By Jennifer L Schwartz
Santa Rosa isn’t Fiji, but it does have water.
Sixty feet below the surface of Santa Rosa's Blue Hole, a small, plastic graveyard scene was affixed to a rock. The three-inch skeleton and row of gravestones seemed a morbid decorative choice for a scuba diving site.
My dive buddy, a German road tripper I'd met 10 minutes before descending, gave me the OK signal with his hand and smiled through his regulator. We continued upward along the perimeter of the Blue Hole, where other dollar-store toys dotted the walls. Except for a handful of skittish crawfish, there was nothing else to see. The visibility was five feet at best. But as a landlocked scuba diver, I was just happy to be submerged in water.
When most divers hear “blue hole,” they think of the almost perfectly circular Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize. Santa Rosa’s own geologic phenomena, a bell-shaped sinkhole formed over time by water erosion and limestone collapse, is actually a freshwater spring with a year-round temperature of 62 degrees.
It was a novelty to be diving in the desert, though for several weeks I’d been craving a plunge in the ocean. When you grow up in the Northeast and drive across state borders every hour or so, you develop a warped sense of distance that doesn’t translate to the rest of the country. When I finally looked at a map and realized that Juárez, Mexico was nowhere near Baja California and that San Diego was more than 800 miles west, I let go of any saltwater fantasies. That’s when I remembered a barrage of signs along I-40 advertising the “natural lakes” town of Santa Rosa.
After coercing my parents into shipping my scuba gear to New Mexico, I drove two hours southeast of Santa Fe to a dusty town with shuttered restaurants and neon signs, a nod to Santa Rosa’s Route 66 heritage.
Before it became popular among divers for training and certification, the Blue Hole was utilized by Anasazi Indians, Spanish conquistadors and, pos sibly, even Billy the Kid. The deep turquoise pool even did a stint in the 1960s as a government-run fish hatchery. But in the mid-’70s, dive groups from Colorado began using it as a training site during the winter, when their alpine lakes become prohibitively cold.
"The scuba shops brought down their own air compressors," Stella Salazar, a lifelong Santa Rosa resident and the dive shop owner for more than 20 years, says. "But soon people started requesting a local person to fill tanks." Because she lives next to the Blue Hole, Salazar gradually took on the role.
The "dive shop" is a windowless wooden shack, nondescript except for a tiny scuba sticker—the red flag with a white diagonal stripe—on the door. Stella cheerily checks certification cards and rents out a small selection of gear and fills tanks. Her son is a free diver who can hit the hole's 80-foot bottom and come back to the surface on a single breath of air.
If, like me, you're used to diving in warm seas, spotting reef sharks and examining the folds of brightly colored coral, you'll need to set your expectations extremely low. Diving in the desert is an ironic experience that provides material for bar stories back in Santa Fe. It does not make for a great comparison to Fiji's Astrolabe Reef.
After paying the $8 permit fee and renting a tank for five bucks, I reluctantly set up my gear for a single-person dive. Because it's never a smart idea to dive alone, I was relieved when Daniel showed up in a rental RV and asked if he could accompany me.
The liability situation at the Blue Hole is sort of strange. Though Stella was careful to check our certification cards, I suddenly found myself briefing the dive to Daniel and hoping that this stranger wouldn't freak out at depth and require a risky rescue. Likewise, I wondered if he questioned my ability to ensure we wouldn't get the bends. Though I'm a certified rescue diver with more than 200 dives under my belt, I'd never led one before.
Right before emptying the air from my buoyancy vest, I considered where the nearest decompression chamber might be located. Then I decided it was best not to think about it. I told the curious kids swimming on the surface to hope that the sharks wouldn't eat me and, after enjoying their shocked reactions, began descending.
The dive itself was largely uneventful, cold and generally uninspiring. Because more than 40 divers had been certified in the hole that morning, the silt was kicked up and visibility was extremely poor. Regardless, the water was calm, my dive buddy was a pro and none of our equipment malfunctioned.
Once I was back on dry land, I packed up my gear and asked Stella where to eat in town. Her response was that she did her best not to eat in town. So instead, I took my granola bar and fruit and drove 10 minutes to Santa Rosa Lake State Park, a bona fide oasis amid the cracked sandstone and relentless sun. I only wish I’d thought to bring an inflatable raft.
I'm not sure I'd return to Santa Rosa with the sole prerogative of diving the Blue Hole. But the handful of nearby lakes makes it a worthy destination when the hot desert summer makes me crave the coast. And if I can get my hands on some strobes, a light-up Frisbee and some interested friends, an underwater game during a night dive could make a second visit worth the trip.
The Santa Rosa Dive Shop 575-472-3370
WHEN TO GO: The Blue Hole is technically open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset, however, on weekdays, you should call ahead to make sure you can rent gear. Owner Stella Salazar is typically around from 8 am-8 pm on weekends, and sporadically during the week.
GEAR RENTAL: A full equipment package runs $30, and the daily permit paid to the city costs $8. An annual permit is $25. Obtain the permit from City Hall (open 9-5 Monday-Friday) or from the dive shop.
SEASONAL CONSIDERATIONS: The Blue Hole is more crowded with divers in the winter and spring when training dives run almost every weekend. Summer is less crowded, and weekdays are always quiet. Visibility is much better (up to 80 feet) in the mornings, before the silt has been kicked up.
DON'T GET BENT: This is an altitude dive. The Blue Hole is 4,600 feet, which, for dive profile purposes, is rounded to 5,000 feet. So, the bottom must be thought of as about 100 feet at sea level. If your dive computer does not automatically adjust to the elevation, make sure you do. Dive conservatively if you're not sure—there's nothing down there worth risking the bends for.
EAT: Bring a cooler and head to Santa Rosa Lake State Park (parking fee $5) where grilling sites, fire pits, picnic tables and facilities make it a great local option for a post-dive lunch. Bring an inflatable raft or boat.
EXPLORE: To make it a two-dive day, head to nearby Perch Lake, where a sunken twin-engine plane at 55 feet is the main attraction. Because Perch Lake is not a spring, the water temperature fluctuates with the seasons. Beware of the noticeable thermocline between the surface and depth.