New Mexico's Scuba Diving Hot Spot

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Posted by on January 08, 2005 at 20:37:46:

Among diving sites, there are the big fish (Great Barrier Reef, the Red Sea, Bonaire) and the small fish (U.S. lakes and quarries).

Then there are the goldfish - of New Mexico's Blue Hole.

Two hours east of Albuquerque near Santa Rosa, an unassuming city on old Route 66, the Blue Hole has no exotic marine life and no boozy party boats. But it does have a reputation, however puzzling, as one of the top diving destinations in the United States.

Known as the "City of Natural Lakes," Santa Rosa overflows with pristine bodies of water that provide an invigorating blue splash in an otherwise arid landscape. Most of the lakes are used for fishing, swimming and boating - and one, Perch Lake, has a sunken twin-engine plane that attracts scuba divers partial to large, corroding objects.

The city of 2,744 also touts its Route 66 lore, whose ghosts still rumble like a '57 Chevy along the neon-bright drag. Then there's the outlaw Billy the Kid, who though neither a diver nor a driver, still found time to kick up some dust in Santa Rosa.

The Blue Hole, an 80-foot-deep artesian spring fed by an underwater aquifer, draws visitors from around the world; about 8,000 diving permits are issued per year. With limited scuba spots in the Southwest, novice divers drive all day to practice their skills in a sinkhole that's as safe as a bathtub. Others seek a break from the desert or mountains and their attendant sports, such as hiking, horseback riding and skiing.

"Santa Rosa could have been just another Route 66 town washed to the side. But people will drive 10, 13 hours to come here and dive Blue Hole," said Dave Seelig, a diver and student in Albuquerque. "It's a great spot for diving, but there's not enough fish to see. You'll probably know all of them by name by the end of the weekend."

Locals say weekends at the Blue Hole often attract triple digits of divers, filling the watery void with tiers of fins and tanks. (PADI, one of the diving world's biggest associations, considers the sinkhole a reputable diving spot.) With 3,000 gallons of water flowing per minute, the water is as clear as Evian, and word is you can look down at the bottom and discern a nickel from a bottle cap - but not until midweek, when silt kicked up by the weekend crowd settles. I was there on a Sunday and couldn't see much beyond the carp, goldfish and koi pursing their lips for food.

For scuba purists who want their coral reefs protected and their sharks unbaited, the Blue Hole may be sacrilege. The walls are made of craggy limestone and the bottom is fairly flat and covered with leaves, so it seems as if you are hiking underwater. The sea life mainly comes from backyard ponds and children's bedrooms. And the temperature remains a constant 64 degrees.

Best, or worst, of all are the novelty items that past divers have tossed in. As if scuba diving weren't entertaining enough, SpongeBob SquarePants greets divers 25 feet below the water.

On a chilly November weekend, I entered the Blue Hole from a set of steps that face a spiraling sweep of rock that climbs high to a flat peak - a good spot for plunging in (sans scuba gear) or viewing divers underwater.

From land, the Blue Hole resembles a giant well landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. Though the hole and its surrounding area was a fish hatchery from 1952 to 1967, scrub oak and juniper trees, their slender trunks and leafy plumes sharply reflected on the motionless surface, now border the crafted stone architecture. The hole is isolated - a bathroom and a modest scuba hut are the only structures - and quiet. So quiet, in fact, you almost can hear the rising bubbles of descending divers.

I sank slowly to the bottom, as the gray sky began to recede and the shale bottom crept closer. The 360 degrees of serrated rock, forming alien faces in its crags, made me miss the soft sea grass and white sand of the Caribbean, but seeing the goldfish so at home cheered me.

The Blue Hole is shaped like a soda bottle, and when I reached the widest point (130 feet), my right foot seemed lighter than usual: a lost fin, dropped somewhere near the faux tombstone of Joe Cool, who "went down so long, he turned cold and blue." I glided past the cover that marks the spot where divers in the 1970s entered a web of caves that run south, all the way to Texas. After a number of deaths, the city sealed the entry but kept the Blue Hole open - 24 hours a day, year-round. Indeed, popular times to dive here are nighttime, when you can lie on the bottom and gaze up at the moon and stars, and wintertime, when snowflakes fall silently onto the surface before melting away.

Circling to the opposite wall, I went to see what Mitch and Cathy had to say. The two had scribbled their names on the rock face with a remarkably waterproof marker. Then I realized I wasn't alone: SpongeBob SquarePants was grinning at me like an idiot. He's part of the Toy Museum, a collection of diver-donated baubles that also include golf balls and toys nudged into the hard crannies.

Whereas most popular diving areas such as Bonaire and Belize cater to visitors with dressing rooms, concession stands and other amenities, the Blue Hole is quite primitive. A two-room "scuba center" has concrete floors, space heaters and a pot of coffee brewed by Stella, who runs the slipshod dive shop. The city plans to build a respectable facility within the next two years.

Albuquerque is 117 miles away, but divers must wait at least a couple of hours before driving back, as the combination of Santa Rosa's 4,620-foot elevation and the high-altitude commute can cause the life-threatening "bends." Fortunately, Santa Rosa has a history of tending to travelers who are hungry, too hot or too cold, overtired and in dire need of not moving a muscle.

"Santa Rosa used to be an accident stop for people going east to west and west to east," said Mayor Joe Campos, who was making an appearance at his Route 66-era restaurant, Joseph's. "They had to come through here. But now, it's

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