To access the site from the Texas prairie above, divers must go down a long flight of stairs descending to what was once a top-secret military facility. Visitors will pass through several blast doors to the old launch control bunker then proceed through a tunnel to the enormous concrete silo that is 52 feet across and 18 stories deep.
The water in the Missile Silo is 130 feet deep. There piles of tangled metal debris at the bottom, so divers need to be careful. Also at the bottom of the silo is the missile control station, which is a tin shack structure that sticks out from the silo wall at around 30 to 60 feet.
The water is at constant 61 degrees and is clear at about 60 feet. To explore the depth of the silo, divers’ need a 7mm wet suit with hood and gloves and a dive light.
Another must visit dive site is Clear Lake located two and a half hours ride southwest of Portland, Oregon. The lake offers visibly clear water beyond anything imaginable, but it is also quite cold.
Most of what is in the bottom is volcanic ash though it is not all that divers could see there, there are also brilliant-yellow algae fields, frozen lava flows, a sunken forest, and geothermal vents that pour out milky, cloud-like substances. Though it’s only about 45 feet deep, the lake is 4,000 feet above sea level, so divers will need a dry suit and a sealed regulator. Furthermore, the very cold water makes it an advanced dive and good buoyancy skills are required because of the volcanic ash in the bottom.
A must-visit for diving enthusiasts, the Jules’ Undersea Lodge/Emerald Lagoon is lined with mangroves and can be best described as an aquatic theme park dedicated to dive science. At the center of the Jules’ Undersea Lodge is a deep-sea research habitat converted into the world’s first and only underwater hotel.
The lodge, located in Key Largo, Florida just off Highway 1 at Mile Marker 103, can accommodate groups of up to six divers. NASA uses it occasionally to simulate living in space conditions, but it is also popular with adventurous honeymooners. Divers in this site use an extensive system of hookah lines to explore the lagoon’s numerous quarry-like attractions, including an archaeological exhibit and second habitat structure that serves as a marine lab.
Mt. Storm Lake
An addition to the diver-friendly lakes is Mt. Storm Lake that is just off Route 42 in northern West Virginia near the Maryland border. It has a large parking lot for visitors, easy shore-diving access, underwater platforms, and plenty of warning signs to keep divers away from the dam. The thing that makes Mt. Storm unique among the other dive sites on this list is its water temperature, which is about 20 degrees warmer. On cold days, the surface of the lake actually steams up. The reason behind this is because Mt. Storm Lake is a man-made cooling pond for a massive coal-fired power plant.
Last, but definitely not the least among the many dive spots of the US, is the Bonneville Seabase in Utah, 40 miles west of Salt Lake City and near Grantsville, Utah. It is an inland sea full of tropical fish species such as angelfish and nurse sharks. With the same geologic forces that help create the Great Salt Lake, Bonneville Seabase provides warm, saltwater ponds somehow similar to the water conditions of the Caribbean, thus supporting a diverse mix of ocean fish – from groupers to nurse sharks.
Adventurous divers just have to choose or just visit one site at a time to enjoy the many wonders and surprises each dive site has to offer.