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August 14, 2007

Diving the Wall off Rubicon Point, Lake Tahoe

After diving Meeks Bay with its terrific visibility, it was now on to another Lake Tahoe dive site, Rubicon Point at the D. L. Bliss State Park which is just north of Emerald Bay off Route 89. Rubicon Point's claim to fame is a wall dive, with the rock wall falling almost vertically down to over 800 feet.

D. L. Bliss is a large park and the entrance is high up in the mountains and easy to miss. You also want to get there early as the park fills up quickly for campers, and there are only so many parking spots. Entrance is $6, and the park ranger will ask you what you intend to do so they can steer you in the right direction. For diving you want to go to Callawee Cove. After a couple of miles of up and down driving through pristine forest we get to the Callawee Cove parking area that has maybe 15 parking spots. From there it is a steep trail down to the beach with 55 steps. Not something that is a lot of fun to negotiate with full dive gear on, and we brought huge 130 cubic foot steel tanks!

So we suit up and this time we take along a dive flag float, hoods and gloves. Getting all that gear down to the small cove is challenging enough, but even as we go down we wonder how we're supposed to get it all back up after the dive when we're cold and exhausted and not supposed to exert ourselves too much.

The water was absolutely crystal clear at the beach and the temperature about 68 degrees. From the parking lot we had seen the usual brilliant blue-green water of Lake Tahoe, but also darker parts and I wondered if that was algae. Turns out it wasn't; it was just clean black sand.

Even after making my way down to the beach it took me a while to cool off and calm down enough to get all my diving gear all set, including the hood and my gloves. I am not used to a hood, and I don't like it any better than wearing a helmet when I race cars. I don't like the constriction and the restricted visibility. And it took me forever to get on my gloves. Sometimes I wonder why all Scuba gear seems to fight you as you put it on. Even though it is not mandatory in California, I am glad we brought the floating dive flag as it doubles up as a carry bag and repository for whatever you don't need at the moment. We also had brought two new underwater cameras to test, the 6.0 megapixel SeaLife ECOshot and the 6.1 megapixel Sealife DC600.

From Callawee Cove you can do all sorts of diving, from hanging around above the shallow sand bottom to spectacular rock areas and to the Rubicon wall. The wall dive is off Rubicon Point - perhaps a 100 yard swim or dive to the south. There isn't much of a current and so it's no big deal. Personally, I recommend diving from Callaway Cove to the Point if you have enough air. There are plenty of cool rocks and boulders in clear, shallow and totally clean water. It does, however, make sense to take along a compass and get a bearing.

With the big 130 cubic foot steel tanks, air was not going to be a problem. In fact, Robert Flores of Diver's Cove in Folsom had urged me to keep an eye on remaining no-decompression time and not just remaining air. He said it was all too easy to get caught up in the fantastic vistas, become over-confident because so much air is left, and lose sight of remaining bottom time. I certainly kept that in mind. If anything, I tend to check my dive computer too often, and Carol, with her many years of experience as a NAUI instructor and technical diver, is a total expert. The big tanks, it turned out, made us a bit bottom heavy but it was manageable.

I had no idea what to expect from Rubicon wall. The site is generally described in glowing terms, with some going as far as praising it as one of the great dive sites in the world. Many call it the best dive site in the entire Sierras, and the best wall dive in Lake Tahoe. The lake's exceptional visibility is a big attraction, of course, as is the wonderfully clean and clear water, and the gorgeous scenery around the lake in general.

Based on what I had seen at Meeks Bay just a few miles north, I expected a fairly shallow sandy bottom and then all of a sudden a vertical rock wall. Given the topography, I thought it was also possible that rock formations above the surface might just continue dropping underwater. From what I read, the wall goes all the way down to 800 feet or so, which of course means that no scuba diver has ever seen the bottom. The topographic map of the lake looks like it might go much deeper than that, to over 1,400 feet. I also wondered at what depth the wall began. Was it at 30 feet or 80? And where were we supposed to look for it?

What happened was that we swam on the surface to Rubicon Point and then descended onto the sandy bottom at about 18 feet. As we headed south-east, the sand gradually and then more quickly gave way to more and more huge boulders and a much steeper slope. At about 40 feet, the temperature began dropping rapidly as well. At the surface it had been a relatively balmy 66 degrees. After a six minute descent to 60 feet it was down to 60 degrees. I had both the ECOshot and the Sealife DC600 cameras strapped to my right wrist and alternated between them taking pictures.

At 68 feet, all of a sudden I saw this huge boulder cliff ahead of me and beyond that just open water without anything in sight. It felt a bit like walking up to the edge of the Grand Canyon, only without seeing the bottom or the other side. I very gingerly approached it, thinking that perhaps I just wanted to lay on top of a boulder and peek over it, holding on. Carol was already floating over the abyss and so, after taking a deep breath, I followed. At first it was a very strange feeling to just float out into nothingness. All your senses tell you that you must fall, even though you're diving. But I did not fall. I just hovered over the edge of the great wall, hanging in the water.

We then slowly descended down the wall which really wasn't a cohesive wall as I had thought, but a very steep, almost vertical, descent with huge rock sides that seemed granite and did not have a lot of features or anything to hold onto. It was a bit spooky but I didn't freak out and never even came close. I might have felt more intimidated had I looked up, but I still don't like to look straight up when I am diving. Somehow, that disorients me and I get water in my ears which seems strange as the ear canals presumably are already pretty full of water. Perhaps turning your head shifts air and water in your ears. Whatever it is, I don't like it.

By now we were at 90 feet or so and then 100. I felt fine though it was rapidly getting colder now, with my dive computer indicating 48 degrees.
Once I reached 100 we were in sort of a steep valley and so I decided to go for 110. I signed Carol that I wanted to go down to 110, but didn't do it properly, holding up five fingers, then five again, then one. I carefully descended to 110 feet, keeping an eye on my dive computer, then went back up to 100. Carol gave me the "I am cold" sign and motioned to go back up. So we began ascending the great wall, taking our time and going up very slowly. At 60 feet the dive flag string got caught up somewhere and we had to undo that. At 50 feet we did a five minute stop, entertaining ourselves by examining a big crawfish in its hole. I checked the Sealife ECOshot test camera. It was fine. It is rated at 75 feet but easily survived the trip down to 110 feet.

We had decided beforehand that we'd take it easy and do all the suggested decompression stops so that the nitrogen could dissipate from our systems. Theoretically, we did a no-decompression dive, but altitude diving is different and a decompression stop is urged. We did that by leisurely navigating back to Callawee Cove at depths from 15 to 8 feet. All in all it had been a 65 minute dive. Carol still had almost half her tank left; I had used considerably more, but was nowhere near empty.

Despite wearing hoods and gloves, the much lower temperatures we encountered did a number. We were shivering and welcomed the balmy 80 degrees at the beach. We just sat there, reveling in the experience we had just had, then washing off and getting ready for the daunting climb up to the parking lot. Heavy exertion after a strenuous dive is a total no-no, and so we made sure to take it as easy climbing up the steps as possible. I took just a few steps at a time, but was still huffing and puffing by the time I was back up.

Much later, after I had uploaded the data from my dive computer into my laptop, I saw something that made me think. I had, of course, monitored my no-stop remaining bottom time. At 110 feet it had been four minutes, then it gradually increased to eight minutes as I ascended and then ten minutes at 60 feet. However, when we made our five minute deco stop at 50 feet, it went down to just one minute and then stayed between two and five minutes until we reached 28 feet when it all of a sudden jumped to 99 minutes.

I wish I understood the computer's reasoning better. If at 110 feet I have four minutes of no-deco time, I thought I'd have much more at 50 feet. I understand the four minutes; the PADI Recreational Dive Planner suggests a maximum no-deco time of 16 minutes at 110 feet, but since due to the altitude I started out as a PADI "C" diver and since high altitude dive tables applied, the actual bottom time would be much less. The operating manual of my UWATEC SmartZ dive computer issues a warning to never allow remaining bottom time to go below three minutes. If it goes below, the manual warns of dire consequences. It then suggests to ascend slowly until the no-stop time goes to five minutes or more. The only explanation I have of why my no-deco time dropped so much is that on the way up I swam under a rock that jutted out instead of around it. That got me from 61 feet back down to 74 feet. I am also not sure why at 28 feet, all of a sudden all bets are off and the no-deco time jumps to 99 minutes.

In any case, this was an incredible dive and adventure.

Posted by conradb212 at August 14, 2007 11:17 PM