Duiken in de woestijn van Utah
Duiken in de woestijn van Utah
Scuba Diving in Utah’s Desert
[I]By STEPHEN REGENOLD
Published: November 28, 2008[/I]
FROZEN squid was on the menu. Sardines, silver-skinned and dusted with frost, were already sliced up and on a plate. It was just after sunrise on a cool morning in late October, time to feed the fish at the Bonneville Seabase, an aquatic center in, of all places, the desert outside Grantsville, Utah.
“Hope the sharks are hungry,” said Lynn Findlay, an employee, his hand outstretched and clenching raw meat. In the water below, from the pit of a saltwater spring called Habitat Bay, dark shapes were emerging from the deep.
Thousands of fish — from flitting minnows to a pair of nine-foot-long nurse sharks — live in the murky waters at Bonneville Seabase, an independent experiment in marine biology started 20 years ago by George Sanders and Linda Nelson, husband-and-wife scuba divers from Salt Lake City. After years of development costing them about a million dollars, they have created a private tropical-fish preserve off an empty road at 4,293 feet in a valley about 10 miles south of the Great Salt Lake.
It’s open to snorkelers and scuba divers four days a week, year round, for $15 a day.
“We call it an interactive aquarium,” said Ms. Nelson, 62, a Utah native who, with her husband, 68, also runs a dive shop in Salt Lake City. “The sharks won’t bite unless you pull their tails.”
Seabase is little known in the diving world, but Patric Douglas, a shark expert, guide and commercial diver in San Francisco, sees it as a pioneer in a movement to create artificial environments where divers can swim with big fish that are increasingly rare in the wild. Resorts, casinos and public aquariums have begun investigating Seabase-like facilities, he said.
For now, divers like Todd Gardner, 38, of Riverhead, N.Y., travel to Bonneville Seabase to swim with tropical species from around the world in an environment that can be fully explored in a couple of hours. “You forget where you are,” said Mr. Gardner, who works at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead.
He described feeding tropical fish out of his hand at Seabase and then surfacing to winter weather. “It was snowing in the desert and I was scuba diving,” he said.
A former chemist, Ms. Nelson came up with the concept of stocking desert springs with ocean fish in the 1980s. After analyzing salinity levels, she and Mr. Sanders bought 60 acres from the town of Grantsville, including three warm-spring basins that receive water naturally from the ancient salt beds of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which once covered the region.
“Our water doesn’t have enough magnesium or sulfate compared to the ocean, and the pH is too low, but the fish are doing fine,” Ms. Nelson said.
Living in the Seabase waters are snappers, several kinds of angelfish and butterflyfish, silver scats, mono argentus and more.
During the morning feeding, I watched aggressive Crevalle jacks swoop up to nab bits of chopped fish, whipping their tails and then disappearing back into the depths. But the sharks — two males adopted 10 years ago after outgrowing residential aquariums — never surfaced. “They don’t like the cold weather,” Mr. Findlay said.
To see the sharks, I’d have to jump in.
I suited up and popped a regulator in my mouth, waddling to the water’s edge in a seven-millimeter wet suit with weights around my ankles and waist.
“No squealing when you get in,” said Lori Fox, my instructor and guide. “You’ll feel a cold rush of water down your back.”
Coaxing aquatic life in an ersatz ocean didn’t come easy for Ms. Nelson and Mr. Sanders, world-traveling divers and self-taught ichthyologists. Coral couldn’t grow in the salty springs. Mussels died. Algae blooms, a constant problem, spread uncontrollably in the warm geothermic water, which is 90 degrees at the bottom but is cooled by the air at the surface.
Last winter, a stock of 10,000 shrimp were introduced to Habitat Bay, a half-acre pool that’s 24 feet deep. A flock of hundreds of ducks living in wetlands south of the Great Salt Lake soon discovered them. “They ate them all,” Ms. Nelson said.
But after years of experimentation, an equilibrium has been accomplished at Seabase, which keeps three pools open for diving, including the Abyss, a 62-foot-deep hole that required thousands of hours of work with industrial cranes to dredge out in the desert. Of the dozens of species introduced, a handful have adapted to this high-altitude home, growing, reproducing and living for years in an ocean ecosystem 600 miles from the Pacific Coast.
“It’s a vision from the future of diving,” said Mr. Douglas, the shark expert, alluding to environmental changes. “You used to be able to zip to the Florida Keys and see pristine reefs and stunning sea life, but it’s no longer that easy.”
Local residents make up most of Seabase’s 1,500 to 2,000 annual visitors, including regulars from area dive clubs and people seeking scuba certification before trips to Cozumel or the Caribbean. Masks, air tanks, fins and wet suits are for rent in the main building. Divers top off their tanks at a refilling station on a sidewalk next to the communal shower room.
Chris Westover, 37, a manager at a ski area near Ogden, Utah, snorkeled for an hour on the morning of my visit. He came with a friend to try something new. “It’s the last Sunday in October and I’m snorkeling in the desert,” he said. “This is a better idea than the breakfast buffet.”
Mr. Westover took a head of romaine lettuce with him underwater. He held it out and fed tropical fish. The water was murky and cold, but he said, “we saw an angelfish.”
Before suiting up for my dive, I walked out a few hundred feet into the desert for a wider perspective. Mountains rose up in the west. A pickup truck roared by a mile away on a country road.
BRINGING THE OCEAN INLAND Divers in and around one of the three saltwater pools at Bonneville Seabase that hold thousands of tropical fish.
Seabase — a mishmash of sheds, trailer homes, Quonset huts, construction equipment, camper trailers, ponds with polycarbonate covers, two telescope observatories and an airplane hangar — looked like a settlement on Mars. Wind kicked dust off the flat land. There was an end-of-the-earth feeling, with no noise and little life.
When I returned to Seabase, Mr. Sanders pointed to a hilltop and told me it was the home of a hermit who once loaded a truck with barrels of fuel in anticipation of the apocalypse. The hermit used dynamite to clear a road and now keeps large-caliber guns on the hill. “He’s an enterprising young fellow,” Mr. Sanders said.
Lew Ershler, who runs a powered-parachute flight program out of the airplane hangar on the site, mentioned a polygamist settlement in the hills across State Highway 138.
Underwater, things were even stranger. At 10 a.m. I climbed down a ladder, weighted with 50 pounds of scuba gear, following my guide into the murk. Bits of squid still floated on the surface, uneaten ringlets from the morning feed. “Swim with me out to the white pole,” Ms. Fox said, turning to glide away.
We paddled 50 feet, heads out of the water with dive masks on. The pool, called White Rocks Bay, was capped under a polycarbonate roof to retain warmth in the wintertime (the outside gets down to freezing temperatures), creating a claustrophobic cave.
“Keep close,” Ms. Fox said. “I’ll have a hand on you.”
She pressed a button on her buoyancy compensator, air wheezing out of the flotation lung. I did the same, and we sank down along the pole, my bare hand clutching white metal coated in slime.
At the bottom, 13 feet down, a rocky seabed stirred with dust. I kicked to swim and sediment mushroomed up, clouding the water to almost black. Small fish swam by, amorphous little blips. I saw dark shapes and shadows, but bubbles and dust confounded my view.
In two minutes, Ms. Fox tugged on my arm. She pointed skyward, and I followed her back to the surface by the white pole.
“You were right on top of the shark!” she said, spitting out her regulator to talk. “I had to almost pull you off of him.”
Unknowingly, I’d hovered a few inches over a shark’s back while scanning the bottom and following an angelfish. The shark was resting in the rocks, its blood sluggish in the 68-degree water.
Back in the depths, swimming gingerly to keep the dust storm down, I followed my guide to find our cartilaginous friend. Ms. Fox again tugged at my arm, signaling toward an underwater ledge.
I reached out to the black shape and touched a surface squishy and rough, like sandpaper waterlogged and coated in goo. I evened my breathing, the bubbles slowing down, and a spike appeared in focus, a triangle fin contrasting with the brown water. It was the dorsal fin of a nurse shark. The creature was dead still, seemingly asleep — a nine-foot-long fish fading away in algae and sediment, its head unseen.
Visibility is the Achilles’ heel at Seabase. Desert storms, wind, blooming algae and thousands of stirring fish make a mix that some days resembles pea soup. On my dive, visibility was about four and a half feet; the best days, according to Ms. Nelson, let sunlight cut 20 feet through the water.
I gave the shark a final touch and stroked away, kicking carefully.
I was carrying a stalk of romaine that Ms. Fox had given me to feed the fish. For the few minutes that I tried, nothing bit. The leafy head was deteriorating as I swam, and before we left the water, I dropped the lettuce into the depths.
“What do you think of this place?” Ms. Fox asked, smiling, as I stood dripping on concrete. The water stirred below me, a school of minnows pecking bits. I looked up and told Ms. Fox it was unlike any place I’d ever been before.
Outside, a group of Seabase regulars were grilling hot dogs. There was music and laughter as old friends talked scuba diving. Charcoal smoke seeped up to where I was standing, a smell of ash mixing with musty aquarium air.
A bit farther away, bubbles swirled in a pool, water upset with lines and ripples. The fish were stirring in their desert home. The sharks were quiet, still sleeping in the deep.
IF YOU GO
Bonneville Seabase (Highway 138, Grantsville, Utah; 435-884-3874; Bonneville Seabase – Utah Scuba Diving and Snorkeling Location – Inland Scuba Diving and Snorkeling) is about 45 minutes west of Salt Lake City. It is open Thursday through Sunday, and charges $15 a day to dive or snorkel.
Three warm spring-fed pools, from 13 to 62 feet deep, are open to divers and stocked with thousands of fish, including two nurse sharks. Equipment rentals, scuba lessons and certification are available. Children are allowed with adult supervision; the minimum age for scuba diving is 8.
Seabase has showers, changing rooms, a snack bar, indoor tables for dining and camper trailers ($18 a night for two).
At the same site, Bonneville Skybase (801-557-5657; Bonneville Skybase LLC* Sport Pilot Training Center) offers powered-parachute flights starting at $75 for 20 minutes. A pilot and a passenger fly up to 1,000 feet for views of the dive ponds and the Great Salt Lake.