Dutch Springs, located near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has been called “Disneyland” for scuba divers. It’s stretching it a bit, but “Dutch” is certainly one of the most popular dive sites for NJ, NY, and PA divers. On a busy weekend day in the summer, I’d guess maybe 500 divers converge on the former cement quarry for a days diving. Many of these are student divers, but it’s also popular among experienced divers as a place to test new equipment, get back into the swing of things after a winter’s layoff, or to meet friends and just “get wet”.
I first dove here in the late spring of 2000 when I was still a really green diver. I “met” Art Greenberg on the Internet and he invited me to join him and his wife Tina at Dutch for some spring refresher dives. My first dive with Art clued me in on just how much I still had to learn before I could think of myself as a “real” diver despite my “Advanced” Open Water certification. I was nervous, had little buoyancy control and sucked down my air in minutes. Through Art, I met another Internet dive buddy, Marv Gozum, and over the course of that summer we dove many times together at Dutch. At that time Marv had about the same level of experience as I did, and together we learned a great deal about buoyancy control, underwater navigation, and other finer points of diving including how to be good buddies. My first summer of diving at Dutch, I also took a Wreck Diver specialty class that added greatly to the skill set I needed to safely dive the ocean wrecks that were my primary objective for local diving. I also met a lot of nice people to dive with.
Marv - Smiling for the Camera
The lake at Dutch is mostly at depths of 40 – 70 ft. There are suspended platforms for student classes and numerous underwater “attractions” like sunken boats, vehicles, and even a suspended Sigorsky helicopter.
Compared to the ocean, the fish life is sparse, but when you do see fish it’s a highlight of the dive. There are largemouth bass, several varieties of trout, bluegills, and some carp and suckers. A few years ago zebra mussels showed up at the quarry and have done wonders to clear up the water. Most of the time the visibility at shallower depths is a good 50 ft (depending upon how much students or the weather may have stirred things up) and below the thermocline it’s generally about 20 -30 ft.
Oh yeah, the thermocline- this usually kicks in at around 30ft. The water temperature may be a balmy 70 degrees near the surface, then as you descend, you see funny squiggles in front of your mask like the heat waves rising from the asphalt on a blistering summer’s day. Descend down a few more feet and it’s like stepping into a dark refrigerator. At 50 ft the water is usually around 55 degrees in summer and at the deepest sections (80 – 90 feet) it stays in the 40’s. I once took an experienced diver from Florida, looking forward to his first cold water diving, down to the “Silver Comet” – a sunken metal cruiser at about 50 ft. As we arrived at the wreck, I turned to him and flashed him the OK? sign. His eyes were as big as saucers as he vigorously shook his head from side to side – No!!!. Via sign language, he agreed to a quick spin around the wreck and then we headed back up to warmer waters. Afterwards he explained to me that he had never before felt such a sensation of suddenly being engulfed in numbing cold and he was very worried whether he’s be able to keep on functioning.
So diving at Dutch is generally pretty cold and the regulars generally favor dry suits. It’s quite an experience on a hot 80 or 90 degree summer day to climb into heavy underwear, seal yourself into a drysuit with just your head and hands poking out, and then try to quickly climb into the rest of your rig and make it into the water before passing out from heat stroke. I generally time it so my buddy is almost ready and then I quickly get into suit and the rest of the gear, and then high tail into the water. I pour a couple of fins full of water over my head to cool off a little before putting on the hood, mask, and gloves.
There’s been a few times, I’ve thought about wearing less underwear or going back to a wet suit, but dropping through the thermocline always reinforces the wisdom of wearing a dry suit.
Throughout my first summer’s diving at Dutch Springs, I couldn’t shake the notion that diving there was somehow artificial and that the “real” diving was in the ocean. The sight of an old school bus or firetruck sitting on the bottom was a little comical, and after you’ve seen them both a dozen times or so, there’s really not much more of them to see. Still Dutch was a relaxing, low-stress place to dive compared to a boat dive off the Jersey shore and it always just felt good to be underwater.
During my second season of diving at Dutch, I began to enjoy the place on its own terms. I mixed dives there with ocean wreck dives and lazy dives in the Belmar Back Bay, and I began to appreciate what Dutch had to offer. I took some more specialty courses there and did some wonderful night dives along with some challenging underwater navigation dives. I became more familiar with the underwater topography and together with similarly minded buddies tried to make each dive a little bit of a challenge and a learning experience. Often I’d finish up a day’s diving there with a shallow dive at 25 feet or so along the rock walls of the quarry. Here the water was warm, the visibility outstanding, and I could be sure of seeing some fish sunning themselves in the shallows.
My first dive at Dutch for the 2002 season was in May with buddy Marvin and his friend Mark. The routine was very familiar by now:
I get up a 6:00 AM and stumble downstairs to drink some orange juice and make the coffee. Most of the coffee goes into the thermos, because it’s a long way between rest stops on the road to Dutch. I cook some breakfast and assemble my lunch, hit the bathroom one more time, and I’m on my way.
Part of the ritual is a stop at Dunkin Donuts for a dozen donuts - donuts being in my mind the perfect dive food.
It’s a beautiful spring day as I race up the Garden State Parkway. It takes just about an hour and a half to get there if I maintain a speed of around 75 mph. I’m always a little nervous about getting ticketed, but there’s usually a few bozos pushing it at 80 mph or more whom I figure the cops will go for rather than little ol’ me. Just before the PA border WNYC FM begins to fade from the radio at about the same time my bladder starts seriously making its wishes known. Switch to a rock n’ roll station, grit my teeth, and press on towards Bethlehem, PA.
Off the interstate, I wind my way along Rt.22 and across the dinky bridge across the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania. Another 10 minutes and I arrive at Dutch. There’s a crowd of people signing themselves in as quickly park the car and waddle stiff legged to the Port-a-John. Perfect timing!
I flash my season pass to Stu
Schooley, the owner of Dutch Springs, and head down to the “Peninsula”. Here
I unload the stuff from the car and deposit the donuts as a communal offering on
the table by The Scuba Connection
tent. I grab a yummy Boston Cream donut for myself and have another cup of
coffee while looking around for Marv. No sign of him, but Marv is kind of casual
about arrival times.
I move my car to the regular parking spot and walk back to my heap of stuff. I alternate assembling my equipment with exchanging greetings with friends and acquaintances I’ve not seen for six months or more. It feels really good to be back.
Marv shows up right on schedule 20 minutes late and unloads his pile of stuff in a different spot. Marv has gone tech diver on me and needs an empty bench to himself for his doubles. He sees Mark over on another bench assembling his doubles and waves. Mark ambles over and we introduce ourselves and spend some time chatting and watching Marv convert from a single tank rig to doubles. Finally, we turn to discussing a dive plan. I demur at diving “The Hole”, the deepest spot at Dutch because I haven’t been deeper than 20 feet since the fall and my memories of this spot aren’t all that pleasant. We decide on a more standard dive and separate to our individual tables to get into our suits and gear. I immediately begin to overheat and walk over to Marv and tell him I’ll meet him in the water.
We enter on the left side of the Peninsula lookout. Getting into the water makes me feel like a champagne bottle in an ice bucket. My head remains hot, while any part underwater is chilled by the penetrating cold of the 50-something degree water. Finally we’re all set and descend into the nice clear water. Our plan is to head to the Silver Comet, and Mark leads heading roughly south and west along the quarry wall. He quickly drops down into colder and murkier water to around 40 feet, and I guess that he’s hoping he’ll be able to see the wreck from a good distance away. I just follow him. Eventually he spots the rope from the platforms leading to the Comet and heads that way.
Soon it appears in front of us. The visibility is pretty poor at this depth – perhaps due to a week of rainy weather. It’s a bit like diving in a chunky, green soup. The Comet feels like an old friend, though. Marv and Mark immediately duck through the large hole in the bow and swim through the wreck. I pass on penetrating the wreck and swim along the outside getting my camera ready for some pictures. I snap a few shots of my two buddies who oblige me by hamming it up for the camera and Mark takes one of me. No fine photography here - the goal is to get lots of pictures of ourselves underwater.
From the stern of the Comet, a rope heads off towards a busted up wooden cruiser and from there towards the “Island” and “The Airplane”. When we reach the Island, Mark heads left, rather than going up and over towards the Airplane. When he figures he’s reached the eastern-most point of the Island he begins compass navigating due east towards “The Helicopter”.
navigation is a favorite pastime at Dutch. There’s no current to throw you off
and the low visibility can make it challenging. This time Mark’s the leader
and I follow along with only an occasional glance at my own compass. Deja vu all
over again – as I follow Mark’s fins through the cold, dark water. The
bottom of Dutch is a pretty gloomy and lifeless place. In many spots there’s
alternating dark and light patches. One might be tempted to think the light
stuff is sand, but it’s really a thick layer of fine silt. Kicking near it or,
worse yet, putting a hand or foot into it immediately sends up thick clouds that
can reduce the visibility to zero. We keep ourselves about 10 feet off the
bottom and peer out into the gloom looking for signs of the Helicopter.
Eventually we pass into a grove of dead trees, that add to the spookiness of the
place, and we rise up to pass over their tops. By this time, I’m pretty sure
we’ve missed the Helicopter. After the trees, there’s a little rock wall the
bottom rises up to about 40 feet and levels out into a flat plateau.
Here it gets brighter and warmer.
Another busted up wooden cruiser appears in front of us. It’s one of the unmarked sunken attractions at Dutch, not on any of the maps, but well known to the regulars. This time there’s a school of large sucker fish on top of it. “Oh boy, picture time”, I think and begin fumbling for my camera. The fish aren’t unduly alarmed by our presence, but they’re not overly happy to see us, either. While I fiddle with the buttons on the back of the camera case, trying to turn it on and make sure it’s working, the fish slowly begin drifting off. I begin aiming the camera in their general direction and pressing down the shutter, hoping everything is set to take pictures. Digital means never having to say you’re sorry about wasting film.
After a bit, they swim off away from the wreck and I put my camera away again. I check my air and see I’m down to about 900 psi. It’s time to make a decision. I’m not sure exactly where we are and I’m not sure whether my buddies know any more than I do. I always like to do a longish safety stop and I also try to avoid surfacing with less than 500 psi in my tank. I decide not to push things and flash my buddies the low on air and surface signs. Marv looks a little questioning, so I signal to him that I have 900 psi and want to go up. He responds by pointing in a direction and making a sign that it’s just a short distance. I mull it over and decide that there’s no good reason to push things and flash him the ascend sign again.
Marv joins me as I head up to
20 feet and begin my safety stop, while Mark stays below and continues to poke
around the wreck. Doing hanging safety stops is good practice for buoyancy
control. I find myself drifting between 25 feet and 15 feet. Watching Marv gives
me a point of reference until he begins heading upwards. We catch ourselves at 8
feet and drop back down to 15 feet. The vis is good enough that I can also see
Mark swimming around the wreck and this helps pass the time.
After 5 minutes I slowly drift to the surface. Marv comes with me, so the lookouts know I have a buddy (no solo diving at Dutch!) and then he goes back down to rejoin Mark. From the surface, I follow their bubbles as they head back to the school bus and the underwater platforms, but eventually decide I’m getting cold and head toward shore. They get out about 10 minutes after I do.
After the dive, Marv wonders why I chose to ascend rather than head towards shore or the platforms. He knew exactly where he was and that it was only a very short distance to an easy ascent up a rope from one of the marked spots. We agree that for the next dive, I’ll signal a turnaround when I get to around 1000 psi or so and then we’ll head immediately to shore.
For the surface interval, we look over the shots I took on my camera. Mark and Marv are a lot happier than I am. I got plenty of pictures of them, but my attempt at photographing the fish was largely a failure. For some reason I only got one picture of them and that was of them swimming away from me. I console myself that it’s my first underwater fish picture. Everything else has been invertebrates, crustaceans, and scuba divers.
For our second dive, we again
decide to try to find the helicopter. We
make our way under water to the “School Bus” and then from the front bumper
of the bus head due south in search of the helicopter. This time, I seem to be
leading the pack. The Helicopter is a good swim from the School Bus, but we seem
to be going for an awfully long time. We forge on ahead and eventually run into
the dead trees again. Hmm, it seems my finely tuned navigational skills from the
previous season have gone down the toilet. I give a shrug to Marv and he turns
east which will lead us to the wall of the quarry eventually.
We once again hit the rising bottom that plateaus at about 40 feet and run into the unmarked wooden cruiser again. If I wanted to find this wreck I probably couldn’t find it to save my life; now I keep bumping into it as if drawn by magnetic attraction. We fool around there a bit until I see I’m down to a half a tank and signal the turnaround. Marv leads us back to the school bus and I take some more pictures.
At some point I hand my camera to Mark and he takes some pictures of me. I figure part of the reason to have a camera is to get some "hero" shots of oneself.
From there we follow the ropes back to the platforms and shore. Doing a prolonged safety stop under the entry ramp platforms I spot a largemouth bass that looks like he wouldn’t mind having his picture taken. I make something of a fool of myself trying to maneuver into a good position for taking pictures and eventually seem to succeed.
Out of the water, gravity makes itself known as we plod up the steep grade back to our benches. We spend some time discussing the dive and generally shooting the bull. No one seems interested in a third dive – I’ve got a shore dive planned for the next day and would like to get home at a reasonable hour. Soon we pack up, say our goodbyes, and I’m back on the road.
It’s good to be back.
Dutch Springs Part II
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Copyright 2002 Carl Muhlhausen