1 of 8
Courtesy of Dwain Gardner
Scuba up close
2 of 8
Courtesy of Dwain Gardner
Scuba rainbow troutRainbow trout call Bennett Spring home.
3 of 8
Courtesy of Marshall Hill
4 of 8
Courtesy of Dwain Gardner
Two scuba divers under waterDivers are a close community of individuals that share common bonds.
5 of 8
Courtesy of Dwain Gardner
Scuba up close
6 of 8
Courtesy of Dwain Gardner
Two scuba divers
7 of 8
Courtesy of Dwain Gardner
Scuba diversDivers in Norfork Lake, which straddles the Missouri and Arkansas state line, float the red and white flag required to let those above know that they are there.
8 of 8
Courtesy of Dwain Gardner
Scuba divers out of water
Missouri's best spots to don flippers and go below!
Gathering around their equipment, a small group of divers perform one more safety check before their 60-foot dive. Regulators, hoses, masks, and neoprene suits slide on and into place. Like a creature from the deep, they walk out into the water, slip on their fins, and submerse themselves, leaving only ripples and telltale bubbles on the surface. Instead of the crystalline waters of the Caribbean, these divers are going into the deep of Table Rock Lake.
With more than 275,000 acres of lakes, waterways, and rivers, there are a plethora of great dive sites throughout the state, catering to all levels of divers from the novice to the highly experienced and specialty trained. But before donning a wet suit, the first step is to become certified at a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) or National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) dive center in the state. Finding a PADI- or NAUI-certified center in Missouri is not like searching for the lost city of Atlantis. Rather, Missouri has about 20 certified shops that teach a range of courses from introduction to scuba to advanced certification, underwater photography, and night diving. The curriculum for open-water certification usually consists of classroom instruction coupled with pool time and an open-water dive.
Dwain Gardner, a PADI master diver trainer and owner of Captain Nemo’s Dive Shop at Columbia, says that location is a key factor in determining dive sites in the state. “In the northern part of the state, lakes are, in essence, bodies of water on top of farmland, and you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” Dwain says. “I think that’s what a lot of people think of when they think of Missouri lakes.
“People think of the Lake of the Ozarks, and then they ask themselves, ‘What are they down there scuba diving for?’ The water is not the type that most people associate with diving. Rather, it is very murky, because of sediment and algae and therefore difficult to see.”
True, often the thought of scuba diving in Missouri conjures up images of cloudy, muddy waters; slimy bottoms; and catfish the size of Volkswagen cars. But as Dwain puts it, “When you get down to south Missouri and you dive in areas like Table Rock, Bull Shoals, and Taneycomo, it’s a rock bottom so the water is quite clear. Diving in southern Missouri is the key.”
There are some differences between fresh-water diving and diving in the ocean. Mainly, buoyancy plays a factor as divers are more buoyant in salt water and require extra weight to stay submerged. In addition, there is a greater variety of plant and animal life in the ocean. However, there are benefits to lake diving. There are less potentially dangerous plant and animal life, and in general, there are no tides or currents with which to contend.
Although people can scuba dive throughout the year, the typical Missouri dive season starts in mid-May and goes through the end of September. “Some people go earlier in the season, and some will dive later,” Dwain says. “It’s easier to go later in the year than it is to go earlier because later in the year the lakes have had all summer to warm up, and it takes a long time for them to cool down. So you can dive into October without lots of neoprene, and the water stays surprisingly warm.” Diving on the fringes of the season offers better visibility because the algae blooms that occur during the summer are curbed in the cooler weather.
Scuba diving in Missouri is not just a precursor to ocean diving, Dwain says. “Lake diving in Missouri is a good place to keep your skills up, but it’s also fun. It’s not just ‘I’m going to practice here so I can go somewhere else.’ ”
Tim Taylor, from Pilot Grove, has been scuba diving in Missouri since 1991 and averages about 40 dives a year, but he claims that he’s “lucky to get in one saltwater dive a year.” He believes there are benefits to diving in Missouri. “Because of the conditions here, the water can silt up, and suddenly, you might not be able to see,” he says. “It makes your skill levels so much greater than those people that only dive in the ocean. You gain confidence in your equipment and in your skills. So after a few times diving in Missouri, when you go to those dive destinations, you look like a pro.”
For those that might be hesitant about suiting up, Dwain offers some advice on becoming acquainted with the Show-Me State’s dive sites. “The easiest way for people to get involved is to go to their local dive shop and sign up for one of their trips,” he says. “You have someone with you that knows what they’re doing. It’s a chance to meet other divers, and it’s just more fun than doing it with just your buddy. You have camaraderie, but you also have somebody there that knows where everything is. They know where to go to rent the boats, they know where to get the tanks filled, they know where the dive sites are … it makes it a lot simpler.”
For those that want to blaze their own trails, Dwain says the most important factor in selecting a dive site in Missouri is picking a place that is within your expertise and comfort level. “Pick a place that looks like fun,” he says. “If you pick a place that doesn’t look like fun, you’re not going to have fun.” Here are several southern Missouri dive sites for a variety of experience levels recommended by scuba divers and dive shop owners.
In its heyday, the Oronogo Circle mine at Oronogo, nine miles north of Joplin, was reported to be the largest open-pit lead mine in the world. After it was closed in 1950, a combination of groundwater and natural springs converted the 230-foot chasm into a 14-acre lake, dubbed “Blue Water Lake.” But it was John Mueller who converted it to a landlocked diver’s paradise. John, a seasoned scuba veteran who has been diving for almost half a century, used the man-made features in the mine coupled with his vast experience to transform this abandoned pit into a diver’s dream of convenience and accessibility. A road formerly used by miners gradually slopes into the water, creating an ideal entry area. Additionally, old roads that circle to the bottom of the mine create different floor levels in the lake, making natural depth demarcations.
John built underwater dive platforms and added descent lines to aid divers in the decompression process. He also added viewing attractions, including a six-passenger Airostar airplane, boats, and cars. These sunken points of interest also provide a home to fish that he stocks such as koi, carp, and bluegill. Other oddities include a concrete gorilla, a statue of an elephant, and a desktop computer setup.
Because of Oronogo’s layout, there are diverse environments within the lake, which cater to every level of diver, from novice to advanced. Oronogo offers deep dives as well as overhead environments—situations where a diver’s direct access to a surface is blocked by a structure. These environments pose inherent issues and are dangerous for those without specific skills and knowledge; therefore, overhead environments require advanced training and additional certification before entering. One such dive is the Four Doors. This cavern, approximately the size of a house, can be accessed by one of four large archways. Originally used to house the mules, then the trucks, this cavern leads into a small niche, once home to the blacksmith’s shop.
A visually stunning dive that doesn’t require cave certification is the Horseshoe Chimney. This vertical shaft is approximately 10 to 12 feet in diameter entered at a depth of about 50 feet. Divers ascend to the surface through spring-fed, turquoise-blue water, following a halo of natural light, with their bubbles rising above them.
John operates a dive shop and scuba school on the premises. This is a convenient place for getting tanks refilled, replacing a broken strap, or renting needed equipment. In front of the dive shop, a patio with benches and tables provides a place to snack and relax between dives. A gear rinse hose, tables for equipment, changing rooms, showers, and bathrooms make this a diver’s dream.
Because of Oronogo’s depth, John, a PADI course director, teaches technical diving courses, such as mixed gas. For advanced divers trained in both cave and deep water submersions, Blue Water Lake has given up one of her secrets from her mining days. The Ozark Cave Diving Alliance discovered a steam locomotive in 2004 at a depth of 165 feet and approximately 500 feet inside one of the shafts. Guided tours of the train site are available.
Below the thermocline (a sharp temperature variation between two layers of water) at approximately 25 to 30 feet, visibility reaches 30 or more feet. Surface temperature reaches approximately 70 degrees in the summer. Below thermocline, the water remains 45 to 50 degrees year-round, and a well-fitting wet suit is necessary.
Call 417-673-2724 or visit www.oronogo.com for more information. Cost to dive Blue Water Lake is $12 per person per day. Anything beyond recreational dive limits (130 feet) requires filing a proposed dive plan with the Blue Water Lake staff for approval.
Links In The Chain
A chain of lakes was created by impounding the White River in the first part of the 1900s. The main objectives were to curtail flooding and bring hydroelectric power to southern Missouri and northwest Arkansas. But by doing so, engineers also bestowed a diving Mecca to the Midwest. Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo are on the Missouri side, Bull Shoals Lake straddles the state line, and Beaver Lake is a stone’s throw into Arkansas. Each of these lakes provides excellent diving and is popular with the scuba set.
Table Rock Lake dam started supplying the area with power in 1959, but progress has its price; during the process, the village of Oasis became a modern-day Atlantis. This hamlet lies 100 feet below the surface and can be visited if divers are trained in deep submersions, though only foundations and partial structures have survived.
Part of the draw to dive Table Rock is the relatively warm temperatures— 85 degrees at the surface in the summer and dropping to a lukewarm 60 degrees below the 30-foot thermocline—and the lake’s easy access. From the parking area at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Dewey Short Visitor Center, a pair of stairs leads to a gravel beach. This beach area offers the widest variety of diving from shore, and water depths vary from twenty feet to more than 180 feet. From this point, divers can follow interesting rock outcroppings and swim to the dam. Because of the popularity of the site, there are often quite a few divers here so that one can network, exchange information, and ask for tips.
Dick Dalager of the State Park Dive Shop at Branson promotes the virtues of diving in Table Rock. “Instead of taking a plane down to the Cayman Islands and incurring that time and expense,” he says, “we encourage people to drive a few hours and come to Table Rock Lake. We might not have large coral reefs like the ocean, but Table Rock has limestone bluffs and interesting rock formations.
“We might not have huge schools of amberjack at Table Rock, but we do see a large variety of fish on every dive,” he adds. “One of the most beautiful fish is the long-eared sunfish; it’s just as pretty as anything you would see in the ocean. It has a beautiful orange body and bluish gills, and they will eat right out of your hand.”
A popular spot is the Enchanted Forest, a grove of submerged oak trees in approximately 60 feet of water. Missouri’s equal to diving in kelp beds off California, these trees provide a natural labyrinth. Plus, the trees provide a shelter for many species of fish; however, divers need to watch for snags.
In nearly 90 feet of water rests Zebulon Pike, a twin-deck excursion boat seemingly transported from the days of Huck and Tom to Table Rock Lake. Duck Island and Jake’s Point are suitable for all levels of divers. Duck Island is a shallow-water dive of forty feet with interesting rock formations and large schools of fish. The maximum depth at Jake’s Point is 130 feet, and there is a sunken 30-foot cabin cruiser at a depth of 35 feet.
The Dewey Short Visitor Center is located at 4600 Route 165. Call 417-334-4101 or visit www.swl.usace.army.mil/parks/tablerock/recreation.htm for more information.
Underwater Conveyor Belt
For a truly moving Missouri experience, 31-year diving veteran Ed Pavey, owner of Ozark Dive Company at Poplar Bluff, recommends river diving or drift diving. The key to drift diving is picking clear running rivers and avoiding times after a large rain, which could cloud the water. The Current and Black rivers are two notables in the state. Divers navigate the changing underwater topography of the river, moving along in the current, which acts like an unseen hydraulic conveyor belt.
“Divers will be moving along with the current in eight feet of water, four feet of water, and there might be places you have to walk, but then there’s a hole that could be twenty-five feet deep to explore,” Ed says. Often these holes become the repository of other vacationers’ misplaced items—coolers, cameras, watches, and sunglasses.
Ed recommends finding a float operator, renting an extra-large inner tube—called a Cadillac tube, which has canvas over the opening to hold dive gear—starting at their departure point, and ending at their final stop. The combination of snorkeling in the shallower waters and diving the deeper holes is fun and interesting, Ed says.
As with every dive, people need to be cautious and follow safety procedures, he says. “There are inherent issues with drift diving, such as snags, underwater debris, and of course, the current.”
For those with special certification, training, and equipment, Missouri is ranked second in the nation after Florida for cave diving. The caves in Missouri are known as solution caves and are fragile environments. Divers must use skill and caution not to bump the walls and rock formations, which can cause damage to the brittle surfaces. There are three public sites in the state—Bennett Spring, Cannonball Cave, and Roubidoux Spring.
Although most dive sites in Missouri are accessed in the warmer months, one site is only open for recreational diving in the winter. Bennett Spring near Lebanon, with an average output of 100 million gallons per day, is an excellent dive site from November 1 to the last day of February. Although the Bennett Spring State Park is run by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Missouri Department of Conservation uses the basin as a fish hatchery to provide a home to hundreds of thousands of rainbow trout. The DNR allows only six divers in the spring a day, and no more than two dive teams per day. No more than four people are allowed in the spring at any one time. In addition, someone has to be on the surface, observing the dive.
Because of the limited number allowed, Diane Tucker, an interpretive resource specialist, encourages divers to schedule a spot well in advance. “On your scheduled dive day, visitors need to check into the Bennett Spring State Park Nature Center and show proper dive certification,” she says. The dive at Bennett Spring can include the cave at the mouth of the spring, so divers must have proper cave-diving certification to enter the cave.
After entering through a long, low restriction 25 feet below the water’s surface, divers in Cannonball Cave at Lake Wappapello at Greenville move into a large cave and then into another room with a rock formation that makes a natural arch that spans the space. This area opens into a space dubbed “the pit.” In this room, the floor of the cavern narrows and drops to approximately 280 feet, where it tapers and extends further. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers request coordinating with their office prior to diving.
Roubidoux Spring at Waynesville is also a popular cave dive. Divers must register at the Pulaski County Emergency Center for permission before entering the spring. The entrance to Roubidoux is wide but low, and there’s only a small section for divers to fit easily through. There are two large caverns at this site, aptly called the “Big Room” and the “Second Big Room.” Interesting geologic formations entice divers at this site. Visibility ranges from 15 to 30 feet, depending on the amount of rain the area has experienced.
A maze of tunnels greets certified cave divers at Mine LaMotte or Offsets Mine near Fredericktown. This privately owned dive site offers excellent visibility at depths of 30 to 40 feet. There are relics from the mining days that still litter the tunnels. Because there are several old guidelines in place and the mine system is like a maze with different levels, divers are encouraged to maintain their own continuous guideline from the entrance in order to prevent confusion.
For divers that are not cave certified but still want to experience a submerged Missouri mine, the Bonne Terre Mine at Bonne Terre is a watery dive back in time. This enormous lead mine was closed in 1962 and reopened as a premier dive spot in 1981 after some of the levels filled with groundwater. The lower three levels form seventeen-mile-long Billion Gallon Lake, which was filmed and dived by Jacques Cousteau. The mine offers 24 scuba trails, illuminated with more than 500,000 watts of stadium lighting. A lead diver and a safety diver, who follows behind, guide groups of 10. Bonne Terre Mine is listed as one of America’s top ten best adventures by National Geographic, according to Doug Goergens, mine owner. The draw of the mine isn’t the abundant aquatic life—in fact, there is only one bass swimming about—but rather the amazing underground architecture and crystal-clear waters that provide divers with more than one hundred feet of visibility. Vestiges from the mining days, such as drills, ore carts, and a towering elevator shaft, mix with the almost lunar backdrop to impart a stunning and unforgettable experience.
Call 417-532-3925 or visit www.mostateparks.com/bennett.htm for Bennett Spring information. Call 573-222-8562 or visit www.mostateparks.com/lakewappapello.htm for Cannonball Cave information. Call 877-858-8687 or visit www.ocda.org/roubidoux.htm for Roubidoux Spring information. Visit www.the-offsets.com for Mine LaMotte information. Call 888-843-3483 or visit www.2dive.com/btm.htm for Bonne Terre Mine information.
By Stefani Kronk