David Prichard Photos by Lily Mak
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Taking a Dive
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.