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What Lurks Beneath the Surface of National Park System Waters, A Diving Guide


National parks offer great opportunities for snorkeling and skin diving. You can explore colorful coral reefs such as those at Dry Tortugas National Park, top, or World War II bombers, such as the B-29 at the bottom of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. NPS photos.

Some of the least-known resources of the National Park System are the cultural and natural resources that lie below the waters within the boundaries of our park areas. While not as mainstream as activities such as camping and hiking, diving and snorkeling are increasingly popular ways to enjoy and be inspired by these resources.

I want to mention a couple diving situations that are kind of unique to the National Park Service and its divers. On several occasions, I dove in the pools at the base of the various falls in the valley of Yosemite National Park on body recoveries. The sensation of being underwater and hearing the thunder of the water plunging into the pool is like nothing else I have ever experienced. Needless to say, it was unnerving at best and downright scary at worst. One is never sure when a rock is going to come over the falls.

One of my worst dives was through the ice on a high Sierra Lake looking for the pilots of a plane that went down in the lake. Not only was the water cold, (we had no dry suits in Yosemite at the time) but the visibility was severely reduced by the presence of hydraulic oil in the water. Jagged pieces of the plane were everywhere, as were cables and wires. It looked a lot like a death trap to me, and our efforts to find the bodies were less than textbook SAR.

Finally, NPS divers do searches and body recoveries in rivers and lakes at comparatively high altitudes. I have dived in Tenaya Lake in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite and in the rapids in the Yellowstone River a bit north of Fishing Bridge. These kinds of dives require special attention to the dive tables. And my experiences are not unusual for NPS divers.

Dan Lenihan, the former chief of the Park Service’s Submerged Cultural Resources Unit (formerly SRCU, now SRC), and I have compiled a list of our ten favorite diving and snorkeling parks. Dan has dived in all of them; I, in five. In no particular order, here are our favorites.

Channel Islands National Park: Diving in this park has it all—giant kelp forests, thriving sea life, plenty of critters, and historic ship wrecks. Swimming through the kelp is a unique experience, almost like wandering through a pristine wilderness forest without gravity. Driven by the ocean currents and the surge on the surface, the kelp sways back and forth, giving the diver the impression that he/she is watching some kind of jungle in a windstorm.

Diving here is in the typical cold water off the California coast. Wetsuits or dry suits are a necessity. Even snorkelers swimming in the cove at Anacapa Island will welcome the warmth of a wetsuit. Charter with a reputable company. These can be found in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Oxnard.

National Park Service divers often did their recertification dives at Channel Islands. This is how I got to know the underwater wonders of this park.

Isle Royale National Park: Skin Diver, at one time the top US-based sport-diving magazine, listed Isle Royale as one of the top seven diving sites in the world. The extremely cold water in Lake Superior has created an ideal environment for the ten major ship wrecks that lie under the surface of the waters adjacent to the park. They are remarkably preserved due to the frigid, fresh water. All diving in the park is concentrated on these ghosts of the past. Diving inland in the park is prohibited; the many inlets and coves often have artifacts that the park is protecting for future archeological documentation.

Dan characterizes the dives in the park as ranging from moderately serious to semi-suicidal. The margin for error, particularly on some of the wrecks that lie in deeper water, is exceedingly small. Even very experienced divers have suffered a free-flowing regulator, the result of a frozen mouthpiece. Diving here is not for amateurs. Dan recommends that first-time divers use one of the park concessioners that has been in the diving business for a long time. You must register at the ranger station before diving.

I have never visited Isle Royale. I kick myself for not having gone to the park during the time the SCRU team was working there. I probably would have been able to scab a dive with them, even though one of them would probably have had to hold my hand.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area: This was our first National Recreation Area. It consists of two lakes—Mead created by Hoover Dam and Mohave, backed up behind Davis Dam. Diving here is affected by two external factors, the dry conditions and the altitude. Drink plenty of fluids to keep hydrated and remember that the air you are breathing through your regulator is dry. Both the places that divers normally stay, Boulder City or Las Vegas, are at higher altitudes than Lake Mead. You must convert the diving tables to compensate for the change of altitudes.

There are several dives at Lake Mead worth the price of admission. A B-29 crashed here in 1948 and the superintendent with the help of SRC has set up a special arrangement for divers to visit this stunning site with local guides. It was a 180’ dive but now is around 135’ due to the water level falling. Also, what has been called the “batch plant” by sport divers (really an aggregate sorting facility) built during construction of the dam is an excellent dive—depths vary from deep to too deep. Don’t go in the tunnels under the aggregate unless you have some kind of under-ceiling certification.

You will need a wetsuit if you plan on going deep here as the water becomes much colder at depth. Ringbolt rapids is an exhilarating diving experience. The diver is dropped off above the rapids below Hoover Dam. After you enter the flow, you are no longer in control. You can easily be sucked to a depth of 70 feet and then shot back up to a shallower depth. You should only do this dive with someone who has done it before or through a nearby dive shop. Dan recommends not doing it and just telling everybody you did—it scared the bejesus out of him.

This is another area where NPS divers did their recertification dives. The Ringbolt rapids dive is one that I will never forget. My diving partner, Butch Farabee, and I tied a piece of parachute cord about 20 feet long to our wrists so that we could keep track of each other as we tumbled down the rapids. Some years later, I was knocked out of my raft while rowing through Crystal Rapids in the Grand Canyon. It was the same sensation as Ringbolt. The river was in charge; I wasn’t. It’s a spooky feeling.

Dry Tortugas National Park: I dived here when it was called Ft. Jefferson National Monument. It is on a chain of islands some 70 miles due west of Key West, Florida. The early explorers gave it the name, “tortuga”—Spanish for turtle—because of the abundance of this species. When later explorers discovered there was no fresh water source, the islands became known as the Dry Tortugas.

This is a beautiful spot in which to dive or snorkel. The reefs teem with fish species, including the menacing but mostly benign barracuda, a critter that always made me think of a swimming chain saw. There are shipwrecks to be explored here, also. The most popular dive and snorkeling site in the park is the Windjammer site, although the real name of the ship that wrecked on Loggerhead Reef in 1901 was the Avanti. SRC mapped this site in the 1980s and divers and snorkelers can pick up a laminated map of the wreck from the park staff. Beware of the fire coral on the reefs in this park.

This park is only accessible by boat or seaplane so it is a bit of a logistical challenge to dive there. And don’t forget to bring everything you need with you. There’s an area outside the fort for campers but I’d check ahead on this with the park. There is no 7-11 on the islands.

Biscayne National Park: Located a scant few miles south of Miami, Biscayne is a semi-tropical jewel, where the diver or snorkeler can count on seeing many of the more than 200 species of colorful tropical fish that inhabit the reefs and estuarine areas of the park. It is an area that is studded also with numerous shipwrecks due to the reefs that are scattered throughout the park and the adjacent waters. Most of these wrecks are in fairly shallow water that offer underwater experiences to both snorkelers and divers.

Diving is a delight here. The waters are warm, the depths are not particularly intimidating, and if one is careful, currents should not be much of a problem. Divers will need to have their own boats or arrange for dive charters that are available from the park concessioner. Please remember that coral is fragile. Even a slight touch can kill it. Coral reefs around the world have enough problems from climate change and pollution; divers and snorkelers don’t need to add to their woes.

Amistad National Recreation Area: The NRA, located in West Texas on the Mexican border, is another one of the sites that the National Park Service used as a diving recertification area. Divers from around the park system came to the area maintain their diving skills, and practice techniques to be employed in home park search and rescue incidents. There is a deep cave here that you will hear about from locals (Goodenough Springs) that was relocated by park staff and SRC in 1995. Check with the rangers to make sure of any special rules but it can be exciting to drop through murky lake water with 2 or 3 foot visibility and emerge in crystal clear, 75 degree spring water at about 120 feet deep. There is a group of cave divers actively exploring here but it is an extremely difficult dive due to strong outflow current and other factors—we recommend staying out of the cave entirely but just seeing it down there is a gas. Again, rules change so check with the local park staff about doing this.

In the past we would have recommended the “ranch house” and some other sites, but due to radical changes in depth from drought one needs up to date information on these. The last either of us saw the ranch house you could walk into it and would look rather odd with a tank on your back.

Diving in this NRA has a couple special requirements. One is that divers should always carry a knife with them. Fishing lines are everywhere and the ability to cut oneself out of an entanglement can keep an inconvenience from turning into a tragedy. The other is that divers should check in any of the ranger stations for current information on diving conditions and regulations. Many of the rangers are NPS divers so they can help diving visitors find the best sites, many of which are accessible as beach dives without the necessity of owning or renting a boat.

Cape Cod National Seashore: The Cape was historically one of the most active shipping, fishing, and whaling areas in the world. Given the amount of maritime traffic, it is no wonder that disasters occurred with some regularity. Most of the diving in and around this NPS area is concentrated on the shipwrecks that dot the sea bottom. But, the sea bottom is rich in life (as evidenced by this week's park photo of the week) also and divers who concentrate on the communities of fish, barnacles, lobsters and crabs will be amply rewarded. This is one of the parks in which I have not dived. Most of the information for this area and others below come from Dan and from the information contained in a book co-authored by Dan and former NPS diver and photographer, John Brooks. The book is entitled [i]Underwater Wonders of the National Parks: A diving and snorkeling guide compiled by the National Park Service. The book is published by Fodor’s Travel Publications, Inc.

Diving here presents special challenges and unique rewards. Since diving is not one of the mainstream activities at the seashore, information about the diving opportunities can be tough to find. Dan recommends that diving visitors contact local diving clubs or dive shops for information and even hiring local divers as guides. This is probably the only way for a visiting diver to find the most interesting wrecks. These include the Frances, a fairly intact old bark mapped by SRC in 1985. This wreck is in the breakers, making it similar to a meat-grinder at times. So depending on the tide you might want to follow Lenihan’s approach to hazardous sites (see Ringbolt Rapids above). Then, there’s the Flyer, a fishing boat that sank in 1972, the Margaret Rose, a 105-foot fishing trawler, and the Cormorant and the Barracuda. Visiting divers have little chance to finding the last two without local support. Other super wreck dives lie in waters adjacent to the seashore. Two of the best of these wrecks are the Pinthis, a 207-foot steel oil tanker that sank in 1930 following a collision, and the 108-foot Winsor that went down in 1946. There are dive charters that with their GPS systems will be able to take visiting divers to the exact sites of these wrecks.

War in the Pacific National Monument: Located on the island of Guam, War in the Pacific focuses on the reinvasion of Guam in 1944 by American forces to retake the island, held by the Japanese since 1941. The detritus of warfare is sprinkled along the invasion beaches in the waters that surround the park. Although the NPS does not manage this water area, NPS divers from SRC played an important role in inventorying the shipwrecks in Apra Harbor (not under direct park jurisdiction) and developing the packets of information that are available to visiting divers. The diving environment consists of warm water, a gently sloping sand bottom and lots of interesting, colorful sea life. There are ample dive shops and dive charters available or the visiting diver can dive off the beaches in some places. One special note of caution: there is still unexploded ordnance in these waters. Please stay away from such material. Ranger Jim Miculka told Dan of one visitor upset because he and his wife had taken some of the ordnance as souvenirs from one of the two invasion beaches and it started smoking on the way in. White phosphorous was used as fusing in some Japanese projectiles, and though our twisted humor rejoices in the notion of a self-correcting mechanism for stopping rip-offs, this would be a bit severe. If the primary charge went, Mr. and Mrs. Misdemeanor would have been vaporized.

Divers face a great choice here—whether to dive on the wrecks or on the reefs. Either way, the diver can’t lose and most will want to do both. Check with Guam’s Department of Parks and Recreation before diving on any of the wrecks in Apra Harbor. It is in this harbor that divers will find the most interesting wrecks. One site has two ships on the bottom. One is the German raider Cormoran, scuttled by her captain in 1917 on the day of the U.S.’s entry into World War I. In 1943, the Japanese armed transport, Tokai Maru, joined the Cormoran on the bottom. These wrecks lie in 130 feet of water, so the diver needs to be very aware of his/her bottom time or plan decompression stops on the way up. But just think: a World War II ship sitting on top of a ship that was from the “War to end all Wars;” that’s pretty nifty.

Koloko Honokohau National Historical Park: Established in 1978, this park area preserves, protects, interprets and perpetuates traditional native Hawaiian culture and land use patterns. While the shore is rocky and steep, access by diving charter brings the visiting diver to excellent diving. Dan says that it is hard to have a bad dive here as long as the sea waters are relatively calm. The visibility is good, there are sea caves to explore, and large critters like sharks and manta rays visit the area. It is easy to charter a dive here through local dive shops and charter boat locations. What more could a diver want?

Buck Island Reef National Monument: Located in the Virgin Islands near St. Croix, this is a great site for both snorkelers and divers. Buck Island’s famous underwater trail takes the snorkeler on a marked trail that leads across large coral heads. The snorkeler will also be able to appreciate the impact of hurricane Hugo on the reef as large pieces of elkhorn reef lie jumbled along the bottom.

Despite the impact of the 1989 hurricane, Hugo, Buck Island still offers spectacular reef diving, mostly in shallow enough waters for both experienced and inexperienced divers. These dives offer another special treat: the diver gets to watch nature begin to recover from Hugo. If the diver looks closely, he/she will see new coral growth emerging. Dan likens it to seeing new growth spring up following a forest fire.

The NPS Submerged Cultural Resources Center counts at least 61 areas in the National Park System with significant water holdings. Dan believes that almost all of them hold some interest to divers. Two of them, the USS Arizona, and Devil’s Hole in Death Valley, are off limits to divers not involved in sanctioned research activities.

While almost all dives involve some hazards, there are special conditions that divers in NPS areas need to take into account. Diving at altitude—say in Yellowstone Lake—completely alters how the diver must deal with diving tables. At altitude, the diver has less bottom time and will more likely face decompression stops on the way back to the surface. The cold waters at park areas along the northern tier of the US present special problems. Divers will probably not be comfortable in traditional wetsuits. And please remember that hypothermia robs the diver of the ability to make rational decisions.

Caves are found in a number of park waters. Diving under ceilings takes practice, a clear head and special training. NPS divers are often forced to dive under ice as part of their job. Novice divers should always dive with an experienced person in such conditions. There is a right way and a wrong way to dive under ceilings. Those who choose the wrong way don’t often survive. Finally, it’s easy to get careless while diving in warm tropical waters. The diver must pay attention to bottom time and not let currents drift him/her far away from the boat. This last aspect can’t be overemphasized—most divers drown in ‘easy’ places, not scary ones—there is no such thing as a dive you don’t have to think through and treat seriously.


Having received my basic diving certification through PADI, in a drysuit up in Alaska, and then some subsequent diving in the Navy, I feel your ice-diving pain Rick. The Channel Islands are a particularly beautiful place to dive (especially off Anacapa Island) and is relatively peaceful and quite, especially when you consider the size of the nearby metropolitan areas. I would be curious to hear from other divers who might have dived in National Park waters.

Thanks Rick,

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
Robert Mutch Photography

Thank you Rick for an outstanding article. It was a very interesting and informative read.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

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