By John Tapley
Since its inception, scuba diving has gone hand in hand with history: whether it be exploring natural geological features millions of years old, uncovering vessels lost to wind and sea, or tracing the evolution of species and environments. Whenever a diver takes the plunge, they are performing more than just a scuba excursion: there are rich histories scattered throughout North America, whether they be miles off the coast, or deep inland. Such is the case of the abandoned Titan I ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) silo: a one-of-a-kind dive located in Washington State’s interior, which showcases a side of the Cold War few people get to experience firsthand: the innerworkings of an instrument of deterrence. Dark, flooded, and trimmed by salvagers, the facility, just like the conflict that ignited its construction, is gone, but far from forgotten. Within these gray remnants pulse a spark of curiosity (particularly for those divers old enough to remember a world where East was divided by West) and a thirst for connecting with the past: diving into the Atomic Age.
Settled beneath an elevated, dry plateau in Eastern Washington, within the bounds of humble Royal City, the former ICBM facility is located a bit off the beaten path, but as divers are accustomed, the journey is just part of the destination. Past derelict buildings and side portions of the complex, visitors travel down a long, man-made canyon before reaching a large tube-like structure which juts from the ground. From there, scuba explorers will set up their equipment near the entrance and opt to carry their gear down a 30-foot ladder into the facility, or lower it via a pulley system made just for them. After reaching the base of this access tunnel, visitors will gear up at a special staging room, then make their way to a series of wide tunnels leading to the facility’s former launch room: illuminated only by artificial means.
“When you drop down, there’s a big area where eight to 10 people can get geared up. Then you walk down part of the tunnels where a conduit used to be, to get into the actual silo,” explains seasoned local diver John Downing. “The footing can be a little dicey at times – sometimes on top of pipes – but the dive master is very good about taking his time and pointing out trip hazards.”
Staging platforms, pulley systems, and dive masters don’t materialize out of thin air. These accommodations have been provided by UnderSea Adventures: a dive center based out of Kennewick, Washington, which has exclusive access to the abandoned facility. Leading adventures into this partly-submerged time capsule is not an easy feat, and with safety as a number one priority, the center requires interested divers to have advanced certification or higher, provide some of their own equipment, and sign waivers and understanding statements. While daunting for some, the cost of admission, according to divers who have taken the plunge, is well worth it.
“They run a good operation and provide a good, solid safety briefing with specific requirements for us to make sure we could be safe on our dives,” explains PADI Course Director Les Newman. “Because it is an encased missile silo, the dives are in zero light; we were laughing: it was a chance to do a deep, night, wreck dive at the same time.”
By foot, the entourage lead by UnderSea Adventures carefully makes the 10-minute journey down the tunnel system in waters ranging from ankle to chest-deep, into the heart of the facility – inflatable BCDs (buoyancy compensator devices) are often used to prevent explorers from sinking onto the pipework. Compared to up top, the air is cool and crisp; the groundwaters echoing cooler conditions. After some twists and turns, the group meets a doorway, and from there reaches the silo proper: a 160-foot tall tube housing up to 110 feet of water. Heading into deep waters, the group swims down series of industrial support structures, cribwork, at elevations that meet their comfort levels. With each step of the way, the divers dissipate the darkness, softly unveiling the details of a facility, which once held one of mankind’s most destructive inventions. There is a slight pause in these waters – remarkably clear – as the team ascends and descends to their liking.
It’s dark and damp in the Titan I ICBM silo, but not constricting. While enclosed, the size of this site provides an experience similar to cave diving, but with plenty of space to breathe: a trait especially appealing to Downing.
“It’s not as claustrophobic as you [may think]; and [with] five of us there, if your primary light went out, there was plenty of backup,” he says. “If you swim to the perimeter of the silo, there’s the potential of having an overhead obstruction. That area is maybe 10 feet in length – even when up against the wall of the silo and [having] an emergency, just move horizontal by about five feet. It’s a concern people have, but it’s just like recreational diving: if you’re worried about overheads, stay in the center of the silo and you’re fine.”
“Good buoyancy is an absolute must, if for no other reason, than to arrest your descent and take a look at something on the wall,” he continues to advise. “And it’s a high-altitude dive: to counteract this, everyone brings dive computers.”
Although the scuba adventure is the key reason people explore this site, there are a few dryer portions available, and UnderSea Adventures takes advantage of this opportunity by giving visitors a greater understanding of the facility’s purpose.
“We explored some of the adjacent office areas, and were given a land tour of areas that were dry,” says Downing. “We were able to see how some of the areas functioned, and the safety precautions built into the environment. It was an interesting weekend!”
Eastern Washington’s titanic atomic dive site is one of North America’s – if not the world’s – most unique and engaging dive locations, but it might not be for everyone. Scuba diving, like most hobbies, is a multi-faceted pursuit, and an individual’s mileage may vary depending on their specific interests.
For seasoned divers who tire of the usual wrecks and coastlines, the complex is a breath of fresh air; and scuba explorers who dislike the noise and hustle of sharing the sea with anglers and snorkelers will find this destination’s intimacy a winning attribute. Despite the facility’s distinct characteristics, its features are locked in time: there are no dynamic reef structures; no schools of friendly fish meandering by. Limited accessibility and skill requirements may also be daunting factor for some. Does it have longevity as a dive site? Is it worth revisiting, or is it better suited as a one-time excursion?
“I had a good time and am glad I did it,” states Downing. “It’s not technically tough [for me] to do, but once you’ve been there a while, you’ve seen it all.”
“This [isn’t] the type of dive where you get up on a Saturday morning, and say, ‘I’ll go dive the silos today,’” adds Newman. “It’s not like diving in a quarry or a lake and requires preparation; and the area is restricted. “It’s something you want to do because you’re diving into history: like diving on a historic wreck; and you’re exploring something you [may have] lived through. It’s a unique opportunity and I encourage people to do it.”
History and scuba exploration go hand in hand, and it is through sites such as the Titan I ICBM complex, that divers are able to connect with their past in the best way they can: through personal, hands on experiences. While diving through the Atomic Age may not be for everyone, this site’s historical significance and sheer exotic presence make it a strong contender for any diver’s logbook, and a must for daring adventurers who were once Cold War kids.
For more details on exploring Royal City’s acclaimed deep, dark diving destination, including a list of requirements and sign-up information, visit Undersea Adventures at www.underseaadventures.net.