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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Scuba Do

Swimming with sharks in the middle of the desert, and other charms of diving in Utah.



I’m inching along just above the surface of the lagoon, barely twitching my fins in about 20 feet of water. Visibility is poor today, only 3 feet or so. I have my flashlight out and am following the beam closely, swimming sideways as I try to catch glimpses of fish under the rocks. It’s rather like flying; once you get the proper buoyancy you can’t even feel the 65 pounds of equipment on your body.

Momentum is another issue altogether. Trying to stop with a finger pushing against a rock, I feel the extra energy from all that moving mass. It carries me forward a little further than I intended, and I end up almost drifting into a large round boulder.

Then I see what looks like a small eyelid, smack dab in the middle of the oddly smooth rock. I shine my light down the length of a 7-foot shark—2 inches in front of me—before I realize there is a second one, just as large, lying off on the bottom just behind this one. Suddenly, one of the creatures decides he wants to be elsewhere. He goes from zero to 60 past me in less than a second, and I see him stretched out next to me for just an instant. It’s a strange, humbling feeling the first time you swim with a fish that is larger than you are, and see just how graceful they are in their environment.

What makes this even stranger is the fact that I am about as far away from the ocean in almost any direction as you can get on the North American continent—in the middle of the desert, in fact. After growing up on the East Coast, I had to come to Utah to learn to scuba dive, and to swim with sharks. Oddly enough, I’m not alone in this respect. According to Dive Training magazine, Utah ranks fifth in the nation per capita in certified scuba divers (with Arizona a curious first).

“I think it has to do with the people who are attracted to Utah,” says Linda Nelson, half of the husband and wife team that runs Bonneville Seabase 40 miles from Salt Lake City. “Utah attracts outdoorsy people, people that like to do adventurous things. And a lot of pilots, people that like to fly.” she adds.

Linda’s right about the flying part. There’s no better way to describe what it feels like when you are drifting along under 40 feet of water and still breathing peacefully.

Bonneville Seabase is a set of hot-spring-fed saltwater ponds that are home to more than 60 species of fish from all over the planet—Hawaii, Indonesia, Thailand and the Red Sea. Linda also tells me how the sharks, as well as Ozzie the land turtle, were rescue animals. She goes into the balance between the various species, describing how some do well, and some become fodder for others. It’s all very interesting when you realize you can actually go out and watch it, up close and in person.

Out on the western border of Utah and Nevada lies another dive destination, in the Bonneville Salt Flats south of Wendover. Located on the edge of a military bombing range, Blue Lake holds markedly fewer species of fish than Seabase. You have to walk about 400 yards from the parking lot to the lake, which is no easy task with all the heavy gear. Fortunately, some great people have put in a boardwalk and you don’t have to wade through the marsh to get to the shore.

When I was doing my open water certification dives on weekdays, we’d practically have Blue Lake to ourselves. During the first night dive, sinking into the darkness with a dive partner and an instructor, I was just a little nervous as we descended. At one point, they disappeared behind a slight rise in the bottom; for a few moments I was completely alone under 50 feet of water. I checked my gauges and then covered my light, and saw the glow sticks taped to their snorkels off in the distance.

In the back of my mind, I heard my instructor’s voice repeating the Golden Rule of scuba: “Don’t ever hold your breath. No matter what, you are always breathing. Unless, of course, you are drowning, but up to the point where you are drowning you should still be breathing.” I remember to relax, to breathe as I swim over toward the dim lights that represent the only other people for miles around.

No such luck today, though. University students have come out to Blue Lake for their certification dives. The lake is full of groups of divers, with parties on the surface and large bubbling areas indicating divers down under. My partner and I swim out to the other side of the lake before descending, but I still manage to almost run into a diver while swimming backward and trying to shoot a photo in the 5-foot visibility. Looks like a few more people in the middle of the desert have decided to learn to scuba.

BONNEVILLE SEABASE 9390 W. Highway 138 Grantsville 435-884-0132