Drift Dive at The Hot Hole, SC

Seeking a unique dive location you can enjoy year round? Look no further than The Hot Hole in Lake Keowee, SC. Just an hour-and-a-half drive from Athens and nestled in a cove on the shores of Duke Power’s Oconee Nuclear Generating Station, this location  is perfect for winter diving because hot water used to cool the reactor rushes into the lake, raising the mid-winter water temperature to 80 degrees. And let me assure you right now; you won’t glow in the dark after this dive.

Dolphin Dive center GAI dove The Hot Hole last week with my husband and with our dive shop owner Tim. The dive was chartered by Bill Routh from the Lake Jocassee Dive Shop. I was a little nervous I’d be cold, since the air temperature that morning was a chilly 28ᵒF. Really didn’t know what to expect. Playing it safe, I packed a thermos of hot chocolate for the surface interval.

The boat ramp is conveniently located just a five minute cruise away from the dive site. Within minutes, Bill dropped the anchor. I took the photo below from the deck of the boat before gearing up.

Dolphin Dive Center GA

Looking over the site, it was hard to believe this is considered a drift dive, although we could see the eddy currents breaking the water’s surface. Bill explained during the dive briefing that the cement building (in the photo above) is the water outflow station. Most of the structure is emerged, extending 30 feet down to the bottom.  The structure houses four enormous  underwater pipes that conduct the warm water from the power plant, projecting it in high pressure streams into the lake. The current created by the water outflow make the drift dive possible.

I braced myself when I entered the water, but the temperature was a mild 72ᵒF. We descended and headed in the direction of the building. A wing wall extends out, along the lake bottom, from the front left corner of the structure, so once we located that we followed it in to the building.

We swam up and enter the structure through the left side window (pictured at the left edge of the photo above). Inside was dark and there was no current, as a cement floor divides the cubical where we were and the pipes underneath. We made our way along the floor to the third ‘window.’ We let out all the air in our BCs, per Bill’s instructions. Lying on our bellies, we could lower our hands down and into the current blasting out from beneath us. The force was the same as holding your hand out the car window on the highway. One at a time, we pushed off the floor and dropped down into the current.

Visibility was zero, and I was flying through the water. Did you ever see Finding Nemo? Remember the turtles hurtling through the East Australian Current? That was me. Righteous! 

 

Out of the gloom, the bottom came up at me. I put my hands down, pushing off from the bottom and gliding with the current 10 or 15 feet before I had to put my hands down again. I eventually caught sight of Tim’s fins and grabbed him before the current carried me past.

It was a rush!

During the two-tank dive, we rode the current three times, getting a different experience out of each go. In between ‘rides,’ we explored the boulder-strewn bottom and grassy areas bustling with large bass, crappies and catfish. And I wasn’t cold during the surface interval, thanks to Bill Routh’s plastic drapes enclosing the dive boat and on-board space heater. That and the thermos of hot chocolate!

Scuba Athens GA

 

We recommend diving The Hot Hole with Bill Routh and the Lake Jocassee Dive Shop/Off the Wall Dive Charters. It’s an adventure!

We did not shoot the following footage, but I found the video on YouTube and it will give you an idea of what this dive site is like. Enjoy!

Have you dove The Hot Hole? What’s your favorite drift dive been?

Attack Underwater Panic

I learned in my Open Water Diver certification class that a common reaction to anxiety or fear is a rapid, shallow breathing pattern, which leads to an out-of-breath feeling. I remember we were told to be aware of this symptom and if it occurred, to slow our breathing down and focus on the exhales to return to regular breathing. Good thing we covered that, because it happened to me. And it was terrifying.

It happened during my first open water checkout dive. I was already anxious, as my husband and I had opted to do our checkout dives while on vacation in Florida instead of with our Dolphin Dive instructors. I’ve always regretted that decision. However, DDC referred us to Mike Gomez with the Panama City Dive Center, and we couldn’t have been in better hands. Mike is such a great guy: funny, competent, full of personality and an instructor of the highest caliber.

We headed out with Mike on a dive boat with about 25 other divers. Everyone seemed experienced and excited to get in the water, unlike me who worried about being seasick, worried about how I’d gear up shoulder-to-shoulder with all those divers, worried about diving in sea water, worried, worried, worried.

The boat operator announced we were stopping in the shallows to allow the four divers working on certification, including my husband and I, to drop down with our instructors and demonstrate our skills. It was intimidating to feel like everyone was looking at us as we waddled to the stern. Trying to appear cool and relaxed, I casually looked over the side of the boat. That’s when I saw the jellyfish.

They were rusty orange in color. And they were everywhere.

I’d been stung by a jellyfish the summer before. I was not happy about doing a giant stride entry into jellyfish infested water. Did I mention I was not wearing a wetsuit?

I hit the water and bobbed up to the surface without a sting, but now my head was on a swivel, searching my immediate environment for the jellies. At the same time, I fumbled with my BC deflater, clenched the descent line, and attempted to clear my ears. I didn’t have enough hands. With so much to concentrate on, my off-the-charts anxiety went unnoticed and unchecked. Until I reached the bottom.

Kneeling on the sandy bottom under 25 feet of the Gulf of Mexico, the instructor indicated the first skill and pointed to me. I felt winded from the scary descent through the jellies, so I sucked air in quick, shallow breaths to catch my breath. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get a lung full of air. Two more rapid breaths, and I felt like I was suffocating. I wasn’t getting any air. None. I panicked.

The instructor had his eye on me. He gave me the “Okay?” sign, and I shook my head frantically. I thrust my thumb up, emphatic. I needed to surface, like now.

The instructor wagged his finger at me. No. He flattened his hand, pushing it palm down in a deliberate motion. Calm down. Then he turned his attention away from me and continued with skills with my husband.

In that moment, the coursework came back to me. Severe anxiety can trigger hyperventilation. A little voice whispered, That’s happening to me! The training kicked in: Slow your breathing down and focus on the exhales to return to regular breathing. Within 30 seconds, I was back in control of my respiration, breathing as comfortably as I do on the surface. I gave the “Okay” sign to the instructor and completed all my skills.

Diver stress can happen to anyone, but new divers are especially susceptible. Remember your training whenever a stressful situation arises; it will get you through. And a comfortable, confident diver is one who dives often and who continues his or her diver education by taking specialty courses in a wide variety of subjects. The more you learn, the more equipped you become to handle any situation, any time.

And hey, if you’re ever in Panama City Beach, FL, be sure to stop by Panama City Dive Center and say hello to Mike Gomez!

Diving Cousteau’s Favorite Site: The Chimney

Don’t ask me to tell you which was my favorite dive site in the British Virgin Islands; I couldn’t choose. But Jacques Cousteau reportedly touted The Chimney as his favorite dive site, anywhere. So over the Thanksgiving holiday, we dropped down to see why the father of scuba loved diving this place so much.

The site is located in the north BVI, off the west shore of Great Dog island. The Dogs are a group of rocky islands to the west of Virgin Gorda. The moorings are within a protected cove and the site is shallow, only 45 feet at its deepest, making it an excellent site for all levels of dive experience. The north swells were up a bit the day we were there, introducing us to the joys and challenges of surge.

Dive BVI

Our guides for The Chimney dive were Jeff Nichols and a lovely Turkish woman, whose name escapes me. They were with Dive BVI, an SSI (and PADI) partner with a top-notch operation.

Pre-dive Paperwork

Before boarding Dive BVI’s boat, there were the prerequisite waivers and proof of certification papers to sign. Necessary, but hard to sit through when all you want to do is go diving!

On our way!

Finally, we were on our way from our location in the Bitter End Yacht Club Marina at Virgin Gorda. It was a short 20-minute ride to the Dog Islands.

Great Dog Island, BVI

Here’s The Chimney dive site, from the boat. The sea was pretty calm, but there was some surface current.

Dive Briefing

Jeff gave us a comprehensive dive and safety briefing, complete with diagrams  on a drop-down dry erase board hidden in the ceiling. Impressive 🙂

The Chimney is named for its resemblance to the technical rock climbing slot of the same  name. We used the mooring line for a controlled descent 40 feet down to The Fishbowl, an open area with several massive coral heads rising from a sand and rock strewn bottom. The fish here are spectacular, and we saw blue tangs, sergeant majors, yellow tail snapper, parrotfishes, angel fishes, and so many more.

We headed north, exploring the canyons and ridges that run parallel with the shore. At a depth of 45 feet, we worked our way around the point to a beautiful archway encrusted with cup corals and brightly colored coral polyps. Jeff was leading the way, and suddenly he spun to face us with a stiff hand against his forehead. “Shark!”

Resting on the bottom, right at the arch entrance, was a 5-foot long nurse shark. Cool! After gawking at it for a minute or two, we glided several feet above it and under the arch.

Once through the archway, we were inside a narrow, steep-walled corridor where the colorful corals and sponges blew us away. It was other-worldly. We didn’t need flashlights to see the bright oranges, purples, reds and yellows of the animal life that cling to the canyon walls. Breathtaking!

The walls grew ever closer together as we swam until we arrived at two enormous boulders that form a slot, which is the canyon exit. This is The Chimney. It looked too narrow to swim through, but we all glided through with no problem.

We continued on, exploring the base of the cliff where small boulders cover the sea floor. They look like giant river rocks, their surfaces rubbed smooth from years of rushing surge. Eventually we circled back around and explored the Fishbowl until our air supplies ran low.

I understand now why Cousteau favored this site. The colorful sea life that populates The Chimney is spectacular, even for non-marine biologists! And if you haven’t had the chance to experience this dive firsthand, here’s footage I found on YouTube. Enjoy!

What’s your favorite dive site in the BVI? In the world?

 
Post Author: Nicole Ducleroir, Advanced Open Water diver and Dolphin Dive Club member.
Note: If you are a diver and would like to share a dive experience, email Nicole at nicoleducleroir(at)gmail(dot)com!