Diver deaths spawn rumors of underground waterway
by Mike Smith Daily Lobo
About 120 miles east of Albuquerque, on the eastern edge of the town of Santa Rosa, N.M., lies a tiny oval of blue water – a spring-fed sinkhole about 80 feet wide and 81 feet deep – known as the Blue Hole.
Sometime ago a group of scuba divers dove into the Blue Hole, eager to explore every nook and fissure of the smooth-walled sinkhole. After climbing out, they realized one of their divers had disappeared.
Six months later, the body of that diver finally surfaced, but not in Santa Rosa. It was discovered, the story claims, in Lake Michigan – more than a thousand miles away – naked, waterlogged and with much of its skin scuffed off, as if it had been pushed and scraped through miles of rocky tunnels.
If the story is true, one of the longest underground waterways in the world could lie directly beneath us. Perhaps the direct water route across the continent searched for by the explorers Lewis and Clark actually exists – underground. Andrea Sachs, in a Dec. 19, 2004, Washington Post article, wrote that there is a protective metal grate covering a spring that produces about 3,000 gallons of fresh water per minute on the Blue Hole’s limestone floor. And, she wrote, that grate also seals off an elaborate network of caves that twists southward 200 miles, down to Texas.
“I don’t think anyone knows just how extensive that system is,” said Si Minton, owner of New Mexico Scuba Center. “No one has ever explored the total cave system below Blue Hole.”
“The only maps (of the cave network) are apparently sketches made by rescue divers. There are reportedly some rooms below the sink, and it goes to 250 feet with a going passage beyond,” said Mike Poucher, cartographer for the National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section. “How far does it go? No one knows.”
Poucher said the grate blocking the cave system was installed in the early 1980s, after at least four divers died in the caves during the previous decade.
In March of 1976, the Albuquerque Journal reported two of these deaths, detailing how a group of 10 university students were diving in the Blue Hole one morning, how 21-year-old David Gregg and 22-year-old Mike Godard failed to resurface, and how it took the State Police multiple dives to recover their bodies. In 1979, two other divers got lost and died in the caves. Their bodies were recovered as well.
That the bodies of all who drowned in the Blue Hole’s caves were quickly accounted for suggests that the Lake Michigan story really is only rumor, as does the area’s geology.
The odds of there being a hydrologic connection to the Great Lakes from New Mexico are about as remote as finding a wormhole to transport you there across time and space,” said scientist Mike Spilde, UNM’s resident cave-geology expert.
“In other words, it just doesn’t exist. First, it would require a continuous rock stratum capable of supporting caves to be present all the way from New Mexico to the Great Lakes, which there isn’t. More importantly, the body would have to get past the huge hydrologic barrier of the Mississippi River. The river acts as a giant collection system, moving not only surface water to the ocean, but a lot of subsurface water, too. The body would have to swim upstream to get to the Great Lakes,” he said.
So, perhaps the story isn’t so strange after all.
However, in 1976 and 1979, as the young divers swam their ways silently through dark caves deep beneath the New Mexico desert, feeling the walls for a way back out, the truth of the story was probably strange to them. As they lost their way, their headlamps dimmed and died, their air supplies seeped away in panicked moments, and they swam from this life into the wide unknown that follows. The events of their mornings could not have felt entirely normal.