Going Down Under a Town

Ever since I did an article on the most unique dive sites, I’ve been itching to get to each and every one of them.  After some poking around and looking at locations, costs, etc, I finally decided that Bonne Terre Mine would be the first on that list that I would go to. As we started on our journey there, I became more and more anxious to get my ass into the water beneath that town.

Twelve hours after leaving Virginia, Anya and I drove into the sleepy town of Bonne Terre.  Sleepy is just a nice way of saying really fucking small, but being partial to small towns myself, it was just up my alley.  Despite being a no-stoplight-town now, Bonne Terre was once a bustling mining town. Right up until the ‘60s when the mine shut down, turned off the pumps that kept the miners from becoming divers, and let the miles and miles of hand-carved tunnels slowly fill with the chilly, crystal-clear water.

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We decided to stay at the old Train Depot-turned-motel.  They actually have a couple of rooms in railroad cars and the rest are in the depot itself.  It was quaint, cozy, and a perfect representation of the town itself.  Not to mention being extremely welcome after our long-ass drive.  We recharged our batteries and then proceeded to get up at the butt-crack of dawn to take part in the annual Bonne Terre Treasure Dive.

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Staff divers toss handfuls of poker chips into roped off areas in the subterranean dive site and treasure-hungry divers drop down and gather as many as they can in 10 minutes. It’s a little harder than it sounds since the highest value chips are the black and dark blue ones, and believe it or not, those are really fucking hard to see in the extremely low light of the mine. Not to mention that some chips are under and between rocks too, so it paid well to actually dig a bit for your treasure.  Add to that the fact that there are 29 other divers scrambling for the same chips and it really is a treasure hunt with competition. People were merciless in their quest for chips, forcing others to be just as merciless or even more so, if they wanted any chance at winning anything.  Yarrrr!

Divers perform two hunts like this, and after each one their chips are tallied and entered into the computer.  The total at the end of the day is the amount that each diver has to bid on items in the auction – an auction that includes several trips and tons of dive gear.  Woot!  Unfortunately though, I wasn’t able to buy anything with the amount I had. I had just enough to be extremely hopeful, but not nearly enough to actually succeed.

The next day we dove into the mine proper, and let me tell you how happy we were that they let you keep your dive gear at the bottom overnight. It really is a helluva trek up and down the ¼ mile mule trail, and all I could think about the last two times up was how much it was going to suck to make the hike one more time but with all of the extra weight.  Nevertheless, the dives were fantastic and completely worth the effort.

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The water there is crystal clear, so the only thing that really hinders visibility is the fact that they don’t let you take lights. And it’s dark. I mean really dark.  Like what creature of the abyss is hiding down there dark.  Speaking of the abyss, parts of the movie of the same name were filmed in the mine.  There are 500,000 watts of lights throughout the mine, but that doesn’t mean that the mine is well lit. It’s well enough lit to follow the guides and get some incredible, albeit eerie views and photos.  But not so well lit that you’d feel inclined to go off exploring on your own. Which is the whole point of denying divers lights after all.  The guides, one in front and one behind, have multiple lights and those combined with the permanent overhead and underwater lighting provide ample visibility.  But, I would still liken the diving to that of diving at dusk.   In most places, you can’t see the bottom in in some cases, that is actually a little disconcerting.  The massive pillars, combined with low light and seemingly bottomless water make for some amazing images too.

There are 28 trails there and we only got to dive 3 of them.  But, we’re gearing up to go back again and get deeper (and darker) into the mine.  Can’t wait!

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