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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The Blue Hole: Scuba diving on the High Plains

Kids diving into the Blue Hole as divers begin a lesson. Photo/Scott Martelle
Well, I went 0-2 on selling travel stories this summer, and as with the Chautauqua Institution piece, I'd rather share this story here than have it fade away on my laptop. An outlet that was interested before I left on the trip was less so after a mid-summer budget adjustment, and I couldn't raise interest in it elsewhere. Not sure if that says something about journalism budgets these days, or my choices of travel destinations.

By Scott Martelle

SANTA ROSA, N.M – For a few minutes, I thought my friend had lied to me. Or at least maybe stretched the truth a bit. I had risen before dawn to catch the early light at a place called the Blue Hole, an artesian-fed pond out here in the middle of the high plains that, my friend insisted, was the most popular scuba-diving spot between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

It was the anomaly that drew me: Scuba diving in arid eastern New Mexico, where annual rainfall barely breaks into double digits, the temperature often hits triple digits, and the horizon is as bleak and unbroken as an ocean.

So a few minutes after 6 a.m., hoping to take some pictures in the soft morning light, I pulled up to the park gate just a few blocks from old Route 66, Santa Rosa’s main street and lingering claim to fame. The gate was locked; Not a good sign. I tooled around town for a few minutes – in truth, that’s all you need to see the whole place – took some photos of a cemetery, cooled my heels back at the hotel then returned a little after 7 to find the gate wide open. A single motor home had backed up to a shaded picnic table on the far side of the dirt parking lot from the Blue Hole, and a couple of other people were walking their dogs.

Nary a diver in sight. I should have figured divers in a desert was too good to be true, even though my friend, M.E. Sprengelmeyer, owner of the Guadalupe County Communicator weekly newspaper, had promised me it was so. I parked and waited, the car door flung wide to catch a scant breeze as I entertained evil thoughts about my friend and his tales of the Blue Hole scuba divers. I finally gave up around 8 a.m., and as I drove toward the gate, I glanced at the motor home and there, hanging from the rafters of the picnic shelter, were two wetsuits swaying in the morning breeze. Nearby, Doug and Crystal Lang were going through their safety check ahead of their morning dive.

Ah, I thought, Sprengelmeyer doesn’t lie.



Over the next four hours, the Blue Hole transformed from my private glen to being as busy as an Albertson’s parking lot on a Saturday afternoon. Dozens of scuba divers geared up, most of them enrolled in diver-certification programs from as far away as Denver, nearly 400 miles north along the high plains. For divers marooned in the dry heart of the country, the Blue Hole is the next best thing to the ocean.

The Blue Hole – so named for the almost Caribbean hue of the water – is the gem of a system of ponds, springs and wetlands emanating from the massive aquifer that lies beneath eastern New Mexico and Colorado. Some 80 feet wide at the surface and extending more than 200 feet below ground, the Blue Hole is replenished by a constant flow of 3,000 gallons of water a minute that remains a constant 61 degrees.

During the Great Depression, Works Progress Administration crews created a network of fish hatcheries at the site, and the Blue Hole remained under federal control – and mostly out of reach of the public – until the City of Santa Rosa took it over as a park in 1974. A couple of years later, two divers died trying to explore the dangerous network of water-filled caves, leading the city to grate off the hole in the floor of the topmost chamber.

A diver who helped recover the bodies described a surreal world inside the now off-limits chambers.

“The ceiling of the chamber looks as though thousands of ice cream cones of all sizes were hanging invertly,” former diver Tom Hawkins told the Guadalupe County Communicator last year. He continued to the lowest reachable chamber, which swallowed the light from his 100,000 candle-power flashlight.

“I couldn’t see the other side – or the bottom,” he said. “Just imagine yourself in the Carlsbad Caverns, but filled with water and without light.”
Divers at the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico
The Blue Hole accessible by divers today is a rough bell shape – about 130 feet across at the bottom – and ends at the grate just over 80 feet down. Because Santa Rosa is about 4,600 feet above sea level, a dive to the bottom is the equivalent of diving 100 feet into the ocean.

It is the only spot, divers say, between Southern California (more than 700 miles away) and the Gulf of Mexico (about 650 miles away) with that kind of depth, making it a key draw for those seeking certification in deep-sea diving or those trying to maintain skills between trips to more exotic locales.

The Langs, for instance, were practicing up for a September diving trip from their home near Albuquerque to Maui. “There’s just no other place to dive,” Crystal Lang said as her husband laid their diving gear out on a picnic table.

Jerry Watson, his wife Britta, and their three daughters, left their Monument, Colorado, home around 3:30 a.m. to beat the rush for prime parking spots so he and his oldest daughter, Sarah, 22, could practice up for a diving trip to Monterey Bay, and his second oldest daughter, Carina, 19, could work on getting certified. Elissa, the youngest at 14, has to wait two years to get certified, and mom Britta has no interest: “I’m a respiratory therapist,” she says. “I know what can go wrong.”

Watson says the family took up scuba diving last year on a whim. “My oldest daughter and I began talking about it and one day we just decided to do it,” Watson says as he and Sarah help each other into their suits and tanks. The hobby could well become a career for the younger Watson, who plans to enroll in a commercial diving program in Florida.

“I like the technical aspects of diving – the equipment and being under water,” she says, adding that she’s particularly drawn to saturation diving, a technique that allows divers to work at far depths for extended periods of time without suffering ill effects from a build up of gases (“the bends”). “It pays really good, because it’s dangerous.”

But at the Blue Hole, the biggest challenge is the traffic jam getting into the water. By mid-afternoon, a line of divers waited patiently for groups already in the water to finish their dives. Equipment was spread out to dry on tarps between the parking lot and the pond. In a nearby shed, Stella Salazar filled the empty air tanks of divers readying for another go, as non-scuba divers rimmed the rocky northern edge of the pool, taking their own turns stepping off a 15-foot-high ledge and into the abyss.

No, I thought again, Sprengelmeyer didn’t lie. Right here in the middle of the high plains – scuba heaven.



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