“Welcome to Jellystone!” was our first official welcome into Yellowstone National Park. We rolled in on Monday evening, after a nine-hour drive from Lakewood, Colorado. Our team for this project includes Andres Diaz, an underwater archaeologist, Brett Seymour, an underwater photographer and Deputy Chief, Dave Conlin, the Chief of the Submerged Resources Center and myself.

Tuesday morning dawned bright and early and we started preparations for our two-week project. Brad Ross, the Lake District Ranger gave us a tour of the Bridge Bay Marina, and took us on a short trip on the lake in the Robert E. Mahn, the boat we will be using for our diving operations. We also met Pat Bigelow, a Fisheries Biologist in the park. She outlined some areas of interest for us to survey using the side-scan sonar. The rest of the day was spent preparing the trailer and the boat for operations.

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Wednesday was our first day in action, and we woke up to a thin coat of snow covering the dock. We had planned to spend the first half of the morning scanning, and then the afternoon diving, but scanning took up most of the day. Our main focus in Yellowstone is photographing and mapping a natural phenomenon called spires, which are large cylindrical growths formed by bacteria that are 11,000 years old. The spires are found in the north-west area of Lake Yellowstone, and are 10-30 feet high. By scanning the spires with the side-scan sonar we were able to get prices GPS locations for each spire, as well as map the underwater topography of the area. The process for surveying is interesting, however not particularly exciting, as you’re basically driving a boat back and forth in a series of lines as you tow the sonar and collect data. Dave put it best when he said “If you’re doing it right, sonar surveying is boring.” We also scanned some sunken rowboats in front of Lake Hotel which we’ll be photographing and diving near later in our trip. Once our surveying was concluded we brought the boat back to the marina, and wrapped up our day with dinner and some “Moose Tracks” ice cream for dessert. I think they should be called Bison Tracks, but regardless, it’s never too cold for ice cream!

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Brrr…

The next day was “splashdown,” as we braced the cold water for a morning dive. I’ve used drysuits in the past, but it’s truly a different beast when you’re diving professionally versus recreationally. For example, who knew that the zipper on your thermal goes on the front!

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A new fashion statement?

I tried to prepare mentally, but the 38 degree Fahrenheit water was quite a shock. I had “brain freeze” for a few minutes after we descended, but luckily I was soon distracted by beautiful scenery. We dove in the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which was home to thermal vents both on land and underwater. We came across quite a few “bubblers,” which were small areas of the bottom that were emitting gas bubbles. Even more exciting were the two cavernous holes in the bottom of the lake, which were covered in bright green algae and releasing water at a toasty 48 degree Fahrenheit. We descended into one of the holes, which went about 10 feet below the bottom. It was definitely an otherworldly experience!

 

Geothermal vents promote algal growth, which blankets construction materials from a destroyed dock. 

We finished up our surveying by scanning some areas of interest provided by Pat Bigelow and the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources department. Lake trout are an invasive species in the lake, and threaten native Cutthroat trout. The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources team records and analyzes the amount of fish caught in certain areas, so we scanned a few locations where they had caught large amounts of the invasive trout. The best part about scanning was I got to try my hand at driving the boat! All went smoothly despite a few navigational hiccups (I blame the wind.)

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Andres (left) and Dave pulling up the sonar towfish. 

Once surveying was complete we began focusing more on the photography aspect of our trip. We began diving on the spires, which were a little deeper at around 50 ft. Because the spires are deeper than the geothermal vents, the visibility was quite poor, and any careless fin movement stirred up clouds of silt. It was a great challenge to control buoyancy, not stir up silt, and still get good photos. It took a couple tries, but with some great tips from Brett I finally got a few good shots! One of the humbling aspects of diving among the spires, besides their otherworldly appearance, is the fact that I’m one of approximately 30 people to have seen them in person. The nearest scuba support is in Jackson Hole, and the lack of scuba support combined with the cold water makes diving the spires a nightmare for recreational divers. It makes me feel even more fortunate to have this amazing opportunity!

 

Me next to the spires! (Photo by Brett Seymour)

We also photographed a number of rowboats in front of Lake Hotel. These rowboats were used to ferry visitors and guests of Lake Hotel, and were sunk in the early 20th century.

Diving in Yellowstone definitely requires a steep learning curve. Some challenges included getting familiar with a drysuit again, dealing with mask flooding, and trying to find the boat anchor in silted out visibility. Oh, and have I mentioned the cold? Every day there’s a new curveball and something else to become familiar with. A lot of people at the park think that what we do is glamorous, and as the photo below shows, it’s anything but!

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Diving means every day is a “bad hair day!”

Of course, crazy hair and difficult diving conditions become minor concerns when surfacing from a dive with this view. Good thing I’ll be coming back next week!