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The Blue Hole
By Nathan Welton
Nathan Welton photos
Rodale's Scuba Diving
February, 2002

In the middle of a cross country drive, I stopped for gas in Santa Rosa, N.M. My life was shoved into a U-Haul trailer, but I had left my dive gear accessible just in case I found a diving oasis on my long journey. In the gas station I saw an advertisement for The Blue Hole, "the scuba capital of the Southwest." My interest was piqued, and after 1,000 miles of Midwestern grain fields, my mind and body needed some aquatic stimulation.

Santa Rosa didn't look like much of a dive destination. It was dusty and arid; desiccated remains of armadillo roadkill had been petrified onto the highway. Route 66 had once drifted its way through this lonely town of about 3,000, but it was long gone, leaving only shredded memories on the fence posts and a smattering of curio shops.I got directions to the site and sputtered off though town. I can't remember seeing more than five people the whole way there, and I soon found out why: they were all diving! The Blue Hole's parking lot looked like Dodger Stadium's, and divers had monopolized every inch of grass and dirt with extra tanks, wetsuits, and BCs.License plates from as far away as California dotted the lot, and there must have been 100 divers there. I counted five open-water classes, an advanced course, and a hoard of independent divers checking the place out. I walked over to a crowd and there it was: 60 feet in diameter, 84 feet deep, and bordered by a ring of large sandstone sheet rocks. I found an information board and read the details. The Blue Hole is an artesian well that was once used as a fish hatchery and has since been converted into the Southwest's most popular dive training site. That was enough for me. I grabbed my gear and rented a few tanks from Stella Salazar at the Santa Rosa Dive Center, conveniently located next door to the spring.

My dive buddy and I quickly suited up and waded in via a dive-ready platform. We swam out to a quartet of dive buoys marking a submerged and suspended training platform at 15 feet, and dropped down to it. The well was even more surreal once we were below the water line: its curved cylindrical sides belled out to a diameter of 130 feet and I felt like I was swimming inside a giant soda bottle. The well's gray rock walls are covered in a thin film of algae, and every once in a while a lone goldfish swam its way past us. The water was a deep azure and excessively clear, with around 100 feet of visibility. Once we were acquainted with things, we swam off the platform and dropped to the floor of the spring, floating above a huge rubble pile. In the far recesses of the well was a big metal grate covering an opening leading to the well's source, which recharges the Blue Hole with a steady flow of 3,000 gallons of water a minute.

For the rest of the dive, we swam circles around the well, ascending a few feet with each revolution, bewildered by the peculiarity of finding a dive site in the middle of the desert. The rock formations were big and blocky, the goldfish were big and round, and I felt like I was swimming in Wonderland.

The dive left me hungry, and on the advice of Stella, I motored off to Comet II, a little cafe located in a particularly unprepossessing part of town. Its utter lack of décor was on par with the endless fields I'd driven through for days. The table was empty save for a fork, knife and paper napkin, and there was an eerie amount of unused space. I ordered the enchiladas and soon a colorful plate of savory Mexican fare materialized.

The food was awesome, and before long, my plate was as stark and white as the restaurant's walls, and as empty as the grain fields I'd been through. Rejuvenated and refueled, I drove off to the coast with visions of artesian wells and enchiladas dancing in my head. To anyone passing through the area, I heartily recommend a dive at the Blue Hole and a meal at the Comet.

Dive In

• Location: Santa Rosa is located 114 miles east of Albuquerque on Interstate 40. Take the first exit into town and follow the signs. You can't miss it.

• Water Conditions: You can dive the Blue Hole year-round (winter is actually the busiest season), thanks to the constant spring flow that keeps the water temperature at a stable 61 degrees. A quarter-inch wetsuit is considered the minimum thermal protection. Visibility is a consistent 100 feet.

• Profile: To dive the Blue Hole, you need to purchase an $8 permit that is good for one week. Permits are available at City Hall or the Santa Rosa Dive Center. The spring is about 5,000 feet above sea level, and if you're driving out of town right after your dive, you can hit altitude in the 7,000- to 8,000-foot range. Adjust dive plans and tables accordingly. Planning materials are available at the Santa Rosa Dive Center, but divers are solely responsible for planning and executing a safe dive plan.

• Dive Operator: Santa Rosa Dive Center, (505) 472-3370 is located next to the Blue Hole, and is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. until the last diver is served. The shop rents gear, tanks and offers air fills, but does not provide instruction. Shop owner Stella Salazar will also open midweek by appointment for certified divers and groups.

• Dive Savvy: By some estimates, the Blue Hole sees as many as 10,000 divers a year. On busy weekends, there can easily be 200 to 250 divers on site, most as part of certification classes from regional dive shops. Nights and weekdays are excellent times to dive the spring.

• For More Info: Contact the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce at (505) 472-3763 or visit