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Divers explore the beauty of a cenote in Mexico. (photo courtesy Rob Calkins)

The Wonderful World Below

By Shannon Burgert

Coloradans are known for their active pursuits—skiing, hiking, cycling, the list goes on. But diving? Yep, despite being a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, the state with the most certified scuba divers per capita is Colorado.

Pygmy Seahorse photo courtesy Rob Calkins

When Colorado residents vacation in the winter, many of us head toward warmth, says Greg Eddy, who co-owns Flatirons Scuba in Broomfield. And being landlocked as we are, he says, we also seek out water. Add to those factors Colorado’s active population and relatively high level of discretionary income.

Roger Young, instructor trainer at Ocean First in Boulder, suggests that education also plays a role. “With higher levels of education, people become more connected with the rest of the world,” he says. Young also notes that when locals retire, many of them go back to school, some taking courses in marine biology, environmental education and coral-reef studies. Coloradans have a high interest in protecting the environment, he says. “Diving is a way of connecting with the ocean and participating in the preservation of our beaches, our reefs and our water.”

A Whole New World

Ask scuba divers why they love to dive, and their eyes immediately light up. They relax, smile and wax poetic about the wonders of the ocean, from hammerhead sharks to disco clams, whose lips light up, flashing on and off. When majestic eagle rays glide by, time slows down.

Local musician Katherine Dines, who got her scuba certification in 1978, became fascinated with muck diving in the Solomon Islands. “There were so many wondrous things that were really, really small,” she says, explaining that we tend to seek out the bigger creatures. With the help of a magnifying glass, Dines peered at red pygmy seahorses camouflaged on a giant sea fan. She says muck diving over the seafloor’s sediments gives her a better understanding of how wealthy the ocean is. “You could probably pick up a handful of seawater and it would be as big as the world.” Night diving, too, delighted Dines, who had no idea that the underwater life would differ so much from the creatures she saw during the day.

At the age of 6, Ben Calkins (left) became captivated by his father’s Jacques Cousteau videos, and he was excited by the “treasures”—fishing lures—that his dad would collect for him while diving in lakes. Now 13, Ben has been diving for two years and has nearly finished his advanced scuba certification. The greatest treasure he’s found? A penny, he says, grinning. (photo courtesy Rob Calkins)

Night diving in Bonaire, 13-year-old Ben Calkins was first scared and then mesmerized by a school of six or seven tarpons, each roughly 5 feet in length, taking advantage of Ben’s lights to hunt. “You see them in your light and then they disappear,” Ben says. They appear from underneath, snatch a fish and then disappear again. “When they eat something in front of you there’s so much muscle, it’s like a shockwave underwater. It’s really terrifying.” But if you dive, Ben says, night diving to see tarpons tops his list of recommendations.

“You realize that there’s a whole world out there that you haven’t seen or experienced,” Eddy says. “Almost three quarters of the planet is underwater. Even though we can only explore down to 150 feet, that’s a pretty special area to really see a lot of animals.”

High Diving

Colorado isn’t known for its diving, but our landlocked state boasts more than 2,000 lakes and reservoirs. “Local diving can best be described as cold, dark and limited. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not fun!” Young says, laughing. Among his favorite spots is Turquoise Lake, at 9,500 feet near Leadville. (The altitude limit for recreational diving is 10,000 feet.) Young combines scuba diving, hiking and fly-fishing when he camps there. The visibility in the lake is 20 to 30 feet, which “doesn’t sound like much, but if you can see past the end of your arm in a mountain lake, that’s good.”

Another popular local dive spot is Aurora Reservoir, commonly used as a training location through the summer. While the reservoir may not be a destination dive spot, Ben Calkins enjoyed a recent dive there to see a Cessna 310 airplane, deliberately sunk on the otherwise featureless bottom (which does host a few crawdads). “It was really low visibility and it was pretty cold, so as you got down it had an eerie feel to it,” he says.

The West is romanticized for its mountain ghost towns, but near Gunnison three ghost towns come with a twist—they’re underwater. When Blue Mesa Reservoir was born with the completion of the Blue Mesa Dam in 1965, the towns, highways and railroad bridges were submerged. Boats and a wrecked airplane also rest on the bottom of the reservoir, which is Colorado’s largest body of water. Salmon, trout and crayfish are the reservoir’s main creatures. The best diving runs from August through late October.

Another draw for Colorado’s lakes? They prepare you for diving in less-than-agreeable conditions.

Ready to Dive In?

Local dive shops offer certification through PADI and SSI, both internationally recognized training organizations. Certification consists of study at home, classroom time, pool sessions and four open-water “checkout” dives that can be completed in a weekend. Certification costs start at about $550, but that varies depending on the organization you certify with and where you complete your open-water dives.

Spotted eel photo courtesy Rob Calkins

During the summertime, local dive shops offer open-water sessions at Aurora Reservoir, and throughout the year local shops offer those sessions at Utah’s Homestead Crater and New Mexico’s Blue Hole. However, many people take care of the classroom and pool work in Colorado but complete their checkout dives at a diving destination. Among the more affordable ones are the Florida Keys and a number of locations in Mexico, including Cozumel and other spots along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Scuba diving is not cheap, but Young says that the look on a new diver’s face, when a new world is opened up, is priceless.

“Diving is the most comfortable, quiet, relaxing and pain-free activity I’ve ever participated in,” says Young, who has suffered from tinnitus (ringing in the ears) since serving in the military. “Diving underwater was the only place I found silence. For me, diving is not only recreation, it’s therapeutic. And it’s a passion.”