Situated in the Midwest, the “Crossroads of America”, Indiana, is best known for basketball, the Indy 500, and miles upon miles of corn fields running along highways and country roads. Within its central area beats Indianapolis: the state’s largest metropolitan area, which serves as a hub for entertainment and culture. Out of these activities, scuba diving is rarer in comparison, but a vibrant dive community and two choice facilities, make diving in the Hoosier State more about quality and less about quantity.
By John Tapley
Former quarries, dive sites in central Indiana aren’t too deep or daunting, but offer just the right balance of challenge and recreation. Local experts recommend diving in late fall or early spring after the algae bloom has died off: when the bloom is in control, visibility ranges from 10 to 30 feet; when subdued, visibility ranges between 60 and 70, which fills in these relatively shallow depths. Shallower depths also lend to a more relaxed, recreational experience in comparison to deeper bodies of water in nearby states.
“We don’t have a lot of technical because any technical scenario would have to have been manmade: we don’t have caves like in Florida,” explains Alex Davis, retail and sales manager at Indy MPH Watersports.
“Diving in Indiana is pretty much like any inland state,” explains Indy Dive Center owner and Divers Supply Indy associate William Baker. “You have predominantly rivers and old stone quarries, which are the leading [areas] where inland divers will dive: they offer the best visibility. And Midwest divers make some of the best in the world because they have to contend with elements other people won’t.”
With dive sites come buddies, and despite the state’s fewer dive opportunities compared to others, it boasts a strong community of hardy divers. The Indy Dive Club, has been meeting since 1999, and is supported by Divers Supply Indy and Indy Dive Center. Five hundred members strong, the club regularly visits local dive locations, and attractions out of state such as Whitestar Quarry and Gilboa Quarry in Ohio, Mermet Springs in Illinois, and Bonne Terre in Missouri. The club also embarks on trips to more exotic locales such as the Caribbean. More details on the Indy Dive Club, including membership information, can be found at http://www.diveindy.com/pages/indy-dive-club.
While central Indiana has a number of bodies of water that have been dove over the years, many of these locations are off the beaten path, challenging to access, or have become rundown due to lack of support. Above the others, two premiere diving destinations stand out: France Park and Phillips Outdoor Center.
France Park, also known as the old Kenneth Stone Quarry, is located three miles west of Logansport, Indiana in Cass County – about 77 miles north of Indianapolis. France Park is well-liked by local divers for its relatively shallow depths, which average about 20 feet and max out at 30, and for its array of submerged attractions such as a 1940s school bus, a pickup truck, rock slabs, and culverts. France Park’s waters are stocked with freshwater critters including crappie, small and largemouth bass, turtles, and paddlefish – a good assortment of new friends to meet.
For Baker, one of France Park’s biggest draws is its history, and how understanding and appreciating its stories intertwines with the dive experience:
“There’s limited machinery [left], but the history of the quarry operations, what life was like in the 1800s… you can see the remnants of the mining itself. When you add the history and stories, and dive that, you can see what workers of the time dealt with and what they left. When you mix the history in, and you enter into the water and see this, you can visualize it. It really changes the dive versus just going down and seeing an attraction.”
Baker has enveloped France Park’s history, and is eager to share stories about the former quarry. Reflecting the times, some are more graphic than others.
“A foreman told one of the workers he needed to be safer – not working so close to the edge,” he says. “He raised his shovel at the foreman who raised a gun and shot him. The workers were a close community, and surrounded him – gang-style. The foreman was able to escape, ran, and turned himself into the jail for protection.”
Another key feature at France Park, according to Baker, is its bevy of activities suited for non-divers, which include fishing, hiking, zip-lining, mini-golf, and barbequeing under the Midwestern sun. Scuba explorers can bring their family and friends along for a full day or shoot the breeze with buddies after a successful training session.
“I’ve been diving for almost 30 years and when I went through training, divers would go for the whole weekend: we could get a certification, grill steaks, and drink adult beverages,” explains Baker. “Today a lot of divers come in, get their certification, and they’re gone. We have the opportunity of an actual getaway with Mother Nature: a beautiful, picturesque area.
Philips Outdoor Center
Like France Park, the Philips Outdoor Center was once a quarry: Philips Quarry. Located in Muncie – about an hour northeast of Indianapolis – the outdoor center is recognized for having consistent diving opportunities: visibility on the worst day, during mid-June, rests around 20 feet on a bad day.
Covering about three acres with a maximum depth of 55 feet, the outdoor center’s waters include a number of attractions for interested guests: submerged features include several boats, a 40-foot airplane fuselage, and old cars; freshwater sponges and freshwater fish such as paddlefish make up the former quarry’s residents. A non-profit 501(c)3 organization, Philips Outdoor Center is supported by Tom Leaird’s Underwater Service, also in Muncie.
In addition to recreational diving, this service also offers public safety training, Boy Scout programs, and local dive training programs at the quarry nearly every weekend. More information on these programs can be found at www.leaird-scuba.com.
Davis consideres Philips Outdoor Center one of his favorite dive destinations in the Hoosier State.
“I like it because it’s really a difference experience when you’re there. It’s a natural body of water, and currently the visibility doesn’t clear up until about 30 feet – still cold water diving at that point,” he explains. “When you get down there, there’s an eerie feeling since the quarry used to be a swimming area for the community: there’s sunken platforms, a plane fussilage, and a habitat tank.”
“The [inland life] also gives students an opportunity for navigation because they’re out in the middle of the quarry,” he continues. “We have a large infestation of zebra mussels so we teach students how to crack them open and feed them to fish. The bluegill know as soon as diver gets in the water, they’re going to get fed.”
These submerged features spark beginning divers with imagination and wonder, and offer some nice underwater photography when the season is just right.
“From an instruction standpoint, that specific area makes students better divers, especially when visibility is bad,” says Davis. “It gets them used to following landmarks (the wall goes straight down on all sides) and gives them navigation dives. Landmarks are set on headings on a compass – even if we overshoot it, we’ll hit a wall instead of being stuck out in the ocean.”
Central Indiana might not be number one on every diver’s bucket list, but a closer look reveals two top diving destinations centered snuggly in America’s heartland. While this area lacks dive sites by the numbers, it lends divers a different, more challenging and personal, experience.”
“At this point, it would be a great time for divers to make an adventure inland. The places here really appreciate outside patronage and tourism, and if you can dive in a quarry in the Midwest, you can dive pretty much anywhere. It’s a different type of adventure that makes you practice and think about how you and your buddies are going down.”