Utah's Hot Springs
Mile-High Tropical Diving
Story and photos by Linda Lee Walden
Utah is known for its wealth of
unique natural attractions: the Bonneville salt flats, the bizarre rock
formations adorning its national parks, the feather-light snow of its ski
resorts, the Great Salt Lake itself.
But few are aware that Utah also possesses natural wonders
that appeal specifically to scuba enthusiasts , almost a thousand miles from
the nearest ocean and a mile above sea level, several geothermal springs
have been transformed into northern Utah's version of tropical dive sites.
miles/64 km west of Salt Lake City off Interstate 80, in the midst of a
sagebrush desert which eons ago formed the bed of giant Lake Bonneville,
lies a small saltwater sea. More accurately, Bonneville Seabase consists of
a series of interconnected ponds fed by underground hot springs and stocked
with tropical fish from all over the world.
The springs are nature's gift. Their development into the
Seabase facility is the brainchild of Neptune Divers' owners Linda Nelson
and George Sanders. Faced with a 240-mile/386-km round-trip drive between
Salt Lake City and Blue Lake, a hot spring on the Nevada border, they
decided to develop an open-water training site closer to home that could be
dived even in the dead of Utah winter.
In 1988 they bought an 80-acre parcel riddled with hot
springs. Since the early 1900s the site had been used as a local swimming
hole, a baptismal and more recently a garbage dump. Sanders, whose
background is in construction, spent two years excavating several ponds and
lining them with rocks. An airfill station, dressing rooms, showers and
outhouses, a gathering/teaching building and a snack bar/rental shop were
constructed, creating a full-service dive facility.
The springs release 90 F (32 C) water at a rate of 80,000
gallons/303,000 liters per hour. The various ponds or bays, with names like
White Rocks, Iron Bottom and Bubbling Sands, range in temperature from the
low 70s F (low 20s C) to the mid-80s F (high 20s C) depending on seasonal
air temperature and proximity to the spring openings. The thermal gradient
in the bays is reversed , the warmest water is near the bottom.
White Rocks Bay, 125 by 65 feet/38 by 20 m, is covered by a
Plexiglas roof for comfort in any weather. It is the main entry area,
bordering the Aquadome, a heated staging enclosure. Connected by a
swim-through, open-air Habitat Bay is almost five times as large and serves
as the principle training area. For novelty, an underwater air-filled dive
bell has been suspended at 15 feet/5 m, and a small boat lies nearby.
The main underwater attractions at Seabase, however, are the
saltwater fishes. As the massive inland sea evaporated, leaving the Great
Salt Lake, the former seabed became permeated with salt. Hot spring water
dissolves these ancient crystals, resulting in a salinity level very close
to the oceans. Starting with a few castoffs from home aquariums, Seabase's
fish population has mushroomed to include French and gray angels and puffers
from the Caribbean, Indo-Pacific clownfish, fire gobies and batfish,
garibaldis from California, barimundis from Australia and a variety of Red
Sea tangs. The undisputed stars of the show, however, are three good-size
All these finned inhabitants do create nutrient-rich water,
which reduces visibility to a few feet at times. Seabase co-owner Nelson, a
chemist by training, has been experimenting with various biological
remedies, including introducing algae-eating brine shrimp and rotifers.
Visibility averages 6 to 20 feet/2 to 6 m depending on the time of year.
One consideration when diving in Utah is the altitude. At
Seabase it measures a relatively modest 4,250 feet/1,295 m above sea level.
Dive tables must be modified to account for the decreased density of the
atmosphere. With this in mind, the fact that the deepest bay at Seabase is
only 24 feet/7 m still means that divers experience an equivalent depth of 2
atmospheres, or 33 feet/10 m at sea level. A separate 60-foot/18-m pond is
being excavated to offer deep divers the equivalent of a 72-foot/22-m
Bonneville Seabase is open year-round to divers and
snorkelers. Enthusiastic vacationers from many states have been known to ski
Utah's world-class mountains by day and follow up with a night dive at
The Crater at Homestead Resort
on the eastern slopes of the Wasatch mountains, just a few miles from Utah's
ski areas, Homestead is proud of its distinction as the only full-service
resort featuring both cross-country skiing and scuba on the same property.
As you enter the well-manicured grounds of this upscale
country getaway, the crater's craggy dome, which resembles a giant beehive,
overshadows the stately elegance of the historic hotel situated nearby.
Almost 400 feet/122 m across at the base and 55 feet/17 m high, the rock
dome was deposited over a period of 8,000 to 10,000 years by warm,
calcium-rich waters rising from 2 miles/3 km underground.
The crater became a commercial mineral bath and the nucleus
of the current resort over a century ago, when an enterprising farmer
drilled into the side of the dome and piped the 94 F (34 C) water into a
wooden tub. Access to the pool inside the dome was restricted, however,
because the only way in was through the small opening at the summit.
In the early '90s Dr. Jerry Simons, electrical engineer and
owner of Waterworld dive center in Orem, Utah, visited Homestead Resort. He
immediately envisioned the crater's internal pool as a perfect,
climate-controlled setting for all-weather diving. In partnership with the
resort's owners, he blasted a 110-foot/34-m tunnel through the side, just
above water level.
In 1996 the crater opened for diving and snorkeling, as well
as therapeutic mineral baths. Inside the tunnel is a curtained shower and
changing area, airfill station and equipment rental center. A separate
building housing classrooms, a locker room and reception area is due to open
at the end of this year.
The heart of the crater is a rock-walled cavern roughly 85
feet/26 m across containing a crystal-clear pool 65 feet/20 m deep. The high
calcium and magnesium content of the water
precludes living organisms, and the spring's flow rate of 100,000
gallons/379,000 l per day completely exchanges the pool's contents every
couple of days. These factors, plus underwater lighting and sunlight
streaming from above, result in wall-to-wall visibility for divers.
Two water-level platforms provide easy access to the pool,
and a training platform is suspended 20 feet/6 m under the surface. Because
divers can ascend directly to the surface of the pool within the chamber,
the crater is not considered an overhead environment and is regularly
utilized by scuba instructors for open-water training dives. For safety
reasons, maximum diving depth is restricted to 35 feet/11 m. At Homestead's
6,200-foot/1,890-m altitude, this equates to 52 feet/16 m at sea level.
The novelty of diving a natural hot spring nestled inside a
rock dome draws divers from around the world, not just during ski season,
Belmont Hot Springs
known, but equally as accessible to divers from northern Utah and
surrounding states, is a third hot spring area that has been turned into a
dive site. Belmont Hot Springs hugs the banks of the thermally active Malad
River, tucked among hilly grasslands less than 90 minutes north of Salt Lake
City along Interstate 15.
Located at the intersection of geological fault lines, the
area is honeycombed with hot springs. In 1971 the land was developed into an
aquarium-fish farm, golf course and naturally heated swimming pool. The
growing popularity of scuba diving prompted the owners to open two of the
hot spring ponds to divers in 1994.
The main diving pond covers over 2 acres and has a maximum
depth of 35 feet. At an altitude of 4,400 feet/1,340 m, this is equal to 48
feet/15 m at sea level. Platforms have been placed at 3 feet/1 m and 20 feet
to keep divers off the clay and sand bottom, which bubbles like champagne.
Kara, an algae, grows in 5-foot/1.5-m "pillows" along the bottom
in the cooler months, and small aquarium fish such as mollies and goramis,
as well as cornucopia snails, can be seen along the banks of the pond.
Visibility hovers around 10 feet/3 m.
Belmont Hot Springs are truly hot, bubbling up at a stable
125 F (52 C). By controlling the rate of flow, the water in the diving pond
can be cooled to 91 F (33 C), but may run slightly higher during the summer.
Because of this, another diving pond is being constructed to allow further
cooling for more comfortable warm-weather diving.
Scuba instructors like the comfort of the warm-water pond
for open-water training dives and utilize the large, heated swimming pool
for confined-water teaching sessions. Amenities include locker rooms with
showers, and an enclosed caf8E and meeting area. Belmont Hot Springs does
not provide scuba equipment rentals or air fills, preferring that divers go
through a dive center. The facility is open all year, but in the winter only
To prevent overcrowding, all three facilities limit the
number of divers in the water at one time. You must call ahead to schedule
your arrival, and fees do apply. Each facility has safety equipment on
premises. The nearest recompression chambers are in the Salt Lake City area.
Utah boasts the fifth-largest number of scuba divers per
capita in the United States. Could this be due, in part, to the availability
of local warm-water diving? Maybe they know something the rest of us don't.
Find out for yourself , dive a hot spring.