Sat, Nov 29, 2008 - Page 16 News List

Sea hunt in Utah desert

The complex of warm salt water springs operated by George Saunders and Linda Nelson offers scuba lessons, snorkeling, flights over the desert and stargazing parties

By Stephen Regenold  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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Frozen squid was on the menu. Sardines, silver-skinned and dusted with frost, were already sliced up and on a plate. It was just after sunrise on a cool morning last month, time to feed the fish at the Bonneville Seabase, an aquatic center in, of all places, the desert outside Grantsville, Utah.

“Hope the sharks are hungry,” said Lynn Findlay, an employee, his hand outstretched and clenching raw meat. In the water below, from the pit of a saltwater spring called Habitat Bay, dark shapes were emerging from the deep.

Thousands of fish — from flitting minnows to a pair of 2.7m-long nurse sharks — live in the murky waters at Bonneville Seabase, an independent experiment in marine biology started 20 years ago by George Sanders and Linda Nelson, husband-and-wife scuba divers from Salt Lake City. After years of development costing them about US$1 million, they have created a private tropical-fish preserve off an empty road at 1,308m in a valley about 16km south of the Great Salt Lake.

It’s open to snorkelers and scuba divers four days a week, year round, for US$15 a day.

‘THE SHARKS WON’T BITE’

“We call it an interactive aquarium,” said Nelson, 62, a Utah native who, with her husband, 68, also runs a dive shop in Salt Lake City. “The sharks won’t bite unless you pull their tails.”

Seabase is little known in the diving world, but Patric Douglas, a shark expert, guide and commercial diver in San Francisco, sees it as a pioneer in a movement to create artificial environments where divers can swim with big fish that are increasingly rare in the wild. Resorts, casinos and public aquariums have begun investigating Seabase-like facilities, he said.

For now, divers like Todd Gardner, 38, of Riverhead, New York, travel to Bonneville Seabase to swim with tropical species from around the world in an environment that can be fully explored in a couple of hours. “You forget where you are,” said Gardner, who works at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead.

He described feeding tropical fish out of his hand at Seabase and then surfacing to winter weather. “It was snowing in the desert and I was scuba diving,” he said.

A former chemist, Nelson came up with the concept of stocking desert springs with ocean fish in the 1980s. After analyzing salinity levels, she and Sanders bought 24 hectares from the town of Grantsville, including three warm-spring basins that receive water naturally from the ancient salt beds of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which once covered the region.

“Our water doesn’t have enough magnesium or sulfate compared to the ocean, and the pH is too low, but the fish are doing fine,” Nelson said.

Living in the Seabase waters are snappers, several kinds of angelfish and butterflyfish, silver scats, mono argentus and more.

During the morning feeding, I watched aggressive Crevalle jacks swoop up to nab bits of chopped fish, whipping their tails and then disappearing back into the depths. But the sharks — two males adopted 10 years ago after outgrowing residential aquariums — never surfaced. “They don’t like the cold weather,” Findlay said.

To see the sharks, I’d have to jump in.

I suited up and popped a regulator in my mouth, waddling to the water’s edge in a 7mm wet suit with weights around my ankles and waist.

“No squealing when you get in,” said Lori Fox, my instructor and guide. “You’ll feel a cold rush of water down your back.”

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