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Escaping air hisses from your low-pressure inflator hose. You slowly sink into chilly water that seeps into the wrists and neck of your 7 millimeter-thick wetsuit.
Ever deepening water masks all sounds except the rhythmic whooshing of bubbles escaping from your regulator as you exhale.
You stare into your scuba dive buddy’s masked face less than two feet away. Even though plastic mouthpieces fill your jaws and distort your lips, you know he smiles because you are, too.
You have reason to grin. You are diving Rock Lake . . . .
* * * *
Imagine for a moment you’re 80 or so feet underwater staring at giant rock formations, admiring unusual aquatic life and swimming nose-to-nose with inquisitive fish and turtles. No one else is in the water except your and a few of your friends.
Do you imagine yourself on a private island in the Caribbean? Surprise—you’re in New Mexico, less than three hours east of Albuquerque off I-40 near Santa Rosa.
Your private dive site: Rock Lake, a 230-foot deep artesian spring, and its smaller neighbor Swan Lake, both tucked in a grassy valley inside the boundaries of Agua Negra Ranch.
Like Blue Hole, Santa Rosa’s well-known dive site, Rock Lake is used for recreational and dive training. But unlike Blue Hole, not every diver can dive Rock Lake.
Imagine you’ve joined four other divers—Matthias Geissel of Albuquerque and Frankfurt, Germany; John Wills of Los Alamos; and Will Ferrel and Kevin Eddy of Albuquerque—for one spectacular dive day.
You, Kevin and Matthias begin your exploration of the lake by descending near a fish hatchery pipeline. You plan to descend to about 80 feet then circle the lake in a slow ascent. You estimate being down about 45 minutes.
You verify compass headings and sketch dive plans on underwater slates. You giant-stride off a concrete landing, again verify your instruments and equipment and slowly sink in unison into 70-degrees F. water.
Every few feet down, you pinch your nose and blow air into it, equalizing ever-increasing pressure on your eardrums.
At about 30 feet, you hit a thermocline, a distinct layer of water temperature change. You shiver and check your wrist computer. It reads 64 degrees F. As colder water seeps into your quarter-inch-thick neoprene wetsuit, you wish for a warmer drysuit like Kevin’s. But the unknown beckons and you continue descending.
Sunlight disappears. Everyone switches on his lights. As increasing depth compresses the air in your buoyancy compensator device (BCD), you transfer a few puffs of compressed air from the tank on your back to the BCD. Your descent slows.
At 80 feet below the surface, you level off. Kevin’s powerful cave light and Matthias’s strobe eerily illuminate the dark, deep waters. Matthias signals OK with his thumb and forefinger circled. In his semi-dry suit and hood, he feels no cold.
You circle back OK, ignore the cold and concentrate on the views.
And what views! Immense silt-covered limestone boulder slabs lean at unusual angles, like a giant’s child’s blocks. You flash your lights up and down the dolmens and feel like Lilliputians.
Matthias’s underwater digital camera flashes again and again as you swim slowly past the limestone walls. At that depth and darkness, you have no sense of location. Only by careful monitoring of your compass, timer and depth gauge do you maintain your course.
Following your dive plan you begin a slow ascent while circling the lake. As you ascend, you release ever-expanding air from your BCD to maintain neutral buoyancy.
About 20 minutes later, your gauges reveal you’re 40 feet below the surface at the southwest edge of the lake.
Sunlight filters to this depth. Green curtain-like formations of algae flow down the rocks. They drape twenty to thirty feet above and below, maybe deeper, you can’t see. Matthias’s strobe flashes again, illuminating the dark green of the lake.
You continue circling and ascending, now seeking the “turtle hatchery,” as divers call the community of yellow-eared terrapins that burrow into the shallow mud less than twenty feet below the surface.
Crossing the thermocline again, you enjoy the feel of warmer water beneath your wetsuit. More sunlight penetrates the grass-filled water. A trout or two swims by, then a largemouth bass, but no terrapins.
Then you spy a dinner plate-sized brown shell with a tail poking out, half-buried beneath grass and mud. Excitedly you pointed at it, but Matthias has already spotted it in his viewfinder. The shy terrapin scuttles out from hiding.
Many trout and bass swim near you, completely unafraid. You don’t chase or reach for them, merely admire them, feeling like guests in their home.
You arrive at a submerged metal ladder attached to the concrete deck where you began your dive. You hang there at 15 feet for a 3-minute safety stop then surface.
John and Will soon emerge from their dive and all shrug out of their gear and dry off. Under a tarp suspended between two pickups, you break out a picnic lunch, fill out logbooks and share experiences.
“The colors of the water are amazing! It’s hard to describe!” raves Matthias, reviewing his digital pictures between bites of cheese and wurst.
“When you’re below, around 80 to 100 feet or so, you look down and see nothing, like a black abyss. Then you look up toward the sun and it’s this incredible green--sort of emerald but not quite. It’s indescribable. I’ve never seen anything like it in the world.”
Will and John report a good dive. “We were looking for a rock formation called ‘The Flake’ or ‘The Crack,’” says Will.
Gesturing with his hands, he explains, “It’s called ‘The Flake’ because a large house-sized boulder has ‘flaked’ off the wall leaving a V shape between the boulder and the wall. It’s fun to swim through the V. We didn’t find it, though. It must be down deeper.
“But did you see the limestone slabs?” he asks. “Those formations are amazing. And did you see those largemouth bass?”
Talk turns to the lakes’ topography and dive history.
All marvel at the water’s clarity. “Nobody’s stirring up the bottom,” someone notes and everyone laughs. For you five are the only divers at Rock Lake.
You watch a huge crane glide into a Russian olive tree, scattering a small flock of swallows. Overhead, alto-cumulus clouds float in a clear blue sky. No sounds disturb the stillness until a largemouth bass grabs at a blue damselfly, splashing the surface into fine ripples. A terrapin about six inches wide pokes its head above water, takes a breath then scoots back underwater.
Kevin sips his bottled water and reflects, “I’ve dived here at least ten times, but it’s different every time. You always see something you didn’t see before.
“It’s your own private dive site for the day—no crowds, just you and your friends. Rock Lake is really special.”
c. Albuquerque (NM) Journal 2005