Why Utah might be your next favorite snorkeling destination
There’s an ocean. It’s in the middle of landlocked Utah. Linda Nelson is a scuba diving instructor. She tells people about the ocean. They look at her in disbelief. She’s been lures scuba divers. And she lures snorkelers. She gets them to come to Bonneville Seabase. It's a chain of pools. They are warm. They are spring-fed. They are located on an expanse of desert. It is about 40 miles west of Salt Lake City.
There are dozens of bodies of water. They are peppered throughout the region. These include the Great Salt Lake. It is to the north. What sets Bonneville Seabase apart? Its salinity. It water is similar to that of an ocean. Most oceans have salt content. It is about 3.5 percent. And they are located at sea level. But Bonneville Seabase sits at 4,293 feet. It has a salinity of 3 percent.
The Great Salt Lake's salinity fluctuates. It is between 5 percent and 27 percent. Tiny brine shrimp live in the water. They are one of the only aquatic critters that can survive these salty conditions.
The lake is a geological phenomenon. It is the result of natural hot springs. These push through the land. It was once saturated by Lake Bonneville. It is a massive prehistoric lake. It covers approximately 20,000 square miles. It is in Utah. It is also in Wyoming. And it is in Nevada.
The blend of warm freshwater intermingled with the area’s ancient salt beds make Bonneville Seabase habitable for tropical fish. These include barracuda. It includes angelfish. It includes butterflyfish. It includes mono. It includes snapper. It includes porkfish. And it includes black drum. Nelson likens the water's color to "not quite as green as the Caribbean." The visibility can fluctuate. It’s between a few feet to 20 feet. This depends upon on a number of factors. These include time of year. It includes recent storms. And it includes algal bloom.
“For a while we also had two nurse sharks, but we lost them.” That's according to Nelson. “They were 24 years old. That is old for a nurse shark.”
Nelson explains that at one time baby nurse sharks were readily available at pet stores.
“People thought they were cute,” she says. “But then they would outgrow their fish tanks. Then they would not know what to do with them. So we rescued them.”
Nelson's husband is George Sanders. He is a fellow scuba instructor. He is co-owner of the 60-acre property. He acquired many of the fish. They were swimming in the depths of White Rock Bay. They were swimming in Habitat Bay. They were swimming in the Trench. And they were swimming in the Abyss. These are the seabase’s diving spots. The fish have swelled into the thousands. That's thanks to breeding. It is an impressive feat. This is especially true since many of the experts Nelson and Sanders spoke to told them fish would never survive. That was based on the salinity levels. And it was based on geography. They purchased the property in 1988.
“The fish actually do well when there’s a little less salt in the water,” says Nelson. She is a former chemist. She met Sanders through scuba diving. They also own and operate a dive shop. It is in Salt Lake City. It is called Neptune Divers.
Their luck with breeding the fish led the couple to consider opening a fish farm. They soon began shipping in fish. They fish came from as far away as Indonesia and Thailand.
Nelson estimates that they get a couple thousand divers and snorkelers to the seabase each year. The highest numbers of visitors arrive during the summer months. That's when the water and outside air are warmest. George Armstrong is one of those divers. He has been scuba diving for 35 years.
"They stock fish only found in the Pacific Rim and the Caribbean," says Armstrong. "Cozumel is eight hours away. But here I can make a half day of it and get a few dives in. The visibility varies. In the Caribbean or the Bahamas you can have 100 feet of range. But here it varies from about seven to 25 feet depending on any given day. This is common for lakes, ponds and quarries. The conditions change as the water temperature fluctuates and algae blooms. It's a life cycle. It's all about finding the little treasures an arm's length away."
Bonneville Seabase continues to be a popular draw with divers. That's because it's so unique. But Nelson says she's "concerned about our future."
“With the drought, and everybody building houses, there’s a lot less water,” she says. “[There’s also less water on this side of] the Great Salt Lake, so it’s not pushing down on our aquifer as much as it used to, so the spring water is coming up slower. The water is still warm, but there’s not as much of it.”
This change has forced them to shift their focus. Now they stock the pools with fish that do better in colder waters. This includes species like black drum. It includes jacks. These are found in the Atlantic Ocean.
“A really good friend of mine is a biologist who sends me fish sometimes that need a home,” she says. “The ones that come from where it gets cool do better because they know how to find the warm spots.”
“The fish are super tame because they’ve had people around them for most of their lives,” she says. “We feed them Romaine lettuce or chopped up salmon, which makes it fun for the divers.”
The air at the surface is cooler. That’s compared to the spring water feeding into the pools. The dive spots actually get warmer the farther down a diver goes. This is another perk.
“It’s unusual since oceans are normally warmer at the top and colder at the bottom,” she says. “It’s backwards here.”
But perhaps not as backwards as having an ocean located in the middle of Utah.