The story is a simple, although strange, one. It is repeated often, with many variations, among New Mexico’s understandably tiny diving community.
Just about 120 miles east of Albuquerque, on the eastern edge of the town of Santa Rosa, lies a tiny oval of blue water — a spring-fed sinkhole about 80 feet wide and 81 feet deep, known as the Blue Hole.
Some time ago, a group of SCUBA divers dove into the Blue Hole, eager to explore the smooth-walled sinkhole’s every nook and fissure. Later, after climbing out, they realized one of their divers had disappeared. Six months later, the body of that diver finally surfaced — but not in Santa Rosa. It was discovered, the story claims, in Lake Michigan — over a thousand miles away — naked, waterlogged, and with much of its skin scuffed off, as if it had been pushed and scraped through miles of rocky tunnels.
If the story is true, then one of the longest underground waterways in the world could lie directly beneath us. If the story is true, then perhaps the direct water route across the continent searched for by the explorers Lewis and Clark actually exists — underground.
If the story is true.
Andrea Sachs, in a December 19, 2004 Washington Post article, wrote that on the Blue Hole’s limestone floor, there is a protective metal grate covering a spring that produces about 3,000 gallons of fresh water a minute. And, she wrote, that grate seals off an elaborate network of caves that twists southward, two hundred miles, down to Texas.
“The only maps [of the cave network] are apparently sketches made by rescue divers. There are reportedly some rooms below the sink, and it goes to 250 feet with a going passage beyond,” Mike Poucher, cartographer for the National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section, said. “How far does it go? No one knows.” Poucher said the grate blocking the cave system was installed in the early 1980s, after at least four divers died in the caves during the previous decade.
In March of 1976, the Albuquerque Journal reported two of these deaths, detailing how a group of ten university students was diving in the Blue Hole one morning, how twenty-one-year–old David Gregg and twenty-two-year-old Mike Godard failed to resurface, and how it took the State Police multiple dives to recover their bodies. In 1979, two other divers got lost and died in the caves; their bodies were recovered as well. That the bodies of all who drowned in the Blue Hole’s caves were quickly accounted for suggests that the Lake Michigan story really is only a rumor. So does the area’s geology.
“The odds of there being a hydrologic connection to the Great Lakes from New Mexico are about as remote as finding a worm hole to transport you there across time and space,” UNM scientist and cave-geology expert Mike Spilde said. “In other words, it just doesn’t exist. First, it would require a continuous rock stratum capable of supporting caves to be present all the way from New Mexico to the Great Lakes, which there isn’t. More importantly, the body would have to get past the huge hydrologic barrier of the Mississippi River. The river acts as a giant collection system, moving not only surface water to the ocean, but a lot of subsurface water too. The body would have to ‘swim’ upstream to get to the Great Lakes.”
So, perhaps the story isn’t so strange after all. And yet…
In 1976 and 1979, as the young divers swam their ways silently through dark caves deep beneath the New Mexico desert, feeling the walls for a way back out, the truth of the story was probably strange to them. As they lost their way, as their headlamps dimmed and died, as their air supplies seeped away in panicked moments, and as they swam from this life into the wide unknown that follows, the events of their mornings could not have felt entirely normal.