TAHOE, Calif. — I've been hearing the stories for as long as I've lived at Lake Tahoe, but last year's recovery of a drowned scuba diver from the depths of the lake once again stirred up the persistent rumor human corpses last for decades suspended in its cold, dark water. The fact the diver had drowned nearly 20 years before and his body was recovered intact added to the resurgence of this local legend.
Donald “Chris” Windecker was reported missing on July 10, 1994, while diving off Rubicon Point with a friend. The underwater Rubicon Wall near Bliss State Park is a popular spot among technical divers and is also near California's first underwater shipwreck park, two miles south at Emerald Bay.
According to an incident report released at the time, “Windecker experienced an unknown complication while diving” and he sank to the depths before his partner could get him to the surface. A local dive shop employee recently told me overweighting is a common problem among scuba divers and may have contributed to Windecker's demise.
Windecker's body was spotted at a depth of 265 feet by a deep water diver on July 23, 2011. The corpse was lodged in a rock crevice. Authorities located the body using a self powered remote operated vehicle that searched the pitch black water using a small light and camera. It took the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department most of a day to find Windecker's body and get it back to the surface using a mechanical claw mounted on the ROV.
Sheriff Sgt. Byron Golmitz said the water temperature at 265 feet is less than 40 degrees and that helped to preserve the corpse. Windecker's body was weighted for diving, but the chilling nature of Lake Tahoe's cold water refrigerates drowning victims and inhibits the gases that would normally form to bloat and float the body back to the surface. A Washoe Indian legend alleges Tahoe's water is so cold and clear it wouldn't support a human body.
But finding Windecker's corpse intact and preserved after 17 years doesn't confirm human bodies can remain suspended in time in Lake Tahoe. Scientists estimate there are more than 220 million crayfish crawling around the Lake's basin in a constant search for food. Crayfish were introduced to the lake in the late 1800s and the voracious non-native species would make short work of any unusual snacks that came their way.
If Windecker's body was wedged into the Rubicon Wall or similar feature it's possible it was somewhat harder for scavengers to access. It's also likely the insulated wetsuit Windecker wore (including booties, gloves, and hood) offered significant protection from crayfish and other flesh-eating critters, like fish. Windecker was missing his scuba mask and another dive shop employee told me he heard the flesh there was mostly gone.
A quick Internet search will turn up scores of stories in the media and on blogs talking about fully clothed drowning victims, with arms outstretched, bobbing beneath the surface of Lake Tahoe. As colorful as it may sound, there appears to be no truth or logic to the idea there are various bodies dressed in period attire floating in the depths.
Some people believe that Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s were thrown into the lake instead of being paid. Or Mafia murder victims were dumped into the water where their bodies would sink and never be found. I have found no factual basis for these rumors, but there is a scene in Godfather II filmed on Tahoe's west shore where one guy gets “whacked” and dumped into the lake to “swim with the fishes.”
The main rumor focuses on the famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, who is said to have plumbed Tahoe's depths in a submersible watercraft during the 1960s or 70s. When he returned to the surface, he allegedly said, “The world isn't ready for the horrors I have seen” referring to floating bodies. Nice story, but the fact is Cousteau never visited Lake Tahoe (his son Philippe did) and several people who knew Jacques told me since he was such a avid self-promoter, he would have taken the “shocking” Tahoe footage and made it into a National Geographic special.
No, the legend of floating corpses in Lake Tahoe belongs with the other tall tales about sea serpent monsters like Tahoe Tessie or the plug at the bottom of the lake.
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mark's new blog at www.tahoenuggets.com.