Scuba and Minnesota both end with the letter "A." That’s about all many people might think the two things have in common, but Rochester has a thriving diving community, and there are even some diving destinations in our state.
Some Rochesterites have the luxury of being able to snorkel right in their own backyards. Steve Books said he can snorkel in the spring-fed Salem Lake his property borders. The lake fills an abandoned quarry, and the water is treated periodically to reduce algae blooms and keep good visibility. Books said he often has a visibility of 10 feet, and in good conditions, 15.
“There is a plethora of fish you can see,” he said. “You mostly see sunnies, crappies, bass and perch.” he adds.
Snorkeling, which doesn’t require breathing oxygen through a regulator, might be easier to enjoy in Southern Minnesota, but there are those who scuba dive in and around Rochester.
When Rochester resident Tim Swanberg isn’t working as an auto mechanic, there’s a good chance he’s doing something related to diving. Swanberg was certified as a scuba diver with his son at the Florida Sea Base, a Boy Scouts camp in the Florida Keys. After that, he founded the Central Wisconsin Scuba Club and gained a whole new group of friends. He even met his wife, Sarah, through scuba.
Swanberg also joined the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Dive Team, which has given him the opportunity to dive in local bodies of water. Most of those dives aren’t in situations that encourage recreational diving because of poor visibility.
“Most everything has a silt bottom that is easily stirred up,” he said. “Even if the water is somewhat clear initially, the slightest movement stirs up the silt, and the visibility quickly goes to zero. Our searches with the Sheriff's Dive Team are mostly done by feel, not sight.”
A heavy wet suit (or ideally, a dry suit), a hood, and gloves are important for diving in Minnesota because of the water’s cold temperatures. While the dry suit keeps divers warm in waters that get as cold as 30 degrees when a diver goes below 60 feet, they also add the difficulty of making the diver more buoyant.
Though recreational diving options in the Rochester area are hard to come by, on some weekends at least, scuba divers can be found in the Rochester Recreation Center pool for confined diving training. The classes are offered by Southeast Scuba Escape.
Szablis Klee opened Southeast Scuba Escape this past November. She tried diving for the first time in Croatia.
“There is nothing like the peace and contentedness of breathing underwater and seeing the world and all the life that no one sees above water. It’s amazing meditation and calm,” she said.
Klee had been driving up to the Cities to purchase scuba gear and fill air tanks because those options weren't available in Rochester. That's what motivated her to open a dive shop in Rochester.
“Scuba and travel and adventure are right up Rochester’s alley,” she said.
The confined water classes that Southeast Scuba Escape offers at the Rochester Recreation Center begin with online learning about safety, equipment, and basic diving principles. Once divers are at the pool, they spend two days practicing skills like breathing through regulators underwater and experiencing neutral buoyancy.
Klee said her shop also offers a “try scuba” experience that gives the option of exploring scuba with a dive pro in the pool and an “open pool” night for certified divers to practice their skills.
Steve Varney, director of operations at SSE, was first exposed to diving when his middle school physical education teacher brought scuba equipment to the school pool for students to try. Varney has had his open water certification since 2009, and has dived in several local lakes, such as Foster Arend and Cascade.
“Our intent is to complete the open water certification in Cascade Lake to keep it local and convenient for the students,” he explained.
Varney hopes SSE will offer classes two or three times a month at Cascade Lake as the water temperature increases and the visibility improves. Klee added that Owatonna Lake or Lake Wazee (about two and a half hours away in Wisconsin) might also be options for open water instruction. SSE also offers certification trips to places like Cozumel and Belize.
“While not as clear and marine-life-packed as the Caribbean destinations,” Varney said, “Minnesota has some great lakes and quarries that are fun to dive, such as Lake Minnetonka, Square Lake in Stillwater, Crosby Mines near Brainard, and Lake Ore-be-gone in Gilbert.”
Square Lake is used by dive shops in the Twin Cities, and boasts items like a toilet, an outboard motor, and the tail of a plane for divers to find.
Lake Superior also offers some interesting diving opportunities. Swanberg and a group of diving friends made a trip to dive the wreck of the Madiera near Split Rock Lighthouse last summer. Though the cold waters of Minnesota are sometimes a disadvantage for divers, one of their benefits is preserving manmade structures.
“If we dive on a 100-year-old wooden shipwreck such as the Ely in Lake Superior near Two Harbors,” Swanberg said, “it is largely intact, aside from being broken up from the wreck event. A 100-year-old wooden shipwreck in the Caribbean is usually so deteriorated that there is often nothing recognizable as being a ship, if you can find anything at all.”