On Route 66, the Blue Hole Beckons
Sunday, December 19, 2004
Among diving sites, there are the big fish (Great Barrier Reef, Egypt's Red Sea, Bonaire) and the small fish (U.S. lakes and quarries). And then there are the goldfish -- of Santa Rosa's Blue Hole.
Two hours east of Albuquerque, this unassuming New Mexico town plunked on old Route 66 has no open water, no exotic marine life and no boozy party boats nearly capsizing with neoprene-coated boomers. One thing 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 is overflowing with pristine bodies of water that provide an invigorating blue splash in an otherwise arid landscape. Most of the lakes are used for everyday summer activities -- fishing, swimming, boating -- and one, Perch Lake, has a sunken twin-engine plane that attracts scuba divers partial to large, corroding objects. The town of 2,744 also touts its Mother Road lore, whose ghosts still rumble like a '57 Chevy along the neon-bright drag. And then there's the famous outlaw Billy the Kid, who though neither a diver nor a driver, still found time to kick up some dust in Santa Rosa.
Yet it's the Blue Hole, an 80-foot-deep artesian spring fed from an underwater aquifer, that draws visitors (about 8,000 diving permits are issued per year) from around the world. 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, like hiking, horseback riding and skiing. There's also the novelty factor: Australia has giant clams, but, come on, New Mexico has goldfish.
"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 the Blue Hole often attracts triple digits of divers per weekend, filling the watery void with tiers of fins and tanks. (PADI, one of the diving world's biggest associations, considers it 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 that's 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 might 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 sealife mainly comes from backyard ponds and children's bedrooms. And the temperature remains a constant 64 degrees, whether you are dog-paddling at the top or resting 80 feet below. Best, or worst, of all are the novelty items that past divers have tossed in.
As if scuba diving weren't entertaining enough, now 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 faces 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, now scrub oak and juniper trees border the crafted stone architecture, their slender trunks and leafy plumes sharply reflected on the motionless surface. The hole is pretty isolated -- a bathroom and a modest scuba hut are the only structures -- and quiet. So quiet, in fact, you can almost hear the rising bubbles of descending divers.
Below the waterline, the silence was even more hushed. Though only 80 feet in diameter at top, the space seemed vast, and empty. The few other divers were mere silhouettes.
I sunk 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 seagrass and white sand of the Caribbean, but seeing the goldfish so at home cheered me.