SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - Over the past month, members of the Undersea Voyager Project have made 58 submersible dives and 33 scuba dives below the cobalt blue waters of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake to train for an upcoming circling of the world's oceans.
What did they find?
The team documented at least three unmapped trees underneath the surface of Fallen Leaf Lake that are more than 2,000 years old, more than 20 sunken boats dating back 100 years or so, an underwater seismic fault that might be more active than previously thought, and a potentially undocumented species, said project leader Scott Cassell.
The organism is a unicellular species that produces its own food and has characteristics that are animal-like, plant-like and fungus-like, Cassell said.
"It's really a complex little animal," Cassell said.
Further study is needed, but Cassell said the organism may be a species of Chloromonad, protozoa that are sometimes considered to be an algae, according to an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
"There's lots of interest to what they might be," Cassell said.
During a dive to look at the Incline Village seismic fault on the north side of the lake, the team observed nine feet of vertical offset, suggesting the fault might be younger and have a greater potential for causing an earthquake than previously thought, Cassell said.
"It means that more work really needs to be done to find out just how much energy is stored there," Cassell said, emphasizing that he is an observer and not a scientist, and conclusions about what the team saw need to be analyzed by the appropriate researchers.
The Undersea Voyager Project found a fair amount of Eurasian watermilfoil during its dives, something Cassell said "needs to be dealt with, with a lot of energy."
Documenting the possible spread of the milfoil will be part of the Undersea Voyager Project's expanded research when the team returns to Tahoe in October for another month-long series of dives. Cassell hopes to bring a second submersible along for that trip, one that can go even deeper into the lake.
And despite looking "really hard" for quagga mussels, the team didn't find any evidence that the destructive mussel that has spread around western waterways is in the lake.
"That doesn't give the lake a clean bill of health, but we didn't see anything," Cassell said.
Cassell also didn't find any proof that some of Lake Tahoe's most persistent myths are anything but that: myths.
Cassell's team didn't find evidence of the fabled Loch Ness monster type behemoth known as Tahoe Tessie. Nor did the team find the perfectly preserved bodies of mobsters dumped in the lake in the 1930s that are, as rumor would have it, forever suspended in Tahoe's depths.
The team also didn't find mounds of trash in the lake, something Cassell chalks up to people's passion for Lake Tahoe.
"I was really interested in mankind's impact on the lake, and one of the things I didn't see was a lot of trash," Cassell said. "There was trash underwater, but a lot less than I thought there would be."
Before the project team's return in October, they will embark on their preliminary voyages to circle 27,000 miles of the world's oceans. The team will begin the mission at the Channel Islands in the late summer, Cassell said.
The team will head out of the Lake Tahoe Basin on June 10 after finishing up some work in Fallen Leaf Lake, and it will be with some sadness on Cassell's part.
"I fell in love with this place so much, and I see so much potential for this ecosystem to fail that I've become very attached to this place," Cassell said.
A documentary is in the works and Cassell is in search of a Web developer to help get information about the team's Lake Tahoe dives posted to the nonprofit project's Web site at: http://underseavoyager.org.
"Really, Lake Tahoe is a symbol for the rest of the world," Cassell said. "If we can't save Lake Tahoe from mankind's influence, we won't be able to save anything."