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Beneath the surface What lies at the depths of lake tahoe's waters?

BY CLAIRE CUDAHY / CCUDAHY@TAHOEDAILYTRIBUNE.COM

Lake Tahoe’s cold, deep waters have long been the source of tall tales about death and hidden secrets. There are stories of bodies dumped by the Mafia floating in its depths, perfectly preserved by the cold temperatures, and others of Chinese laborers who were tied together and dropped into the icy waters to avoid payment for their work on the railroad.

Famed explorer Jacques Cousteau was rumored to have gone scuba diving in Lake Tahoe, emerging from the water only to utter, “The world is not ready for what I have seen.”

The truth about what lies beneath the surface of the second deepest lake in the United States is arguably just as interesting. But to truly understand the intricacies of its underwater world, you have to start from the beginning.

SHAPED BY GEOLOGY

It’s a common misconception that Lake Tahoe was formed by the collapse of a volcanic crater, like Oregon’s Crater Lake. In fact, the basin was formed by the rise and fall of landscape due to faulting.

Over the last two million years, hundreds of earthquakes stemming from three major fault lines have shaped the basin, which filled up with rain, snow and draining creeks and rivers. The lake owes its clarity to the large size of the lake relative to the overall size of the watershed.

A volcanic period then ensued where lava flowed from Mount Pluto, damming up the Basin’s ancestral outlet, the Truckee River, and raising the water level by several hundred feet before another outlet formed, the Lower Truckee River.

Next came the Ice Age.

Glaciers, slow-moving rivers of ice, gouged out huge valleys as they picked up rocks in their paths and piled them into ridges called moraines. The glacial activity is responsible for notable features in the basin like Fallen Leaf Lake, Emerald Bay and Angora Ridge.

“Then about 60,000 years ago there was a massive landslide on the West Shore in McKinney Bay due to a massive shelf collapse,” explained Dr. Annie Kell, a seismologist at the University of Reno, Nevada Seismology Laboratory. “Thousands and thousands of cubic meters of material slide out into the lake. All these giant boulders and rubble you see in that area in the center of the lake almost all the way across, that’s from the slide.”

The landslide resulted in a tsunami that wiped out nearly every living thing close to the lake within 20 minutes.

Animation by Steven McQuinn, excerpted from UC Davis 3-D movie “Lake Tahoe in Depth.

Beneath the surface, this cumulative geological activity created an underwater landscape characterized by steep cliffs along the fault lines and large chunks of rock scattered across the bottom, the longest of which measures almost a mile and the tallest nearly 500 feet.

The West Tahoe Fault, the longest of the three faults, runs along the same path as the Rubicon Trail from Emerald Bay to D.L. Bliss. Over the last 40,000 years, the east side of the fault has dropped over 100 feet, creating a granitic wall the height of a 10-story building.

The Stateline Fault has created an underwater cliff that extends to the deepest part of the lake at 1,644 feet.

HUMAN IMPACT

Photographer Dylan Silver has captured the underwater landscape of Lake Tahoe at its shallower depths — above 100 feet — for nearly five years.

Though it was the lake’s famous clarity that first drew him to try snorkeling and scuba diving there, he soon found an interest in the unique rock formations on the bottom, which became focal points in the pictures that he sells online and in shops around the basin.

“Most other locations you’re diving because there’s an abundance of life, but in Lake Tahoe, it’s almost the opposite,” said Silver. “There’s a surreal emptiness that’s interesting, but not the same as diving in any ocean or anywhere else. It’s very monotone blue and you get big boulders looming out of that 70- to 100-foot visibility.”

South Lake Tahoe residents Mike Rubini and Alana Cayabyab pause on the bottom during a dive near D.L. Bliss during the summer of 2017. Provided / Dylan Silver

It didn’t take many dives for Silver to realize how big of an influence humans have on the bottom of the lake.

“When I’m scuba diving I’ve found everything from cell phones to GoPros and anchors and fishing tackle and crawdad traps,” said Silver.

He even has a collection of over 75 sunglasses that he’s picked up from the sandy bottom.

Veteran scuba diver Martin McClellan estimates his dives in Big Blue number well over 4,000. His interest, however, is in discovering a much larger type of man-made object that rests on the bottom of the lake.

McClellan is part of a dive team known as New Millennium Dive Expeditions (NMDE). Back in 2002, McClellan and Brian Morris became the first divers to reach the S.S. Tahoe, a steamship that operated on the lake at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The boat was scuttled in 1940, and now lies in around 400 feet of water near Glenbrook.

The 170-foot S.S. Tahoe could carry 200 passengers. It was scuttled in 1940 near Glenbrook. Provided / Lake Tahoe Historical Society

Diving to this depth in Lake Tahoe was no easy feat. It took years of planning and training.

“A 400-foot dive at sea level with 30 minutes on the bottom would take around three hours total,” said McClellan. “If I’m doing that dive at Lake Tahoe it will take me almost eight. The cold and the altitude are extremely stressful on the human body.”

After successfully producing a 3D contour map of the ship, NMDE is now endeavoring to create a 3D model of the ship using 20,000-30,000 photographs pieced together. McClellan estimates it will take 8-12 divers anywhere from 20-26 dives to complete the project.

But the S.S. Tahoe is not the only ship that interests McClellan.

“[There] are four iron-hulled ships at the bottom of the lake. Most people aren’t aware of that,” he said.

Launched in 1876, the S.S. Meteor was used to carry log booms from around the lake to Glenbrook for transportation to the mines of Virginia City. Later the boat became a passenger ship and a mail carrier before being towed between Tahoe City and Glenbrook and sunk in 1939. The location of the S.S. Meteor is unknown.

The 40-passenger S.S. Nevada was a luxury vessel turned mail carrier that now lies somewhere on the bottom of the lake. In 1940, after being dry-docked for two years, the ship was towed to the center of the lake and burned.

The Nevada's location at the bottom of Lake Tahoe is unknown. Provided / Lake Tahoe Historical Society

The fourth vessel, the Marion B, was the last mail carrier ship in Lake Tahoe. In 1941, the ship’s captain, son and mail clerk set out on a stormy day, but did not return. The bodies of the clerk and young boy washed ashore, along with some charred pieces of wreckage, but the captain and the rest of the boat were never found.

“We’d love to find them all. Our goal would be to do so,” said McClellan. “But the expense to map the Nevada and the Meteor, which are at the very bottom of the lake, well over 1,400 feet deep. We haven’t located them yet. We know approximately where they are at, but they are so deep we’d have to use remote submarines and things of that nature.”

UNDERWATER PARK

Off the shores of Emerald Bay State Park is another area rife with artifacts sitting on the lake’s bottom.

In the turquoise waters rest two barges — one measures 106 feet, the other 85 — which were used on the lake to transport cargo.

A diver explores the sunken barge in the underwater state park in Lake Tahoe's Emerald Bay. Provided / Dylan Silver

“There are also 11 small recreational vessels — fishing boats with live-bait wells, hard chine row boats, a wooden lapstrake, a day sailor, a metal kayak, a 27-foot launch, and others — located around the bay that appear to have been owned by Emerald Bay Resort, a family-friendly resort that once operated where Emerald Bay State Parks’ boat-in campground is now located,” said Denise Jaffke, state archaeologist with California State Parks, Sierra District.

The area was named California’s first underwater park in 1994. Divers may also be able to spot some of Tahoe’s limited underwater wildlife — some there naturally, others invasive or introduced — like crayfish, lake trout, minnows, mysis shrimp, or Asian clams.

Nearby, a landslide that took place sometime in the 1950s created a sunken forest where old growth Ponderosa pines stand on end for divers to explore.

Beyond Emerald Bay there are other objects of intrigue scattered across the bottom. Divers have reported seeing an old car, and in Carnelian Bay, a 20-foot by 8-foot concrete fish — which divers can swim through— rests in roughly 35-feet of water. It’s believed the fish was discarded from a miniature golf course.

DANGEROUS DEPTHS

But exploring Tahoe’s deep blue waters does not come without its risks. Many people have gone missing and lost their lives while out swimming, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding.

And finding and retrieving them is not simple. That’s where Keith Cormican of Bruce’s Legacy steps in.

After losing his firefighter brother Bruce to a rescue mission in a fast-moving river, Cormican devoted himself to helping the families of other drowning victims find closure by locating their loved ones.

Bruce's Legacy found and retrieved two bodies out of Lake Tahoe last summer. Provided / Bruce Cormican

This past year, Cormican recovered two drowning victims from Lake Tahoe — a paddleboarder missing since June 2016 and a kayaker that disappeared in June 2017 — using sonar technology to “look” underwater. The victims were found at depths of 250 feet and 500 feet, respectively.

From a boat going 3 mph, Cormican drags a 4-foot "torpedo" 20 feet above the bottom. The sonar device emits pulses through the water and displays an image on the computer screen on the boat.

“Lake Tahoe is by far one of the more difficult search areas to do a tow-type sonar. On the bottom there is so many boulders and drop off and crevices,” said Cormican. “We’re looking for an image that is shaped like a body. We usually have a couple of legs that are pretty distinctive.”

Next, a remote-operated vehicle goes down to retrieve the body with a mechanical arm.

In 2011, the body of a scuba diver was recovered from the bottom of the lake 17 years after he died in a diving accident, bringing new life to the tales of mass graves of perfectly preserved bodies in Lake Tahoe.

And while there is science behind the body staying submerged — cold water hindering the bacteria that breaks down our bodies and produces gases — the reason behind this particular victim’s preservation was simple: a wet suit.

Local historian Mark McLaughlin is used to the ebb and flow of these rumors that comes with the retrieval of any body from Lake Tahoe. He’s heard it all: the tales of Mafia members dumping bodies, Chinese laborers tossed in the lake to avoid paying wages, and the haunting words of Jacques Cousteau.

Not only does he take issue with the historical inaccuracies of these rumors, he says they just don’t make logical sense.

“There’s 200-plus million crayfish all over the bottom of Lake Tahoe to the shoreline to the deepest part. Any flesh type of organism that settles down to the bottom would be quickly consumed just a matter of bones being left,” said McLaughlin. “It doesn’t make any sense at all that there would be suspended bodies.”

And though McLaughlin says Frank Sinatra, a reputed mob affiliate, is known for his ties with the Cal Neva Lodge and Casino in Crystal Bay, he believes the majority of the mob activity was restricted to Southern Nevada.

In this photo taken in 1959, Marilyn Monroe talks with Frank Sinatra while an unidentified man looks on at the Cal Neva Resort in Crystal Bay. Associated Press photo

McLaughlin also sees no truth in the rumors that Chinese railroad laborers were dumped in the lake to drown.

“I certainly don’t believe it,” said McLaughlin. “If you have Chinese men working on your railroad and they are doing a hell of a job, and you’re paying them every month and this is a precious workforce for you, why would you ever kill them?”

McLaughlin said there is also no record that Jacques Cousteau ever visited Lake Tahoe in his lifetime.

“I called Dr. Charles Goldman, the main limnologist who studied Lake Tahoe in late 50s. He knew Cousteau,” said McLaughlin. “Goldman said, ‘We were all scientists struggling for money, and if Cousteau had seen anything remotely like that he would have gone back down and filmed it and made a documentary about that to raise money.”

And as for Tahoe Tessie, the mythical lake-dwelling creature? Well, McLaughlin won’t even go there.

Cover photo by Dylan Silver / www.tahoeclarity.com

Credits:

Provided / Dylan Silver

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