Rock quarries are a scuba diving option in Chattanooga area

Rock quarries are a scuba diving option in Chattanooga area

July 25th, 2013 By Gary Petty in Sports - Outdoors

Traveling to the Florida springs or Keys is wonderful but costly and time-consuming for area scuba divers, but many have learned they can find clear water less than 75 miles away. That makes a lot more days available for diving.

Two such locations are the Loch Low-Minn Dive Resort near Athens, Tenn., and the Philadelphia Quarry located near Philadelphia, Tenn.

On any given weekend during the summer months, both rock quarries become popular sites for certified divers or those on the way to certification under the direction of a scuba instructor. The 40 to 50 feet of visibility provides a rewarding day of diving.

Both places provide picnic tables, bathhouses, camping, air fills and rental equipment during the summer diving season. Loch Low-Minn additionally has cabins and hot showers.

The Philadelphia Quarry operates on an honor system. Guests simply sign a liability release and drop the admission fee into a collection box. That quarry is open year-round but does not provide all services, and getting there involves driving through a cattle field.

Both quarries have platforms above and below the water level to assist divers in practicing entries and underwater maneuvers.

"The big advantage is that they are close and it allows divers to keep up their skills," said Gary McNabb, the owner of Leisure Time Dive & Snow Ski Center in Chattanooga.

He said that he and the other instructors associated with his operations take classes to the two rock quarries at least 10 times a year.

"It depends on the conditions," McNabb said of the students' responses. "When the visibility is good, everybody likes it. A lot of them go back on their own."

June Baugham, the dive center manager at Choo Choo Dive Center in Chattanooga, said much the same.

"It is a great place to build experience," she said. "I love quarry diving, but it is not the Caribbean."

The Loch Low-Minn quarry does have a variety of fish, including about 25 paddlefish, according to Stacy Low, who owns and operates the dive resort with her husband, Rick. Some of the paddlefish are more than five feet long, Baugham noted.

Visibility is affected, she acknowledged, by recent rainfall and the number of divers in the water. One recent outing at Loch Low-Minn included about 150 divers, which certainly reduced how far one could see clearly.

On the plus side, instructors like the relatively controlled environment of quarry or springs diving in comparison to offshore learning.

"A quarry is a very safe experience for a new diver. There is not a fear factor," Stacy Low said.

The absence of boats is part of that, according to Mike Doss, owner of the Philadelphia Quarry,

"One of the reasons that people dive in a rock quarry is a safety factor," Doss said. "Most people come to the quarry for training and to practice their skills."

And, he noted, "We have several catfish that people can feed by hand."

Said Low: "We have 40-feet-plus visibility and we do have lots of things for the divers to see."

For things to view, area divers willing to drive farther can go to the Madison Quarry just west of Huntsville, Ala. An old Minuteman Missile, an F4 Phantom Jet, a fire truck, a pickup truck and some old boats have been placed in that quarry.

While quarries provide relatively clear water, they also mean cold water. The word thermocline comes up a lot in discussions of quarry diving. That is an abrupt drop in temperature as a diver descends.

The difference may be as much as 20 degrees.

"I like it. The only thing is being prepared for it," said David "Bernie" McBurnett, a local dive instructor.

McBurnett, who also teaches for the Chattanooga Fire Department, noted that anyone choosing to dive in a quarry will need a 5-7 mm wetsuit, some gloves and a hood.

"It is going to be cold, but I enjoy it," he said. "Some people don't like the cold water, but it does not bother me."

Contact Gary Petty at sports@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.