Why Utah might be your next favorite snorkeling destination
There’s an ocean in the middle of landlocked Utah. Linda Nelson is a scuba diving instructor who tells people about the ocean. They look at her in disbelief. For the past 30 years she’s been luring scuba divers and snorkelers to Bonneville Seabase. It's a chain of pools. They are warm and spring-fed. They are located on an expanse of desert about 40 miles west of Salt Lake City.
There are dozens of bodies of water peppered throughout the region. These include the Great Salt Lake to the north. But what sets Bonneville Seabase apart is its salinity. It is similar to that of an ocean. Most oceans have a salt content of 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.
For comparison, the Great Salt Lake's salinity fluctuates between about 5 percent and 27 percent. Tiny brine shrimp live in the water. They are about the only aquatic critters that can survive these salty conditions.
The geological phenomenon is the result of natural hot springs. These push through the land that was once saturated by Lake Bonneville. It is a massive prehistoric lake. It covers approximately 20,000 square miles. It is in Utah. And parts of it are in Wyoming and Nevada.
The blend of warm freshwater intermingled with the area’s ancient salt beds make Bonneville Seabase habitable for tropical fish. These include barracuda and angelfish. It includes butterflyfish and mono. It includes snapper, porkfish and black drum. Nelson likens the water's color to "not quite as green as the Caribbean." The visibility can fluctuate from between a few feet to up to 20 feet. This depends upon on a number of factors. These include time of year. It also includes whether or not there was a recent storm and 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. They 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 and is co-owner of the 60-acre property. He acquired many of the fish swimming in the depths of White Rock Bay and Habitat Bay. They were also swimming in Trench and the Abyss. These are the seabase’s diving spots. The fish have swelled into the thousands 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. This is based on the salinity levels and 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 who met Sanders through scuba diving. They also own and operate a dive shop 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 from as far away as Indonesia and Thailand.
Nelson estimates that they get a couple thousand divers and snorkelers to the seabase each year, with the highest numbers of visitors arriving during the summer months. That’s when the water and outside air are warmest. George Armstrong has been scuba diving for 35 years and is one of those divers.
"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, which 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."
While Bonneville Seabase continues to be a popular draw with divers, 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 to stocking the pools with fish that do better in colder waters. This includes species like black drum and 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.”
Another perk is that because the air at the surface is cooler than the spring water feeding into the pools. The dive spots actually get warmer the farther down a diver goes.
“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.