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Desert Dunking and Diving, Part Two

You’ll never forget your first breath underwater.

You’re descending slowly, face to face with your dive buddy. You gently pinch your nostrils and exhale to equalize the pressure in your ears. As you slip silently downward, your fingers lightly touch a nylon line, a tangible vertical reference from the buoy above to the anchor point below. Softly, you stop your descent about 25 feet below the sun-dappled surface.

First finger and thumb circle into an “OK” sign to your buddy. He returns the signal. Your right hand reaches for the unseen low pressure inflator hose connected to your buoyancy compensator device. Two or three small puffs of air from your tank and you’re neutrally buoyant. You hover. Effortlessly. Like a fish. . . .

You glance at your buddy then at your gauges. Your dive computer tells you you’ve been underwater a little less than four minutes. Then it hits you. You’re breathing. Effortlessly. Underwater. Like a fish. . . . .

* * * * * * *

Say “scuba diving” and New Mexico doesn’t leap to mind. Sure, the joke goes; we have lots of sand but no beach. Yet every weekend dozens of locals - along with some Coloradoans and Texans - dunk and dive in several nearby areas.

Of the state’s many dive spots, the most reliable for training and recreation are Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, NM and Balmorhea State Park just across the line in Texas.

Balmy Balmorhea

First thing you notice underwater are the critters. Schools of tiny fish, Mexican tetras less than three inches long, surround you, swimming right up to your mask, completely unafraid of the giant black rubber-clad creature you are. Crook your finger at a baby catfish and he’ll bite it.

Texas Soft Shell Spiny Turtle c. Lanelli 2003

Playing with the fishes, I didn’t notice the large turtle until he was about five feet away. A Texas soft-shell spiny turtle swam toward me leisurely, like a slow-moving submarine. Maybe a foot and a half across, he (or she, I couldn’t tell) also approached unafraid. His reptilian eyes stared at me. Deliberately, I reached for the underwater camera leashed to my right wrist and ever so slowly raised it to my face.

The turtle paused, posed, then turned around. I frog-kicked behind him to get another picture, but he became camera-shy and picked up speed. We rounded a corner of the pond and joined three or four other turtles. Ah-hah, more Kodak moments.

I clicked away at the shelled denizens, hearing only my breath whooshing through the regulator and the soft whirr of advancing film. These should be good, I thought, because at less than 20 feet, sunlight still penetrated the clear, soft aqua water.

Welcome to Balmorhea State Park, an artesian oasis in the middle of the Texas desert.

Only about three hours southeast of Alamogordo, Balmorhea is the ideal training site, says Richard “Punk” Potter, owner of Divequest Scuba in Las Cruces and PADI instructor. “Water’s always warm, not too deep and the wildlife is friendly.”

Daily, 22 to 28 million gallons of water flow from the San Solomon Spring into an L-shaped pool that is perhaps 22 feet at its deepest. Year round, the water stays between 72 and 78 degrees. Ah, balmy. . . .

Crystal Blue Persuasion

Yes, it’s really blue at Blue Hole, about three hours north of Alamogordo. From surface to 72-foot depth, water in this limestone sinkhole shows pure cerulean blue. On weekends, dozens of divers surround each other with millions of blue bubbles. “It’s like swimming in blue Alka-Seltzer ™,” jokes an instructor.

Like Balmorhea, Blue Hole’s year-round constant temperatures make for consistent training conditions. But unlike Balmorhea, Blue Hole’s artesian spring water is a tad colder, around 65 degrees on the surface and 59 degrees at depth.

“A student who learns to dive at Blue Hole is prepared for any condition,” avows Bert Ericksson, owner of Sandia Snorkel & Scuba in Albuquerque and PADI instructor. A lot of scuba schools agree with him. Every weekend trucks from New Mexico and southern Colorado scuba shops fill the parking lot. Their dive students mingle with local swimmers cannonballing into the chilly water.

Friendly critters also inhabit Blue Hole. For the first thirty feet, parti-colored goldfish about five inches long swim just out of reach. A bit deeper you’ll spot the occasional trout, maybe ten inches long.

Descend 70-plus feet to the silt bottom; gently lift up a rock and a brown-speckled crayfish scuttles away, churning up silt as he scoots to another rock. These miniature lobster-like crustaceans scurry all across Blue Hole’s bell-shaped bottom.

Blue Hole’s “weekend wildlife” also exhibit typical behavior. On training platforms 25 feet down, beginning dive students and their instructor practice skills - mask removal, buddy breathing and so forth. Twenty feet lower, a diver holding on to a bright yellow scooter hums by.

Resting on the silt bottom with the crayfish, another instructor demonstrates to his advanced students the effects of depth on everyday objects. He holds a tennis ball squashed nearly flat and a raw egg that still holds its shape even when freed from its shell.

You swim over to the grate from which spew millions of gallons of water from the underground spring, then read one of three concrete memorials placed by dive buddies. A glance at your gauge reveals you’ve been down nearly half an hour.

And all the time, you were breathing. Effortlessly. Like a fish. . . . .

c. "Follow Me!" Alamogordo (NM) Daily News 2004

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