SCUBA Diving Lake Tahoe
When I tell people how often I’m out scuba diving in Tahoe, there are a few standard responses:
- It must be so clear down there.
- What do you see?
- Any dead bodies?
- Have you seen Tahoe Tessie?
- It must be freezing.
- Isn’t diving at altitude dangerous?
All understandable. Let’s get into them—and briefly into dive flag laws and available emergency services.
I’ve read about visibility in the 80′ range, but I’ve never seen it myself. I fear this is a thing of the past and sign that the lake is getting generally less clear, one of its hallmark traits.
The best I’ve seen was about 60′, and that was at Steller Cove, about 1.5 miles south of D.L. Bliss State Park. It was incredible, and the dead vertical cliffs at this dive site gave me vertigo as I floated over the lip of the shelf. You’ll find that the standard good day+location offers 30-35′ vis.
Some locations have lower visibility due to creeks flowing into the lake bringing sediment and other runoff with them, shallow water staying warm enough to grow more algae and such, or, my favorite reason, schools of Tahoe suckers stirring things up as they feed. The worst I’ve seen was about 15′, directly above a school of suckers slurping up algae growing on old wood in an already silty area.
What is there to see?
There are three main attractions:
Fish in Lake Tahoe
I love hanging out with the fish in Tahoe. At many locations around the lake, you’ll find schools of Lahontan redside shiners hundreds or even thousands strong. If you can keep your exhales gradual, they’ll let you float amongst them and even gather around you as they realize you’re not a threat (I think they can also tell that you scare away the larger trout coming in to hunt, but I neither speak fish nor read fish minds).
Coming in from the blue water to hunt are trout. I see rainbow and Mackinaw trout with good regularity, brown trout a bit less often (and only at Rubicon wall so far), and Lahontan cutthroat possibly once at Eagle Point. Rainbows tend to be pretty curious and will swim straight at you and get within a few feet before zooming off in another direction. Mackinaw are more skittish, and if they see you, they’ll usually take off. They look a bit like lake barracuda, which is fun. Brown trout are in between rainbows and Mackinaw in terms of sociability, and they look like underwater leopards on the hunt. Lahontan cutthroat trout are rare, skittish, beautiful, and big. You can find trout hanging out around 90′ year round.
Tahoe suckers are one of my favorites. The adults are between 1′ and 1.5′, and you can see schools of 60 or more with moderate regularity at Sunnyside, usually just south of the shore entry point at William Kent Beach and around 30′ down (varies with temperature). These fish are Tahoe-sand brown with gold fleck, and they look a lot like koi fish. You won’t find them in too many places around the lake, but I’ve seen schools of juveniles munching on the algae growing on wood debris (and ruining the vis) at Sunnyside (a few hundred yards north from where the adults school) and swimming around the rocks at Eagle Point.
You’ll find speckled dace and Paiute sculpin blending in with the sand and very occasionally small mountain whitefish being nearly invisible in the dappled sunlight of the shallows. When temps start to drop, you’ll find fish in holes they’ve dug into the clay down around 100′. I believe they’re catfish, as I haven’t read about any other local fish burrowing. I haven’t pulled any out to check, and when you shine a light in their holes, they tend not to hold still for inspection (to be fair, if I were in a little cave I made 100 feet underwater and suddenly out of the dark a flashlight shined in my face, I’d freak out, too). I’ve never seen a bluegill, bass, chub, or salmon, but apparently they’re out there.
Here are some charts from UC Davis and the University of Nevada, Reno about the changing food web of the lake:
There are a good number of wrecks in Tahoe. They range from the lesser barges, which look like slightly arranged piles of wood, to the S.S. Tahoe, which is a tec diving destination down 300′. In the middle, you have the historic barges and boats of Emerald Bay and the Alley Cat, a sailboat in Hurricane Bay. There are probably many hundreds more of sunken boats and barges in the lake, some historic and some I guess working their way to it. I found what I think is the bow of an old wooden boat at Dollar Point, for example.
The historic wrecks of Emerald Bay are actually a part of an underwater heritage trail. Here’s a quick video on it:
Historic things that aren’t wrecks
Lake Tahoe boasts more than underwater boats. You’ll also find things like the debris field at Sunnyside, which is apparently from a lumber mill operating in the 1920s, or the truck chassis / boat trailer down 120′ in Hurricane Bay. There are also marine railways, which are tracks that run into the water that used to be used to launch boats. Sugar Pine has great examples of these.
There’s all sorts of random historic debris (a.k.a. old trash) around the lake. Things like ancient engine blocks, strange old mooring anchors, large gears, and a variety of other relics of industry are fairly common, as are debris fields collecting trash today that presumably have older trash underneath.
A lot of the lake is gently sloping sandy bottom. This can get pretty dull, as the only things breaking up the monotony are meandering crawdads and the occasional sunken tree. Thank goodness there’s more than this.
The wall dives (Rubicon and Stateline) at the lake offer dramatic cliffs, outcroppings that look like sunken granite castles, massive overhangs, and monstrously large boulders. You’ll find dead vertical cliffs dropping down hundreds of feet into the deep in 100-foot steps (Steller Cove). Thousands of years of lake currents have carved otherworldly shapes into the rock. It’s breathtaking.
In other areas, boulder fields cover steep hillsides (Eagle Point) and rocky ridges snake into the depths (Kaspian). Rocky coastlines offer swim-throughs (Sand Harbor, Rubicon, and others) and unending nooks and crannies to explore.
Basically, take the coolest rocks and cliffsides you see around the lake, the most beautiful boulder fields, the golden sand—take all of that awesomeness and put it underwater, where you can fly in and around it because diving is amazing.
I sure haven’t seen any. Word is, they’re down much deeper than the vast majority of us will ever go in the lake. I’ve heard rumors that suggest Jacques Cousteau loved exploring the lake until he stumbled across a collection of very well preserved folks with cement shoes, after which he promptly left the area, never to return. And of course there’s Fredo.
A few years ago, some tec divers did find a diver who’d had some sort of buoyancy control accident at Rubicon Wall and had been missing since 1994. According to that source, four more divers are still missing in the area.
I feel like this is a good place to note that not only does Tahoe have some wicked currents, usually in the fall in my experience, but it gets deep fast in some places. Proper buoyancy control, plenty of air, and contingency plans for when shit goes south (like backup buoyancy if your BC fails and you start to sink like the poor guy in the source above) are all mandatory when diving these riskier areas. Don’t add yourself to the lake’s body count.
There are a lot of great reasons there’s no plesiosaur lurking in the depths of Lake Tahoe, not least of which is that they died out about 78 million years before the lake even existed. Whatever else someone claims Tahoe Tessie might be, the food web can’t support an animal that size and there’s never been a trace of physical evidence, not even a tooth or a ripped in half corpse, so don’t worry, you’re not getting dragged into the deep by any giant lake-dwelling monsters.
There’s no doubt: Lake Tahoe can get pretty cold. In fact, the deep deep depths stay a chilly 39 degrees Fahrenheit year round. After a summer of warming, you’ll get surface temps as warm as the low 70s, and it might still be 69 degrees at 40′, depending on where you’re diving. After a winter of cooling, however, and even more so when early spring thaw starts dumping snowmelt into an already cold lake, the whole lake, from the surface all the way down, hits the 39-degree mark.
In mid summer, you’ll get warm surface temps and thermoclines every 30-35 feet. It’ll still be in the forties when you get down past 90′ even though it’s warmer above. As autumn approaches, the layers start to blend, and you see the warm water dissipate deeper down. Here’s an excellent chart from UC Davis’s 2020 State of the Lake:
Basically, sometimes it’s almost warm (72F surface temp), and it can get really cold (39F from the surface on down). I’ve gone diving in a 7/8 semidry suit in the fall, and it gets cold, especially as you go deeper and your suit compresses. I now dive exclusively in a drysuit in Lake Tahoe, wearing varying undersuits and layers to suit the temps. Even in late summer, if I decide to ditch my hood, it takes a while for my head to acclimate, and going too deep too fast can cause a painful sort of brain freeze that can quickly become a safety issue. Many local dive shops combine open water and drysuit certifications because of the temps.
To paraphrase a classic mountaineering quote, “There’s no such thing as inclement weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Wear the exposure protection that works for you, and be prepared for water in the 50s on most of your dives.
Being cold while diving changes the way you take on gas and decompress, and your dive computer isn’t keeping track of that, so stay warm or exercise caution—ideally both.
Currents, wind, & other seasonal hazards
In summer, there are days the lake is as still as a swimming pool. When temperatures start to drop and the wind picks up in autumn, Lake Tahoe, believe it or not, actually gets some pretty strong currents. I’ve felt the strongest currents, both essentially moving clockwise around the lake, at Rubicon Wall and Stateline Point.
All year round, the wind can whip across the lake creating waves large enough that you’ll even get surge tossing you back and forth near shore. Add that to the aforementioned current, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Shore divers leaving from Speedboat beach in late autumn and diving Stateline Point, for example, run the risk of being pushed north by the current into extremely deep water or, if needing to surface early for some reason, being blown into Crystal Bay.
Winter, of course, brings snow and ice, neither of which are helpful for a gear-laden diver trying to walk around. With wind chill, outdoor temps can drop low enough to cause hypothermia in minutes and iced-up regulator free flow from just a few overly moist test breaths. Dry clothing and towels should be readily available when you get out of the water.
You’re at 6,224′ above sea level when visiting Tahoe. That means instead of the 1 atm you’re used to at sea level, it’s around .78 atm. This changes things.
Let’s take the rule that you shouldn’t fly after diving and apply it to altitude diving. The cabin pressure in an airplane is often referred to as the “cabin altitude,” which makes this comparison even easier. By law, the maximum cabin altitude is 8,000′. Most newer commercial planes keep it lower for the comfort of passengers, with a Boeing 747 maintaining an average of around 5,200′, for example. After a good day of diving, you’re banned from flying for 24 hours, meaning you’re banned from reaching the previously stated cabin altitude because that low pressure increases the rate of decompression, causing the formation of gas bubbles in your tissues and getting you bent. If, while at Lake Tahoe, you followed the same decompression procedures as you would at sea level, exiting the water would be equivalent to somehow instantly transporting yourself onto a commercial jet at cruising altitude. Boom. Bent.
There’s also the matter of arriving at the lake from a lower elevation. At the lower elevation, your body is under more pressure than it will be at the lake. This means that when you arrive at lake level, you’re off-gassing, which in turn means that you are actually already effectively at a post-dive pressure group. While you might know this, your computer does not, even when it’s set to the appropriate altitude. It thinks you’re starting at zero. You’re not.
I won’t go into the specifics of altitude diving here because you shouldn’t be doing it without understanding how it changes decompression and how to set your dive computer accordingly. A certification course is a good way to learn this info. What I will do is advise everyone diving at the lake to exercise caution when driving home. Certain passes add a quick thousand vertical feet to your elevation, and either waiting at lake level before you start home, taking a longer way because it avoids the high passes—or both—is advisable.
Dive flag laws
Basically, if you’re in California, you don’t need a dive flag, and if you’re in Nevada, you do. Your flag needs to be at least one foot square according to Nevada law. Apparently the citations are fairly steep, too.
There’s a lot of boat traffic generally around the lake, so always bring a surface marker of some sort in case you need to surface in a busy area.
Call 911. Be ready to tell them information about the dive, so proper treatment can be given.
There are no hyperbaric chambers at Lake Tahoe. From a Divers Alert Network (DAN) medic I contacted:
There are chambers in Reno, NV; Sacramento, CA; and Chico, CA. They all have different hours of service and operational capabilities, so depending on the case, the closest might not be the best or the most appropriate or the one available. COVID adds yet another variable to the equation.
[DAN’s] chamber database is constantly updated, so any information that is good today may not be good tomorrow. By getting to the closest medical facility, you are providing the best possible care, as any hospital will be able to evaluate and stabilize a patient during the time that it takes to get a chamber and team ready to perform an HBO treatment for DCS.
Why dive Lake Tahoe?
When I tell the folks who only dive on vacation in tropical locales how much I dive the lake, I usually get a comment like, “You must really like diving.” It’s true. I absolutely love diving. I frequently drive to Monterey to dive, and I, too, love a good dip into luxurious tropical water. The ocean offers unparalleled amounts of life, not to mention bright colors and much bigger animals than you’ll find in Tahoe—but the lake certainly isn’t without its charm.
From the incredible views to the water’s stunning teals and blues, diving Lake Tahoe is a joy. I hope you like it as much as I do.