text and photos
by Georgia Arrow
Since I started diving more than 2 years and almost 200 dives ago, my focus has been on critter watching. My first dives after certification were for a Fish ID class and I've been critter watching ever since. So, it was with some trepidation that I signed up to dive the Bonne Terre Mine in southern Missouri. I'd read about the mine, seen the advertisements, learned that Jacques Cousteau had gone there for a half day and stayed for five. It seemed like it could be very cool but I also had read that there was NO life there. Well, really there is one bass there somewhere. They'd apparently tried to introduce more fish but the one bass had eaten the newcomers! Not much food in the mine, I guess. I know that there are divers that love to look at formation but I am usually not one of them. So I was a little ambivalent about the dives.
BUT, I was going to St. Louis to visit family and the mines are only an hour away. We were driving there which made it easy enough to take my gear. What the heck, I decided, why not?
I called and made a reservation. The dives are a little pricey but I committed to the minimum of 2 dives and started to look forward to the experience. I posted a note about going there on NWD2D and got a couple of responses. A dive buddy from that website had been diving at the mine more than once and was very enthusiastic about it. He suggested that I try to do more than 2 dives. I started to get a little excited about the diving.
So, the day finally came and we made the early morning trek to Bonne Terre. I'm used to having to drive more than 2 hours to get to a dive site so it was actually nice to only have to drive an hour to get there. Once there, the divemaster checked us in & looked at our C-cards and logbooks. On the first dive, we had 10 divers, the tour guide, and 2 safety divers. The experience level of the divers ran the full range from newly certified divers to instructors. We sat through a safety video and a very thorough dive briefing.
Then it was time to suit up. We put on our wet suits. For me, this was normal dive wear but there were a few divers that have never been cold water diving before so it was all new to them. Everything (except tanks) had to be carried down to the dive platform. And I do mean down! After walking into the mine entrance, we went down 68 steps, then down another couple of long ramps ever deeper into the mine. As I was carrying my 70 lbs of gear further and further down into the mine my only thought was, "How am I ever going to carry it all back out again after my dives?" After 3 knee surgeries in 2 years, I wasn't sure my knees could take it. But I kept on walking and finally we made it to the dive platform.
I couldn't believe how blue the water was. Not Caribbean blue, but more of a deep aqua blue. And the viz was amazing! I could clearly see to the bottom off the edge of the dive platform-a distance of more than 40 feet there, I think.
We geared up and prepared to enter the water. As each diver entered the water, the divemaster had us do a weight check. I've only done fresh water diving a couple of times so I wasn't sure exactly how much weight to wear. I tried about 5 pounds less than usual and that worked great. The water temperature was (to me) wonderfully warm. At a constant temperature of 58 degrees, it was summer diving to me.
As per our dive briefing, we surface swam over to "The Shallows" to do a check out. We descended as a group to a depth of 25' and one by one, flooded and cleared our masks. As soon as that was finished-off we went. We were doing what is called Trail #1. We first were shown some of the train tracks. Then an old drill bit sticking a couple of feet out of a wall.
Next, the first of many ore carts which are scattered everywhere in the mine. In the ore cart was an old pickaxe which some of the divers picked up and played with. We then swam over a small boat and way down on the bottom we could see a small train engine lying on its side. Our dives were kept to a maximum of 50' but we could see to the bottom of most of the caverns we swam through. The horizontal viz was about 100' almost everywhere in the mine. On this first dive, I wanted to see "stuff". That's what I'm used to doing. Looking for fish. Looking for stuff. I didn't pay much attention to the structure.
After an extended surface interval way up out of the mine (up those long ramps and 68 steps-at least we didn't have to carry gear), we sat through another dive briefing, walked down to the dive platform, geared up again, and submerged to do Trail #2. On this dive I paid more attention to the cavern walls. We saw huge arches, incredible walls of calcium carbonate deposits, a vein of mica (fool's gold). We also spent some time watching the reverse waterfalls (or rather bubble falls). This happens when you swim under a tunnel or arch. As you swim out of it you can look back and watch all the bubbles rise along the wall which looks like a reverse waterfall. It was incredibly beautiful. We swam under the airshaft which supplies air to the mine. At a depth of 40 feet, I was able to see all the way to the top of the airshaft on the earth's surface. After seeing more ore carts we ended up by the steps which the miners' used to have to walk down to the time shack to clock in for their shift. Traditionally, divers write their names in the dust on the steps and I upheld that tradition and drew my signature arrow onto one of the steps. We then squeezed through a hole in the wall called "The Keyhole" because it's just about big enough for one diver at a time to get through. By the end of this dive, I was really beginning to appreciate the lack of life and the presence of space and structure. The canyons that we swam through were just amazing. It truly felt like flying down a canyon without a plane.
I decided to do a third dive and I'm so glad I did. After another long surface interval, a dive briefing, and the trek down to the dive platform, we were ready for our final dive. For this one (Trail #4-what happened to Trail #3?), we were down to just the tour guide, a safety diver, and 4 divers, all of whom had a little experience under their weight belts. This made the dive much more enjoyable. Divers weren't bumping into me from all directions as they had been on the other dives. We swam by "The Redwood Forest" which is columns that create that illusion. Then we went to the old elevator shaft. It is immense. From there we swam over to the vicinity of the slurry pipe. Over the years, debris has started seeping from the slurry pipe. The result of this is that it feels and looks like you are diving through clouds. I could rise above the "cloud level" to clear water and look below it to get the illusion of clouds. Wow! Really cool looking. From there we went to an area where the water drips from the ceilings and the light angles make it appear as if we were surrounded by fireflies. Very fun. As we ended this last dive, the divemaster posed for me with a "fish" that they have on a string in about 20 feet of water (it's really a windsock).
After three dives in the mine, I'm hooked. I look forward to returning and being allowed to do more of the trails. There are 24 trails in all, some of which are pretty deep and take you way into the mine. I can understand why Jacques Cousteau extended his stay. I would have also if I had been able. But I'll definitely be going back.
For any diver, and especially any diver that is into formation, put this on your list of must-do sites. You won't regret it!