Diving in Utah?

No ocean, no problem ― these desert springs are perfect for scuba
Peter Fish

INFO:  Bonneville Seabase (866/866-3483)

The reason I am standing in one of North America's largest deserts wearing a diving mask is Linda Nelson.

"My parents were geologists," Nelson is telling me. "I knew there were geothermal features in Utah. I knew how to read a geological map. I started looking at hot springs within a radius of 100 miles of Salt Lake City."

What Nelson was looking for was a place to teach scuba diving. Once an exotic, expensive sport, diving has become a mainstream pastime in the United States, with more than 3 million adherents. And Utah is a scuba center: By some estimates, it ranks as one of the top 15 states with the highest percentage of divers per capita in the nation. "We have a lot of outdoorsy people," Nelson explains.

What Utah does not have ― and you may have noticed this if you've ever visited here ― is an ocean. An ocean of any kind. Which is why Nelson and her husband and dive-shop partner George Sanders had to create a substitute.

Shakespeare set a portion of his play, The Winter's Tale, on the seacoast of Bohemia, which ― since Bohemia has no seacoast ― has ever since symbolized an illusory, impossible locale. For Nelson and Sanders, creating the seacoast of Utah proved nearly as impossible.

"A lot of the hot springs had problems," Nelson recalls. "Too hot, too something." Finally, in the Great Salt Lake Desert near the town of Grantsville, they found a series of warm saltwater springs. These, they decided, would become Bonneville Seabase, named for prehistoric Lake Bonneville that once occupied this terrain.

The springs had once been used as Grantsville's swimming hole. But they had eventually become an unofficial dump, which meant that Nelson and Sanders spent months pulling out old refrigerators and bedsprings from the pools. "Everyone warned us off as crazy, crazy, crazy," Nelson says. "Our friends would shake their heads and ask, 'What have you done?' "

But at last they opened Bonneville Seabase, a full-service diving facility 4,250 feet above sea level and 900 miles from the nearest ocean.

Seabase has four main dive areas: White Rocks Bay, Habitat Bay, Bubbling Sands, and the Abyss. White Rocks Bay is roofed so divers can use it during winter months when the air temperature hovers at zero. Habitat Bay teems with pompano and puffers and angelfish, many of which are rescued fish ― some, for example, retirees from the flashy aquariums at Las Vegas casinos. There are also two nurse sharks.

The Saturday I visit, Seabase is jammed with divers from Utah, Idaho, Wyoming. "We're known," Nelson says. "You mention Seabase in Australia, and they know us."

Then it's my turn. Like skydiving, scuba was something I had always wanted to do that scared me. Now I have a chance for my first lesson. Nelson and her son, Lorin, suit me up, and I dive with him into Habitat Bay, down, down. And, after one moment of panic, I am diving. I breathe through the regulator. I glide forward. I feed romaine lettuce to the angelfish.

Nelson and Sanders are world-class divers who lead trips to Bali and Borneo. Last year they boarded an icebreaker to dive the North Pole. The party had to get out of the water when walruses appeared: So few people have dived in the Arctic that no one knows how walruses will react.

In Habitat Bay, I see no walruses, but I do see the two nurse sharks. And I become a convert. Like the desert, underwater is a hostile environment you can learn to love. These warm springs could lead to Borneo, to Bali ― who knew? In The Winter's Tale, Camillo muses about "unpathed waters, undreamed shores." Here, on the seacoast of Utah, I can sense their allure.