Underwater At Lake Tahoe, The First Submerged Voyage In 1993

     You are about to discover, sunken treasures no human has ever seen before. Land and rock features that have been submerged for thousands of years.

      Ancient forests.....

steamer tahoe underwater at lake tahoe

      Sunken boats........

      and the famous steamer Tahoe.

      Unusual formations - locked away from view since Tahoe was created some 3 million years ago.

Come with us now as we explore..... the Sunken Treasures of Lake Tahoe.

      Our story begins beneath the surface at Rubicon Point where sheer granite cliffs drop into the deepest part of the lake. As our camera slowly descended the steep incline, we noticed that the rocks were quite angular and not as smoothly polished from erosion. Occasionally, we found evidence like this of an underwater rock slide. Just like on the surface, loose rock had slid down through this submerged rock chute and had come to rest on an angular outcropping. The camera focused on the rock face as it descended. But each time we turned to look down, the granite cliff continued to plunge vertically toward the bottom. Except for the rock slides, this submerged geological formation had remained unchanged from the beginning - when it was thrust up from the center of the earth. We felt like explorers upon an alien planet. Every eye watched the monitor in absolute fascination.... as the two remote ROV's made their descent into an ancient land that was filled with mystery.

      At a depth of 532 feet, the ROV's were coming to the end of the tether. The picture was so dark, stronger lights would be needed if we were to dive deeper. The cliff still continued to plunge off vertically. At this extreme depth, we were still less than a third of the way to the bottom.

      Our next dive site was approximately two miles off shore from the town of Stateline. Dixie Captain Jim Biller brought our craft over one of the lakes many sea mounds - an area of land that had been unexplainably elevated off the lake bottom. Fishermen had reported this area to be a fertile spot for catching the lakes' huge Mackinaw trout. As we lowered over the side, we hoped to get a glimpse of the big fish.

      The ROV settled through 170 feet of water. Suddenly, we made out our first sighting of the sea mound. The top of the mound was covered with heavy, green grass. This was the first real sign of life we had encountered. What appeared as trails through the grass were actually scars caused by fisherman, accidentally dragging their boat anchors across the bottom. There was no apparent reason why the grass was flourishing here - but not growing in other shallow places on the lake. So we wondered......what made this place different from the rest of the lake?

mackinaw underwater at lake tahoe

      Suddenly, we a caught a glimpse of our first Mackinaw....... It looked to be a 4-6 pounder. The big fish was wary....moving off slowly from the ROV. As the Mackinaw swam away to safer ground, we continued to explore the top of the sea mound.

      The depth gauge showed we were at 158 feet. At this depth, the mound was just out of range for the average, recreational scuba diver. As we glided across the underwater pasture, we caught site of two more Mackinaw. The big fish appeared as apparitions against the clear blue water. Like the first, these two were exceedingly suspicious.

      Curious as to what might be found at the edge of the plateau, Tim Romedy turned the ROV and headed for what we hoped would be the South side. No one had ever seen the side of these mounds. There had been some controversy among geologists as to what might have caused them to rise off the lake floor.

      As we neared the edge, the top of the sea mound began to gently slope off toward the bottom. Our depth gauge read 172 feet. We passed over a curious looking formation with several layers. It looked like different levels of sediment. As the camera continued over the side, we were suddenly presented with an awesome spectacle we had never imagined to encounter. It was clear to see where the sand ended. The grass was growing atop of what appeared to be, a solid mass of rock.

      Experts had told us before the dive that the lake bed was almost perfectly flat and sandy. The only differences we expected to find were the boulders along the East Shore and the Rubicon Cliffs on the West side. But what we had stumbled upon here....was beginning to look, like a real discovery! There were long, horizontal striations that seemed to travel out across the face. We were 185 feet below water and continuing our descent. The ledge pitched over into a sea of blue water.

      We were hypnotized by the splendor of this massive formation. The walls were completely vertical, terminating in small ledges. The rock here had been carved inward to a much higher degree - a strong sign of possible wave erosion. But how could there be erosion so far under water? Algae clung to the top of the over-hang. The crevasse revealed uncommonly brilliant colors...colors we had not expected to find underwater at Lake Tahoe.

      As we maneuvered in closer.... it appeared as if water had entirely undercut the formation. Small caverns and eroded crevasses ran far back up inside the mound. This was an extremely fascinating discovery. Hidden just beneath the waves for thousands of years...the scenes you are watching are surely...the first time human eyes have ever gazed upon this beautiful architecture of nature.

underwater caverns at lake tahoe

      The rock stood out like a blacked monolith - silhouetted against the bright blue sunlighted surface. How many years had pleasure boats and water skiers passed over head - never knowing that two miles out from shore, this magnificent treasure lay hidden....just below the waterline.

      As we continued our descent, the rock alternated back and forth from sheer vertical cliffs into small hanging ledges. If this canyon was still above water, it would have been set aside as a national preserve. At 212 feet under water, we passed over a small, eroded formation. The reddish top was made of harder material and the white center was clearly softer. This was a significant sign that the lake level might have been at a lower elevation - allowing water to carve this formation. Had the sea mound once been an island out in the water? Or perhaps the edge of an ancient shore line? Was this the reason why grass was growing on top - and nowhere else on Tahoe's flat sandy bottom? We had far more questions than answers as we continued our descent.

      At 362 feet, the walls began to slope outward and we started to see accumulations of lake bottom sediment. At this particular location, we had either reached another plateau or we were drawing near to the bottom of the lake. We had seen so much in just one small spot. With the lake being 22 miles long and 14 miles across, our imaginations ran wild with anticipation. What more lay waiting to be discovered....out there, in the silent halls of Tahoe's misty blue water?

      The next day, we set out to explore off the Southwest shoreline. Tree stumps that had been carbon dated back 4,000 years in time, were reported to be standing under water at depths of 40-60 feet. This meant that since the last ice age, the trees had been growing on dry land - at a place that was now under water. It was speculated that Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Western region had experienced a severe drought cycle that lasted between 350-400 years duration - enough time to have allowed the tree seeds to germinate and grow full term upon dry land. How low the waterline may have dropped was still not known....but it might explain the wave erosion we had witnessed on the sea mound at 212 feet under water.

underwater trees at lake tahoe

      At a depth of 43 feet, we came upon the first upright tree stump. It was difficult to imagine that this had once been a big, majestic forest. That this upright stump had stood through winds, rain and pounding waves for up to 4,000 years, without toppling over, was itself, a miracle. Down at the base between the roots, a crayfish had set up permanent living quarters. Nearby, other tree stumps soon came into view. This tree had witnessed the passing of the ages. Now it stood entirely alone in silence; the top less than two feet under the water's surface. Our next stop was at the crown jewel of the Sierra, Emerald Bay.

      We had heard there was an old, submerged rowboat out in the bay. This was intriguing because of the numerous stories about early-day pioneers who were last seen rounding Rubicon Point, never to be seen again. We traveled down the side of an old log....... Suddenly, a strange shape emerged before the camera. It was an early, vintage-looking kayak that someone had filled with rocks and sent to the bottom.

      We continued our search - probing the bottom of the bay for anything different. At a depth of 90 feet, we found it laying on the side of a gentle slope. From the transom, it did appear to be an older design. As we circled the boat, one of the crew remarked that it appeared in pretty good condition, perhaps even salvageable. On closer inspection of the star- board side, we found the mortal wound that had sent it to the bottom.

      Our final dive site was to be in Glenbrook Harbor.....an area rich in Western history. In the late 1800's..... they had driven huge pilings into the sandy bottom.....and thereupon built docks onto which passengers, freight and logs were loaded for the trip to historic Virginia City. The tops of the pilings had deteriorated over time. Some had been in the water for more than a hundred twenty-five years.

      Under the surface, it was quite a different story. The pilings were strong and stout. They looked to be no more than ten years old. The water was so pure and free of bacteria, that the pilings had remained as perfectly preserved as the day they were driven into the sand.

      Now in those days, the pioneer Bliss family who had developed the area, constructed a steam passenger ship on the banks of the bay. Long and sleek, steamship Tahoe was built for speed. From rudder to bow, the proud vessel was 190 feet long. The steam engine with it's single black smoke stack, powered two big propellers. For years, the image of the Tahoe rounding the bend was a common site. She had a lucrative contract with the U.S. Postal Service to haul mail throughout the basin. But in the mid 30's, the mail contract was awarded to another firm and the Tahoe fell upon hard times.

      The Bliss family, not wanting to see their ship picked apart by vandals or sold for scrap, decided to send her to the bottom where no further harm could befall the elegant lady. Late one night, they towed her out of Glenbrook Harbor. The seacocks were opened. Water began to flood her compartments.....and the steamer Tahoe, once known as the queen of Lake Tahoe, slipped silently from sight to her watery grave.

      Using sophisticated GPS tracking equipment linked to a satellite, the Echo V anchored directly over the site that was believed to be her final resting place at the mouth of Glenbrook Bay. The ship's depth finder indicated it was 372 feet to the bottom. Slowly, we descended away from our boat toward what we hoped would be the wreck of the Steamer Tahoe.

      At this depth, it was nearly pitch black. We activated the on-board quartz lights to help find the bottom. Suddenly, we were there. The bottom looked extremely flat. It was void of any feature.

      Then just ahead, we saw her big, dark shadow. The ship was gigantic. She lay flat upon the side of a rising slope. Her bow was high and facing uphill toward the Glenbrook shore. At 372 feet, there was just enough ambient light from overhead to silhouette the hull. The stern lay downhill.

Steamer Tahoe Underwater at lake tahoe

      The steel bow line of the ship was severely bent. It had likely been caused by accidentally running into a dock. Cosmetically, the steamer Tahoe was in excellent condition. After 50 years on the bottom, her name could still be plainly read. In the center of the deck, the windlass was firmly attached. Behind the windlass lay an open hatch which led to the forward chain and anchor locker.

      The Tahoe's distinctive, single- funnel smoke stack was still in place - though it had been dented by a salvager's grappling hook near the top. Facing forward, the bow stretched uphill....providing a dynamic view of the ship. We continued our exploration of the Tahoe, moving aft toward the engine room.

      The restrooms were on the other side of the bulkhead. The toilet seat was left in the up position. One of the crew remarked that a man, was obviously the last one to use the facilities. The wash basin had the old-style faucet handles. The steamer was still in remarkably good condition.

      The stern of the ship was laying on the downhill side. Beneath the railing, you could still read her name. The grand lady of the lake had made her final port of call at the bottom of Glenbrook Bay.

      We had barely scratched the surface of what still could be discovered. Well documented stories of military and pre-war airplane crashes seemed to pull irresistibly on our curiosity to explore. What fascinating geological formations might still be lurking in the shadow of an ancient cliff? Perhaps, some things were destined to always be a memory. Sunken Treasures, sealed for eternity, at the bottom of Lake Tahoe.


This is an exerpt from Skyfire's Sunken Treasures of Lake Tahoe. The entire program is on video and available from Skyfirevideo.com, America's Video Storyteller
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