When you think of the desert, scuba diving likely doesn’t come to mind. But not only can you scuba dive in the desert, you can also get certified and buy gear here as well.
Several organizations throughout New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, offer scuba training, equipment, and trips. For example, there’s Scuba Connection LLC in Carlsbad, El Paso Dive Group/School, The Scuba Company in Albuquerque, and Kaizen S.C.U.B.A. in Santa Fe, to name a few.
“A lot of people don’t know you can dive in the desert,” said Daniel Gonzales, master scuba diver trainer and owner of El Paso Dive Group/School. “When people walk into my shop, they think they’re in another city by the water . . . People are stunned that there’s a full-blown scuba shop with a classroom and all the retail equipment and dive accessories.”
One of the draws of scuba diving is that you get to experience a world unlike any other, Daniel said. “You’re seeing things that only one percent of the population gets to see,” he said. “The other 99 percent of humans are not scuba certified, so you’re doing something that is very unique and very private.”
“Some people get really passionate about it,” he added.
If you’re ready to start your underwater adventure, the first step is to get certified through a local dive school.
“We train people from the very beginning to obtain their certification, which is recognized everywhere in the world and is good for the rest of their life once they get certified,” Daniel said.
Students begin by learning the basic principles of scuba diving either through traditional classroom learning or, more commonly, by taking standardized online courses. If taking the courses online, students may be asked to meet with a local dive school instructor in person to go over what they learned in more detail.
“When they come into the shop, we go over setting up [the gear], breaking it down, how to use it, and the do’s and the don’ts of the equipment,” Daniel said.
Next, students experience what it’s like to use the equipment underwater in a controlled environment — usually a local swimming pool. The final step is to practice diving in open water, such as a lake or ocean. Many dive schools do this over a short weekend trip. “For us, we’ll go east of El Paso to Balmorhea State Park or we go up to Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico,” Daniel said. “Those two spots are really great for the training dives.”
The entire process of getting certified usually takes a few weeks. While the open water diver certification course is all you need to start scuba diving, several dive schools also offer advanced specialty courses, such as Rescue Diver and Master Scuba Diver.
According to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), beginner divers will need the following gear:
1. A wetsuit
2. A Buoyancy Control Device (BCD/BC)
3. Diving regulators
4. Pressure gauge and dive computer
5. Integrated weights or weight belt
6. Mask, snorkel, and fins
Many local dive centers sell diving equipment, including El Paso Dive Group/School and Scuba Connection in Carlsbad. “We’re vendors for all the major dive gear manufacturers, like Aqua Lung, Sherwood, and others,” said Ellen Trautner, divemaster and co-owner of Scuba Connection. “[People] can buy gear through us, and there’s a few other dive shops in New Mexico.”
While the cost to get into scuba diving can be a little pricey, the gear lasts a long time if you take good care of it, and it’s worth the investment if you plan to make scuba diving a regular activity. Used gear in good condition can also be found.
“Scuba diving can be a hobby for the rest of your life,” Ellen said.
Once you’ve obtained scuba certification and the proper gear, it’s time to plan your diving destination. Here are a few must-see spots in the New Mexico/El Paso area:
Blue Hole, Santa Rosa: Blue Hole is considered one of the best inland dive sites in the U.S. It starts at 80 feet wide at the surface and expands to 130 feet in diameter at the bottom, with a passage leading to three large chambers. The main pool is more than 80 feet deep.
“Visibility is always really good, and it’s a constant temperature of 62 degrees,” Ellen said.
Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale, Texas: Balmorhea State Park, about three hours east of El Paso, offers the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool and is a popular spot for new and experienced divers alike. The pool is about 25 feet deep and spans 1.3 acres. The water temperature remains at 72 to 76 degrees all year.
“It’s not very deep, but it’s very clear because it’s spring-fed. It’s just that constant water source coming through, and it keeps visibility really good,” Ellen said. “There’s turtles and fish and all sorts of nice things to see.”
Bottomless Lakes State Park, Roswell: Bottomless Lakes State Park comprises sinkholes ranging from 17 to 90 feet deep. Lea Lake, the largest and deepest of the sinkholes, is the only one people can dive in.
“It can really vary in temperature throughout the year, as well as in visibility,” Ellen said. “But there are some spots on the lake that have a lot of springs. There’s one section of the lake in particular called the ‘Mecca,’ and it’s not too deep — it’s only about 35 feet deep — so that’s where we’ll take beginner divers.”
Other lesser-known dive sites include the Pecos River and Black River in Carlsbad, and Bill Evans Lake near Silver City.
While many lakes in the area allow scuba diving, they may not all have ideal conditions, so it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you go, Daniel said.
“Elephant Butte used to be a place scuba divers would go, but as the water got lower, it stirred up the mud from the bottom, so it doesn’t lend itself to diving,” he said. “When you go, you can’t see your hand in front of your face, so it’s just not safe diving, but it’s also not fun. That’s why we do scuba — for fun.”
While there are plenty of places to go scuba diving in the desert, most people get certified so they can enjoy the activity on vacations elsewhere. Many local diving groups and schools help accommodate this by offering annual trips outside of the area, and in some cases, outside of the country. Each year, El Paso Dive Group/School hosts a trip to San Carlos, Mexico. “It’s one of the closest places to drive where you get an ocean dive,” Daniel said.
El Paso Dive Group/School also regularly goes to Cozumel, an island in Mexico, which offers “some of the best diving in the world,” Daniel said.
“Three years ago we were in Belize, and our plan for next year is to go to the Cayman Islands [if COVID restrictions allow],” he said.
Scuba Connection in Carlsbad also hosts various group outings to impressive dive sites, including the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.
For information on what’s offered through Scuba Connection, visit scubaconnectioncarlsbad.com. Ellen recommends messaging the group’s Facebook page for a quick response. For information about El Paso Dive Group/School, visit elpasodivegroup.com.
Written by Alexia Severson • Courtesy photos
Originally published in Neighbors magazine
This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead