By John Tapley
Bordered between seven states, and straddling the lines between Midwest and southeast, Kentucky is a state known for many iconic features. Kentucky gave to the world the legendary boxing champion and activist Mohammed Ali; Colonel Harland Sanders and his closely guarded blend of 11 herbs and spices; Louisville Sluggers; Ale 8; legendary pioneer Daniel Boone. It’s a land formed and tempered by adventures of all sorts: connected by a trailblazing spirit, which still inhabits its sun-dappled foothills.
An inland state, Kentucky’s dive sites consist of lakes and former quarries. Although they may lack the fiery passions of diving among coral reefs in the Pacific, or the mighty shipwrecks resting deep within the Great Lakes, the state has its own flavor when it comes to diving. Quarries and lakes make for ideal training locales, especially in warmer times of the year, and the distinctiveness of destinations such as Pennyroyal Scuba Resort and Dale Hollow Lake, give divers memorable experiences to etch into their logbooks.
Kris Tapp, owner and co-founder of Pennyroyal Scuba Resort shares Kentucky’s big picture:
“Kentucky diving: there’s not a lot to be done, but what is available to divers is most definitely attractive and enjoyable.
“There are several [locations] that are accessible, though not necessarily set up for diving. In western Kentucky, [larger] lakes have a lot of boat traffic, and then you’ve got smaller lakes and rivers with visibility that may typically be one to two inches – it doesn’t make for good diving.
“But there are a couple of lakes in the eastern part of the state, like Dale Hollow Lake, that people go to regularly. The lakes can get up to 10 to 12 feet [of visibility] on a good day, which is convenient for them.”
Ray Scott, owner and course director for Louisville Dive Center, located in its namesake city, notes the Bluegrass State’s appeal during warmer months, but has witnessed a sharp decline as winter begins to chill the Midwestern state.
“We stay fairly busy from April and May to late October or early November,” he explains. “When I first got in, no one paid attention to cold waters: they would just bundle up more. But in modern times, people here have never been interested in cold water diving and want to go someplace warmer like Florida.”
Kentucky has several choice lakes and quarries, but according to native divers, two stand tall above the rest: PSC Blue Springs and Dale Hollow Lake.
PSC Blue Springs
Nestled within natural outdoor splendor, near the city of Hopkinsville in southwestern Kentucky, Penny Royal Scuba Center and Blue Springs Resort (PSC Blue Springs) is the Bluegrass State’s premiere scuba diving destination. Owned and operated by divers and for divers, the former limestone quarry offers 22 acres of water, and provides a host of amenities for scuba explorers of all stripes: a full-service repair and rental center, air and nitrox refills, lodging accommodations, and many more features await divers who put Hopkinsville on their travel itinerary. Although it is a diver-exclusive facility, non-diving friends and families who come along for the journey can enjoy the clear, crisp waters in an assigned swimming and snorkeling zone.
With visibility ranging from 30 to 40 feet in the summer, and depths ranging from 25 feet in the shallows, to deeper reaches at 125 feet, PSC Blue Springs offers something for every diver. The keystone of this accomplishment, unsurprisingly, is in water quality and clarity, which instills guests with a higher degree of confidence and satisfaction. As waters flow through underground springs, the facility’s limestone composition filters out most debris and detritus; water specialists on staff routinely monitor the waters for potential issues such as harmful bacteria and other micro-organisms.
“Water quality in diving – having it clean and clear – is something I don’t think a lot of people hit hard on,” Tapp elaborates. “We all love water, and we dive [in] it – whether [recreationally] or for dive training. It’s important [to know] the ecology of the water environment on a micro level.”
This clarity enables visitors to enjoy one of PSC Blue Springs’ most cherished features: a series of submerged objects purposefully placed to instill a sense of wonder and excitement: not only in the immediate area, but to encourage greener divers to continue their training. Over 40 attractions can be found in the waters: small boats, a motor home, a UH1 helicopter, and a 1941 Dodge fire engine to name some. Over time, these structures have become tenements for a bevy of fish life: mostly common freshwater species such as bass, bluegill, catfish, and crappie. To keep this aquatic landscape, and visitors and staff, safe, fishing is strictly prohibited.
Because of these aforementioned qualities, it’s no small surprise training is a critical aspect of the resort’s overall purpose. While the facility offers plenty of rest and relaxation, PSC Blue Springs’ biggest enticement is in its extensive training, refresher, and certification courses, which range from beginner lessons such as open water, to specialties on boat diving and search and rescue, to several flavors of PADI training. Courses are meticulously designed in the water to ensure quality standards, with instruments such as training platforms available when needed.
“We get several dive shops throughout the Midwest who come for training: from Lexington to Nashville to Evansville, we get several different groups from all over,” explains Tapp. “For just [leisure] diving, we get them from as far as Canada and Texas, and have had representatives from PADI for instructor examinations.”
The impetus for PSC Blue Springs developed from a passion for scuba diving and certification, and a niche that needed to be filled in southwestern Kentucky. The facility officially opened in 1994 by father and son diving duo Dennis and Kris Tapp; the former being a seasoned scuba explorer for decades, while the younger Tapp had earned his certification three years prior.
“When we first opened it, there weren’t any places close to home where we could go; divers had to drive for hours to get to the coast – or somewhere,” Kris explains. “Dive shops close to town were staying busy, so we thought it would be a good idea.”
Pennyroyal wasn’t always the diving mecca it set out to be; and as with many stories of perseverance and success, originated through humble beginnings. PSC Blue Springs, for a time, was called “Diving for Golf Balls”: a service to help golf courses recover balls lost to the rough.
“We went around to golf courses throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, Southern Illinois, and Southern Indiana,” explains Kris. “It paid for our air compression system – from the golfball business to diving, it all worked out!”
For more information on PSC Blue Springs, including pricing, rules and regulations, lodging, and necessary forms, visit www.temp.pennyroyalscuba.com.
Dale Hollow Lake
With a spectacular array of submerged delights, natural features, and easy access, Dale Hollow Lake, located on the Kentucky-Tennessee border is a diving destination not to be missed. Although most of the lake’s 27,200 acres of water rests within Tennessee, a large enough portion exists in southern Kentucky, offering a unique interstate experience. As with most scuba destinations, however, an aqua explorer’s mileage may vary depending on water conditions: at best, visibility hovers around 25 to 30 feet.
Dale Hollow Lake offers plentiful amusements for visitors whether they dive, swim, snorkel, or simply enjoy a lazy summer afternoon aboard watercraft. Campgrounds and marinas dot the expansive lake, offering overnight lodging, air fills, boat rentals, fishing supplies, and other amenities. Scott recommends divers visit the marinas where they can purchase maps that list access points and different dive zones throughout the lake.
“It’s a nice lake in a beautiful area,” says Scott, “and it’s a huge lake so it never gets crowded [by] divers. While sometimes there is boat traffic, there’s [always] plenty of places to dive.”
It’s a huge lake so it never gets crowded when it comes to divers – and while sometimes there’s lots of boat traffic, there’s [always] plenty of places to dive.
Dale Hollow Lake’s key draw is the remains of a small town, Lily Dale, which was completely submerged when the Dale Hollow Reservoir dammed the Obey River in 1943. The former buildings have almost completely deteriorated over the last seven decades, leaving little to the eye – but a closer look on the bottom unveils foundations and bits and pieces of construction materials splayed about or piled together. Of particular interest is the remains of the old Willow Grove School, much of which is still tightly bound to the substrate. When visibility is at its best, divers should consider taking underwater photography instruments – photos of bluegills whimsically swimming throughout the haunting ruins of a former Midwestern town would be a distinct addition to any underwater photographer’s portfolio.
Treasure hunting is another big reason why divers take a dip into Dale Hollow. Although many larger instruments and features of the former town were removed before or after it flooded, there are still some relics in the rough for divers with the right daring do, as Scott elaborates:
“Over the years, people have found different things that were missed in the ‘40s when it was turned into a reservoir. If you’re into hunting, get a map and find out where the old settlements are. You can find bottles, marbles, and things that were just left – one of the dive shops even found and restored an old steam tractor, which is next to the marina at Willow Grove [campground].”
As an instructor who has trained public safety divers, “from Louisville to Nassau”, Ray Scott finds Dale Hollow Lake appealing, not only for its submerged structures and numerous accommodations and conveniences, but as an ideal training area. Because of the lake’s hard sandstone substrate, trainers and trainees alike can perform necessary certification procedures without clouding up visibility. When it comes time for deeper, more advanced levels, a pinnacle, Divers’ Rock (also called Divers’ Island), offers a gradual shallow to deep slope, which eases newcomers and returning divers into greater depths, which descent to 100 feet.
More information on Dale Hollow Lake, including a list of marinas, attractions, and regulations, can be found at www.dalehollow.com .
Kentucky may not be the first stop on a diver’s schedule, but the benefits of diving in the Bluegrass State, especially in its most prominent destinations, far outweigh its lack of diversity. And while smaller destinations off the beaten path are outshined by PSC Blue Springs and Dale Hollow Lake, they call to divers willing to at least give them a shot. Whether it be in the foothills, on the shores of the Ohio River, or in smaller lakes and quarries that pepper the landscape, the spirit of adventure is unveiled in every corner of this Midwestern destination.