I tell my Tahoe story the same way others tell theirs: I came here for a winter; decided to stay for a summer, and I haven’t left yet. And the things that kept me here are the same things that keep us all: skiing, biking, hiking, boating, climbing. For years, it’s like I was in adventure hypnosis by those activities. I lived in the mountains, and I forgot about scuba diving.
Most of my diving experience has been specifically in Hawaii, accompanied by the supervision and customer service of scuba guides. My scuba experience is like a boy growing up in Tulsa, Okla., bragging about being a skier after taking a couple family trips to Northstar.
“Water this clear doesn’t exist in very many other places in the world.”
– Dylan Silver
With scuba diving, once you’re certified, you’re certified for life (though it is best to keep up your practice). For half the price of most ski lift tickets, you can rent all the gear you need for a world-class diving experience. There are three dive shops between Reno and Carson. There aren’t any dedicated shops at lake level, though. Hundreds of people are trained and certified in Lake Tahoe annually.
I studied for my certification in my university’s pool, and took my open water test in a lake in Upstate New York, all the while eager for the tropics.
Because what is scuba diving without the cast of “Finding Nemo” and bright coral?
“Divers who only look for that may not be looking internally when they dive,” said Sean Ismail, an employee at Adventure Scuba Center in Reno. “I know a lot of divers who are really into meditating, and that’s their gateway to meditation since its cold and quiet.” Ismail is working toward his advanced designation, benefitting from free gear rentals and the education from Master Instructor Scott Hagen and his wife, Amy, who own the shop.
“A lot of people think ‘Oh, there’s nothing up there,’ but actually there is,” says Amy Hagen, who has photographed schools of suckerfish, cutthroat trout, curious minnows and large crawdads in the lake.
Another draw to the lake is the way it preserves things beneath the surface for a long time thanks to cold temperatures and the lack of corrosive salt water. There are old growth Jeffery pines and other conifers that have rested in the lake for hundreds of years. They lay along the deep embankments like prehistoric skeletons that extend out of sight beyond the gradient of blue.
Sadly, there is also a lot of well-preserved trash down there, too. Members of the faithful Tahoe diving community often surface from dives with gear pockets full of beer cans, empty Cheetos bags and the occasional set of expensive sunglasses.
Clarity is determined with a Secchi depth measurement. The Secchi depth is the depth at which a 10-inch white disk remains visible when lowered into the water. Federal and state regulators have set a target clarity of 97.4 feet, a goal spurring the work of agencies like Keep Tahoe Blue and the rest of the environmentally conscious Tahoe community.
One such environmentalist is Dylan Silver, an accomplished adventure photographer based in South Lake Tahoe. Silver is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno studying journalism. He’s devoted his research to photographing the underwater esthetic of Tahoe.
“My goal is basically to just create a record of what it is right now in the lake; what the water looks like,” said Silver. “Nobody knows what the water actually looked like when the clarity was 100 feet.”
Silver’s Tahoe Clarity project began in 2016 with photographs from more than 35 dives throughout the year in locations all around the lake. He has plans to gather photographic data from more than 100 dives in 2017. He believes that the project will reveal differences in the clarity over time, paralleling scientific findings from researchers studying algae, water temperature and other physical properties of Lake Tahoe.
I chose Silver as my guide for my introductory dive in Tahoe. We paddled a canoe out from Baldwin Beach in South Lake loaded with bags of wetsuits and fins, goggles and regulators, and of course 12,000 pounds per square inch of air crammed into four heavy tanks.
We headed along the West Shore, across the mouth of Emerald Bay into a little bay called Whiskey Cove to suit up on the rocks on shore. The cove drops steeply to one of the deepest elevations in the lake. A little ways north of that, I’m told, is a notorious spot called the Rubicon Walls where the topography drops like a cliff for more than 1,000 feet into the black.
“You definitely have to have good buoyancy,” Amy Hagen said. “You’re not going to the bottom, you have to stay in that water column.”
Our second dive was to the sunken barges on the south slope of Emerald Bay. Sunken barges from the turn of the 20th Century make another popular scuba spot, with a dedicated buoy for dive boats. We floated beneath old beams and peered into the hiding places of harmless fish.
“Water this clear doesn’t exist in very many other places in the world,” said Silver while we ate sandwiches in the September sun back on shore, looking at the photos he captured that day.
The ongoing Tahoe Clarity project is on display at tahoeclarity.com. For more information on the Emerald Bay and D.L. Bliss Underwater State Parks, visit parks.ca.gov.
By Luka Starmer | Photos by Dylan Silver