Diving in Crater Lake
Despite what some people might like to think, bubbles coming from the surface do not usually signify arrival of the Crater Lake Monster. What you are probably seeing is a group of SCUBA divers. In choosing from among all the other recreational activities available in the park, they prefer to dive in the crystal clear (but cold!) water. Crater Lake has attracted people from all over the world for almost a century, including divers from as far away as Florida. If you are considering diving below the deep blue surface of this famous lake, there are a few things you need to know.
It is important that you understand the lake surface is just over 6,100 feet above sea level. Since Rim Drive (from where Crater Lake is reached) climbs to an altitude of 8,000 feet, you need to use high elevation dive tables. At these heights an average 60 foot dive has an equivalent adjusted depth of 81 feet, a distance considered risky when the nearest full service decompression chamber is over 400 miles away! The water can be very cold with below surface temperatures hovering around 37 degrees Fahrenheit. This is why National Park Service staff recommend a full wet suit, (or even better, a leak proof dry suit) be used.
The trip to the lake surface can be quite an adventure for a diver with full equipment. You must descend 700 feet on a trail and return without mechanized or wheeled assistance. Once at the lakeshore, you may want to explore Cleetwood Cove since it is the closest area for diving and has several enjoyable features. One is a relatively shallow place just east of the boat dock, where depths are around 10 to 20 feet, before dropping beyond the range of sport divers. In this long but narrow area, one can find large boulders that provide habitat for two types of fish in Crater Lake — rainbow trout and kokanee salmon. Another interesting feature is the steep wall that suddenly drops away from the narrow shoreline. With the sharp angle of this precipice and crystal clear visibility, one may feel a sensation of floating across a distant cosmic landscape.
Wizard Island is the other main area for diving, though access to it is only by concession tour boat. Be sure to call ahead for current prices and boat schedules. The waters surrounding the island offer similar precipices to Cleetwood Cove, but a wide and somewhat shallow area called Skell Channel is also close at hand. Shallow water makes diving safer and the area around Wizard Island has more than a few interesting features. One is the sharp volcanic rock that dots subsurface terrain and is close enough to the surface to be examined without air tanks. Fumarole Bay is also accessible from the island and provides a view of the submerged geological features for which it received its name. The fumaroles were once vents for gases released while Crater Lake formed and many of them can be seen at a depth of 50 to 60 feet.
It is hard to describe the feeling of swimming along a great precipice which drops to great depths, while suddenly encountering a curious trout who approaches from a deep blue background and then quickly darts beyond your reach. Please remember, however, that collecting indigenous rocks and native biota in Crater Lake is not permitted. These items should be left in place so that they may be enjoyed by this and future generations. Also note that spear fishing is prohibited in the lake, but fishing with rod and reel is allowed (since rainbow and kokanee were introduced) and a good way to pass the time between dives.
Prospective divers need to arrange for a special use permit before coming to the park. These can be obtain by writing to the Chief Ranger and should be done several weeks in advance so that park staff have a chance to inform you of restrictions and regulations which may be in effect at the time of your dive. These rules are intended to protect the diver, other park visitors, and the lake’s ecosystem. The required permit is $50.00, which is used to cover administrative costs associated with the dive. All permits must be obtained in person, a stipulation that allows park staff to notify the diver of any changes in restrictions affecting the dive, while also providing a chance in verify diving certification and review safety procedures. All members of the dive group need to attend this briefing. As you prepare, remember one of the first rules of diving: plan your dive and dive your plan. If you do, and are prepared for a variety of challenging circumstances, then a fascinating adventure in diving may await you.
John Broward is a backcountry ranger stationed at Crater Lake National Park.