Dive hard

Winter offers something different for SCUBA divers

Martin McClellan began archaeological SCUBA dives at Lake Tahoe 15 years ago and has also dived to measure the lake’s environmental benchmarks as part of the environmental conservation initiative Project Baseline.

One day in January 2011 stands out to McClellan. Glenbrook Bay, normally murkier, was crystal clear to the bottom. The surface was flat as a mirror, and there were no currents in the water.

Lake Tahoe is routinely beautiful, but the quietness and serenity of that day was especially memorable, McClellan recalled. Calm winter weather and decreased algae and plankton resulting from frigid temperatures and less sunlight were responsible for the clarity.

SCUBA divers who venture into Lake Tahoe’s especially frigid waters in winter can experience this same exceptional clarity. Three local businesses—Sierra Diving Center, Adventure Dive Center and Tahoe Dive Center—offer the public a chance to dive in the winter. It’s a different experience than summer diving.

McClellan wants to set the record straight. Winter is not his favorite time to go into Lake Tahoe.“We don’t dive as much in the winter just because it’s too damn cold,” McClellan said. “It’s hard to get to the dive site. It’s hard to launch the boat.”

When it is warmer, from mid-June to mid-September, he and his team do the four and five-hour dives they can’t do in winter.

Brant Allen, field lab director and boat captain for the Tahoe Environmental Research Center, agrees.“Winter diving takes a lot more motivation,” Allen said. “It is pleasant to dive in Tahoe when the air temperature is in the 70s, and it’s a bright sunny day. When the lake surface looks black under an overcast sky and the air temperature is around freezing, there needs to be a pretty good reason for us to go diving. It is not fun walking around on a frozen boat deck with a SCUBA tank on your back.”

Winter divers can still be comfortable if they wear dry suits with warm clothing underneath instead of wetsuits. Wetsuits allow in some water to act as insulation whereas dry suits, as the name implies, keep the body dry.

Allen said in winter, the coldest dives are actually in Lake Tahoe’s shallow waters, which can come within a few degrees of freezing. The water cools faster near the shore than in the center of the lake or the bottom, he said.

Of course, cold water isn’t the only issue, said Keith Chesnut, owner of Sierra Diving Center in Reno. Divers sometimes don’t like leaving the water for the chilly winter weather on Lake Tahoe’s surface. “They’ll be coming out of 50, 51 degree waters into the snow, where it’s potentially 20 degrees,” Chesnut said. “In the winter a lot of times we’ll hear from the students, ’Can we get back into the water where it is warm, please?’”

But the greater clarity is one positive to winter diving. Another is a lack of others using the lake, including divers. McClellan said on a typical summer weekend day, he will see 50 to 100 divers at Sand Harbor.

Winter diving is not for everyone, said Amy Hagen, co-owner of Reno’s Adventure Dive Center. “You’ve got to be a hearty person, because it can be a little cold.”

That thins out the crowds. “A big benefit to winter diving is that we pretty much have the lake to ourselves,” Allen said. “Curious boaters in the summer can cause a real hazard when they drive near our dive flag to see if they can see the divers under the surface. This is never an issue during the winter months.”

Chesnut explained that during winter, his classes will go diving in the buoy fields around Sunnyside Resort and look for things people have dropped off boats, like sunglasses, cameras or watches. There’s too many boats coming in and out to do that during the summer.

Diving in Lake Tahoe is more about the geological formations and junk humans leave behind than it is about plants and animals divers find in tropical waters. There are walls of steep drops, boulder piles and other underwater formations along with wrecks and timber remnants from when Lake Tahoe was vigorously logged. There are some fish. The schools of minnows in the shallow rocky waters move deeper and hide in the small cracks between boulders in the winter, Allen said. The brown trout and lake trout that feed on minnows become scarcer, he said.

Sierra Diving Center’s Chesnut said lake trout and freshwater salmon seem to turn up at places like the Rubicon Wall at Bliss State Park during winter dives, especially during daylight.

There’s no spearfishing in Lake Tahoe, but divers can hunt for crayfish, Chesnut said. There are also some areas of freshwater clams, which are typically too tough for anything other than a chowder, he said. Chesnut said there’s also interest in ice diving at the Boca, Prosser and Stampede reservoirs and, occasionally, Donner Lake. When ice covers the top of the water, it stops most water movement, he said. During summer, Boca and Prosser reservoirs have visibility of a few inches, but visibility can reach 40 feet when these lakes freeze over, drastically changing what divers see.