By John Tapley
Everything’s bigger in Texas, or so the old axiom goes, and when it comes to water sports, the center of the Lone Star State delivers in waves. A wonderland for water sports aficionados of all stripes, the area from Austin to San Marcos offers a plethora of varied aquatic delights, and sights and sounds – both above and in the water – suited for even the most well-traveled adventurers.
With sizeable lakes to explore and majestic rivers to navigate, Central Texas diving is beloved for its vast assortment of aquatic opportunities, which cater to water explorers of all levels and interests. Recreational divers spend lazy, Sunday afternoons mingling with king-sized catfish; technical divers refresh their talents at training areas carefully constructed by the local dive community; drift divers spend the day scouring treasure and trash from nearby rivers; and while the area may lack acclaimed mega-wrecks found off the Gulf Coast, smaller vessels can be discovered throughout the region. All of these features and much more are heightened through consistently warm, clear water, which routinely flows from Texas’ extensive aquifers.
“It’s 100 percent freshwater, obviously, so divers can expect thermocline and a variety of water life that isn’t tropic-based: catfish, perch, and crustaceans,” says Brittany Haury, manager and instructor at Dive World Austin. “We’ve got clear water, murky water, drift diving, deep dives, shallow dives, training dives – you can’t go wrong here! From day to day the lake or rivers have a different attitude and personality. You never know what you’re going to be getting in. The only thing we’re missing is salt.”
“I like the camaraderie here,” explains Michelle Kraft, general manager for The Dive Shop San Marcos. “Everyone is outdoorsy so people are willing to be in the water. Here, especially with the rivers being 72 degrees… let’s go treasure diving and see what we can find!”
Treasure diving, as it turns out, is one of central Texas diving’s biggest claims to fame; and this is especially prevalent on the Camal and San Marcos rivers. Tubers, canoers, and kayakers often misplace their belongings, be they trash or treasure, and the local diving community does its part to clean up waterways and add to their unique collections. It’s also not uncommon for drift divers to uncover hard imprints of fossilized crustaceans: treasures that have spent eons in the making.
“You never know what you’re going to find. When you’re in the tropics you’ll occasionally find a treasure or take a group photo, but here every single dive I’ve done outside training dives, I’ve found treasure of all sorts: a sword, a GoPro, a wallet, a ring, and sunglasses. Even when doing simple drift drives in the Guadalupe or Comal, I’ve filled a mesh bag with unopened beers, the other with jewelry and all sorts of valuables, and the other with clothing.”
Dive sites from Austin to San Marcos are numerous, and the experts have weighed in on their top destinations.
Located 34 miles west of San Marcos, and nestled on the Guadalupe River, rests Canyon Lake: one of the area’s most liked outdoor recreational areas: so much so, it is recognized as the jewel of Texas Hill Country. A launch point and hub for watersports aficionados, the reservoir features eight park areas for camping, boating, picnicking, and enjoying the cool, fresh water. Out of these locations, divers typically enter and exit through North Park or Comel Park, which respectively offer ledges and sunken vehicles, and walls, overhangs, and trees. When its time for a visitor to go on a hike, Canyon Lake opens into Hill Country, offering series of hiking, hiking, and equestrian trails, and scenic views of the lake proper.
According to Kraft, Canyon Lake may be the site of settlements from yesteryear; she and The Dive Shop San Marcos have, for two years, been searching for these ruins.
“There’s three submerged cities we’re trying to locate… not so much [buildings]… looking at old maps to pinpoint them,” she says. “One diver said he ran across an old jail cell, but he didn’t mark the spot.”
San Marcos – Spring Lake and Meadows Center
Formerly the site of aquapark Aquarena Springs, Spring Lake offers a unique opportunity for scuba explorers to benefit the community through the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment: a program organized by Texas State University. The lake is designated a critical habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for eight known species listed as threatened or endangered, such as the Texas blind salamander and San Marcos gambusia. Because of this classification, scuba explorers interested in surveying this area will need to complete an authorization course held at the center.
Even if divers can’t enter the waters, the springs themselves are thrilling to see, and the Meadows Center shares the ecosystem’s wonder with visitors. Glass bottom boat tours are the most prominent part of this service; and it’s likely passengers will see a diver below volunteering their time to enrich the environment.
“It’s really fun. We’ll be down there cleaning and working on the water supply or pulling weeds: enjoying this beautiful environment with crystal clear water,” Haury explains. “All of a sudden, this big glass bottom boat will go over the top; kids looking down and waving at you.”
But it’s not just kids who have a bit of fun with divers at Spring Lake. Kraft recalls an amusing encounter with a turtle not afraid to show its backside, and daring crawfish who stood up for their territory:
“I like to take my camera there early in the morning because the turtles are out in the water. On one day, I had students there… and I couldn’t see his face, but the butt was sticking out…this massive snapping turtle. Whenever we get a chance to do the night dives, those are a lot of fun because we have the chance to see more crawfish: some will quickly skootch away from you; some will stand there and say, ‘come at me!’”
Covering Burnet and Travis counties northwest of Austin rests Texas’s crowning inland jewel: Lake Travis. Boasting a shore length of 270 miles and a surface area of 18,930 acres, the mighty lake offers outdoor water recreation in droves, and represents a centralized combination of all the factors, which make central Texas diving stand out: an eclectic assortment of dive sites tailored for each and every scuba explorer.
Owner of Lake Travis Scuba Robert Weiss started his diving journey in the lake itself during a frigid winter in 1988. He had a hiatus for over a decade, then returned to the place where he cut his scuba teeth: becoming enamored by the Windy Point dive site. After earning his instructor certification, he turned his passion into a business: filling a niche on Lake Travis that went unfulfilled. Today, Lake Travis Scuba provides transportation services to a variety of dive sites on the lake; aboard the Giant Stride, he shares this pristine inland location for recreational and technical divers, and those in training.
“We have a gold mine here: a great place to dive that in most of Texas they don’t have. That’s why people come to Central Texas and Lake Travis to come diving, both from shore and from the boat. It also offers the opportunity for divers to do training, whether open water or advanced open water; and with my boat, we do wreck and technical dive training.
“There’s a lot of diving activity in Lake Travis: whether it’s the first time a diver’s getting out of their confined water course to someone who’s doing their advanced deco-type classes; and everything in between. And most of the time during the summer, the majority of divers are coming out for fun dives.”
Lake Travis is one of central Texas’ most prominent hot spots for fun on the water, and like other waterways in the area, it’s not uncommon for visitors to lose valuable objects – or haphazardly discard rubbish – while enjoying a cool cruise. Weiss and his divers have recovered a treasure trove of finds over the years: GoPro cameras, house keys, wedding bands, and sunglasses; and mounds of litter, mostly drinking glasses and bottles. In both cases, Weiss believes strongly this element of Lake Travis gives a diver a greater purpose in their adventure, and encourages his guests to participate: for the benefit of themselves; for the good of their shared environment. Weiss is often contracted to find misplaced valuables, organizes a lake cleanup once per year, and has developed the PADI Sunglass Hunter specialist course; in 2017, divers recovered 1700 sunglasses from Lake Travis.
Like other nearby bodies of water, Lake Travis is also replete with imprints of ancient invertebrate animals such as mollusks and freshwater sponges: some are miniscule, about the size of a piece of candy; larger, rarer finds resemble a small grapefruit.
Given its massive size, Lake Travis offers plenty of scuba diving sites to satisfy the thirstiest diver. In addition to the two key dive sites detailed below, others include Starnes Island, Devil’s Cove, Fiesta Haus Wall, Oasis Wall, West Point, Cypress Creek Wall, and Wreck Alley.
Lake Travis – Shaker Plant
Formerly an old rock crushing plant, the dive site called Shaker Plant includes old remnants from when the lake and dam were constructed in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Much of the original facilities that made up the plant have been removed, though foundations, support structures, and rock piles remain decades later. These submerged features, coupled with depths ranging between 65 and 100 feet have made the disused plant a key location for dive training; and to help this endeavor, Weiss and fellow divers have constructed a trail to help divers navigate through the bottom rubble.
Lake Travis – Windy Point
A primary shore diving location, Windy Point offers easy access from land to shore: a series of steps lead to the platform on the water. From there, divers can make their way to the river bottom – all the way to 180 feet if they desire – and enjoy a series of submerged spectacles including a shark sculpture, a metal turtle, an old car, and many others. These features have established Windy Point, like the Shaker Plant, as a premiere location for a variety of dive training levels and certifications.
“Windy Point is perfect for open water and technical dive training, with maintained sunken platforms,” explains Kraft. “The visibility can be quite good. We can get up to 100 feet for an advanced master course and there are different boats and sculptures to see underwater so it’s fun.”
More information on Lake Travis, including dining and lodging accommodations can be found at www.laketravis.com.
As the old adage goes, everything’s bigger in Texas, and deep within its heart beats a watery wonderland chock full of thrilling adventures, environmental appreciation, and the chance to take home fabulous treasures from prehistoric times to modern day. From Austin to San Marcos, Central Texas’ acclaim as a premiere southwestern scuba destination is one that is well deserved.