Santa Rosa,

New Mexico's Blue Hole:

Nature's Jewel

Story by David Prichard Photos by Lily Mak

Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, has been visited by mammoths, native Indians, Spanish conquistadors and even famous outlaws. This deep well of clear, artesian water now hosts thousands of wet-suit-clad divers each year.

Also known as "Nature's Jewel," it's a favorite site for dive training because of its consistent year-round water temperature and good visibility. Besides drawing divers from all across New Mexico, the spring attracts migrations of divers from Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Before the Divers Arrived

On the northern edge of the Chihuahua Desert about 114 miles east of Albuquerque at a junction of Interstate 40 and old Route 66, the Blue Hole is in a virtual oasis of important watering holes in this arid land of reddish plateaus. Paleo-Indian tribes hunted mammoth and bison in this area 10,000 years ago and later began to settle near these sources of water. Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado traveled to the region in 1541 and reportedly helped name the nearby settlement of Puerto de Luna after watching the moon crest over some rock outcroppings.

Native Anasazi Indians, who later became the Pueblo and Navajo tribes, dominated the area around the Blue Hole until the Plains Indians (Comanche, Apache, Ute and others) were forced into the region because of the expansion of U.S. territory. In the late 1800s, young outlaw "Billy the Kid" often visited Santa Rosa and probably cooled off in the Blue Hole before riding into town. "The Kid" was served his last Christmas dinner in Puerto de Luna in 1880 while in the custody of Sheriff Pat Garrett.

The first railroad train steamed through Santa Rosa in 1901, and the Blue Hole became a popular swimming hole for both railroad workers and passengers. Less than a mile away, the railroad's bridge over the Pecos River was later the backdrop for the John Steinbeck novel-turned-movie, "Grapes of Wrath," in which actor Henry Fonda watches a freight train cross the bridge into the sunset in the John Ford epic film.

The Blue Hole's popularity grew around 1930 when the cross-country highway called Route 66 opened up through Santa Rosa and right past the spring on a section of road that is now called Blue Hole Road. The Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway crossed eight states and three time zones. Weary travelers stopped at the Blue Hole for water and a cool dip, plus took advantage of the town's numerous motels that opened up along the thoroughfare. The highway was moved north a short distance to its present location in 1937.

The Swimming Hole Becomes a Dive Site

In the 1960s the Blue Hole did a short stint as a government-run fish hatchery and later came under the control of the city of Santa Rosa for use as a recreation site.

The invitingly clear water in the 81-foot- (25-m-) deep bell-shaped spring well is produced from a cave system near the well's bottom that generates about 3,000 gallons per minute. The surface of the site is roughly oval-shaped with a diameter of 80 feet (24 m) at its widest point and approximately 60 feet (18 m) at its narrowest. The Blue Hole widens the deeper it goes until the diameter reaches 130 feet (40 m) across at its deepest depth.

Divers are not only attracted to the site's depth and water clarity, but also to its consistent water temperature that stays between 61 Fahrenheit (16 Celsius) to 64 F (18 C) all year. "Winter is our busiest season of the year," said Stella Salazar, owner and operator of the Santa Rosa Dive Center that is located adjacent to the spring. She estimates that nearly 100-200 divers converge each weekend during the winter months when most other dive sites in the surrounding states are too cold for training purposes. The numbers drop off as summer approaches and lakes heat up. Salazar's dive store, the only one in Santa Rosa, is only open on the weekends beginning at 8 a.m. and mainly supplies air refills, rental gear and some souvenirs.

While the Blue Hole is open to public diving both day and night, the City of Santa Rosa requires that divers purchase a diving permit (see sidebar) from either the City Hall or from the Santa Rosa Diver Center. Police monitor the site for dive certifications and permits. Diving without a permit can result in a $300 fine.

Taking a Dive

An expansive paved parking lot allows early-bird divers to park within 30 feet of the rock wall surrounding the water's perimeter, while a natural limestone wall frames the backside. Covered picnic pavilions in the back of the parking lot offer divers a retreat to plan and prepare for their next dive. The only other building besides the dive store adjacent to the spring is an enclosed restroom/change room facility. Next to this structure is a path that leads up over the spring's cliff face for a great view of the Blue Hole's aquatic activities. From here you can leap off a rock outcropping over the pool's surface and splash into the refreshing spring from a height of 12 feet (4 m).

Divers enter the water in one of two ways. A rock stairwell with handrails allows for easy entry to the pool where a short ledge rests at about 3 feet (1 m) before falling off into the hole. A concrete ramp protrudes over another section of the site for giant-stride entries.

Upon entry, divers can either make a free descent or follow a buoy line down to one of two square, floating platforms. Open Water course students can conduct their training drills in mid-water at a depth of approximately 20 feet (6 m). A buoy line on each corner suspends these floating staging areas. An additional line runs down from the platform to the bottom of the site where it is secured to provide both a steady support for the structure and a handy reference line for deep descents.

Passing schools of anonymously donated goldfish, divers find little plant life in the Blue Hole but will discover many crawfish scattered along the bottom. At one edge of the bottom, you can still see the steel grate that keeps divers out of the cave system. City officials had it sealed 30 years ago after a diving accident. A few small rockslides have since covered up most of the grate. Two tombstones rest nearby, reminding divers of the dangers of entering caves without first being properly trained.

A Variety of Training Options

The floating platforms permit instructors to bring their Open Water course students to the Blue Hole to conduct skills for their training dives, but the dive site is also perfect for advanced instruction. Its depth, accessibility for night dives and its altitude of 4,600 feet (1,393 m) above sea level make it ideal for Advanced Open Water or specialty training courses, such as an Altitude Diver.

Any dive over 1,000 feet (303 m) should be considered an altitude dive, so the Blue Hole's elevation above sea level would certainly be a factor in any dive planning. While the actual depth is 81 feet, (25 m), the theoretical depth at this altitude is about 95 feet (29 m). This is because there is less air pressure (a decline of roughly 3.1 percent per 1,000 feet [303 m]) the higher a diver ascends in altitude.

Since driving to a higher elevation after a dive would basically be the same as flying after diving, divers have to observe special rules after conducting an altitude dive. Divers heading back to Albuquerque after diving the Blue Hole have to off-gas several hours because the highway crosses a mountain ridge of more than 7,000 feet (2,121 m). The risk of decompression illness is increased if the route is attempted without waiting the appropriate time.

If your travels take you along I-40 through historic New Mexico, you might want to bring your fins and dive gear even though tumbleweeds cross your path. You just may get in a few "kicks" off Route 66 when you dive into the clear depths of the Blue Hole.