A Scuba Dving Pit in the Heart of Texas

In the Texas town of Clute, scuba enthusiasts are turning a retired sand pit into a diving destination. They're filling up their man-made lake with an odd collection of fire trucks, an old Navy jet and discarded amusement park attractions with hopes of attracting diving enthusiasts who don't want to travel all the way to the nearest shipwreck.

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From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. Want to scuba dive? Well, pack your bags. It's likely you live nowhere near exotic fish, unless of course you live near Clute, Texas. Clute is about an hour south of Houston - also nowhere near exotic fish - but developers in Clute are building what they say will be the nation's largest manmade scuba diving lake.

NPR's Alex Cohen has more.

ALEX COHEN: Every once in a while a man gets lucky and turns his passion into his profession. Kenny Vernor's passion is scuba diving. His job is president of Vernor Material and Equipment, which among other things sells sand to construction companies.

Mr. KENNY VERNOR (President, Vernor Material and Equipment): We have a sandpit that we've been mining out of for over 50 years. We're about at the end of its life and we're down to a big thick clay shelf. And the clay's not very marketable.

COHEN: The pit is huge. It spans 60 acres and in some parts its depths reach 70 feet. Standing at the edge of the pit, your feet sink down into a thick reddish sludge Vernor calls Texas gumbo. Peer down into the hole and you'll see all sorts of, well, junk.

Mr. VERNOR: You can see fire trucks. We have a tunnel system way over there we built with tanks that were hard to recycle because they're rubber-lined and fiberglass-lined. We saved a jet from NASA that we wanted to put down here instead of salvaging it for scrap.

COHEN: Vernor got this junk because he's also in the demolition business. Eventually, divers will be able to swim around stuff, like the metal frame of an old church steeple, a retired F-5 Navy jet, and a faux space shuttle that was once part of a ride at a now-defunct amusement park. There are also pipes in the pit, but they're not decorations. As Vernor explains, they work to keep out naturally occurring ground water.

Mr. VERNOR: We've got artesian action all the time, water coming up from the bottom. That's how we're hoping to fill it up when we're ready to make it a scuba park. We're just going to cut the pumps off and let nature take its course.

COHEN: Once the pit is filled with water, Vernor will stock his manmade lake with several species of fish. He's going to call the site Mammoth Lake, in honor of giant mammoth tusks discovered at this sand put a few years back. Mammoth Lake may look like a junk yard now, but once it's filled with water, people will get to see things from all sorts of angles, says Mike Cryer, who will be one of the site's scuba instructors.

Mr. MIKE CRYER (Dive Instructor): Just anybody can go to a museum and see a fire truck. Very few people can actually swim down into a fire truck and sit behind the wheel with fish swimming around in front of them. There's just something in us that - you know, the Lewis and Clark in us that makes us really want to get in there and explore it.

COHEN: As more and more Americans get into adventure sports, places like Mammoth Lake are becoming more common. There are other manmade scuba sites around the country as well as indoor ski mountains and artificial surf reefs. But some argue there's nothing like the real thing. Tim Cahill writes for Outside Magazine.

Mr. TIM CAHILL (Outside Magazine): Seeing a grizzly bear in the wild is an entirely different experience than seeing one in the zoo. I can tell you that from my life.

COHEN: Cahill says manmade sites are great for training because it's a controlled situation. But, he says, don't expect the same sort of adrenaline rush.

Mr. CAHILL: It affects your vision. You pay attention. It seems to make things harder edged, more colorful. When you eliminate that potential matter of risk, you don't get quite the experience that you have in the wilderness.

Mr. CRYER: Yes, the oceans are ultimate, but a lot of people can't afford to go out into the ocean and go diving because a typical day there is at minimum $200 a day.

COHEN: Dive instructor Mike Cryer says for just 20 bucks people will be able to scuba dive all day at Mammoth Lake. He says they hope to open to the public some time next summer.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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