Divers learn from latest trip to S.S. Tahoe | TahoeDailyTribune.com
Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

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Divers learn from latest trip to S.S. Tahoe

Sun rays and helium-induced anxiety were part of a dive team’s fourth trip deep into Lake Tahoe to visit a steamer sunk intentionally in 1940.

On previous dives, algae blooms in the lake kept natural light from reaching the S.S. Tahoe, which sits wedged in sand, facing north, a mile out from Glenbrook Bay. On Saturday, sunlight illuminated the wreck for the New Millennium Dive Expeditions.

“It was the clearest dive,” said Brian Morris, one of two divers from the Reno-based team, who swam above the ship. “It helped make it a more relaxing. Not diving in the pitch black helps you forget that you’re that deep, too.”

While Morris experienced a “fantastic” dive, his partner, Martin McClellan, felt anxious enough to cut time the two spent observing the steamer from five minutes to four.

“I was little off synch. I think I overloaded myself,” McClellan said. “We had too many things we wanted to do on this dive.”

Morris said he thinks his dive partner suffered heightened anxiety, which he experienced two dives earlier, as a result of breathing helium, a gas they mix with oxygen and nitrogen to swim at 400 feet. The anxiety, Morris said, may be brought on by increased exertion.

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For McClellan, exertion came during the pair’s descent to the wreck. Morris sank at a chosen rate of 70 feet per minute. McClellan, for an undetermined reason–maybe he had too much insulation gas in his dry suit–sank more slowly, which prompted him to overwork in an effort to catch up with Morris.

“I got winded, I got down there and felt behind the whole time,” McClellan said. “Last dive we didn’t have all these plans. This time that proved to be my nemesis. The whole time I kept thinking about time and that we didn’t have enough of it.”

The last dive, Aug. 3, McClellan shot video of the ship while Morris monitored the amount of time they could swim at 390 feet. They finned their way about 70 feet down the starboard side of the 170 foot ship, making a U-turn just before a smokestack.

On Saturday, despite the difficulties, they swam around the smokestack, which sits at 403 feet, and traveled as far as 90 feet down along the bow of steamer. McClellan made the call to begin an early ascent at the four minute mark, cutting the dive a minute short, just before he and Morris prepared to hook a plaque to the vessel.

“I didn’t feel like I was on my best game, so I said ‘We’re going up,'” McClellan said. “I have an agreement with my wife and family.”

On its next dive, scheduled Sept. 21, the team plans to attach the aluminum plaque with plastic ties to commemorate its dives and honor the Bliss family, which owned the steamer.

McClellan also expects to slightly change the mix of gases he breathes to keep himself sharper. Morris said he plans to make sure neither he nor McClellan overexert on the descent.

“Anytime we feel like we’re working too hard to get down, we’re going to stop,” Morris said. “It’s worth 10 to 15 seconds to fix a problem if there is one.”

The S.S. Tahoe is one of four steamers that carried people, supplies and mail around the lake starting in 1896. Business for the steamers dried up after a road was completed around the lake in 1935.

One steamer, the Emerald, was cut up and sold for parts. The Nevada and the Meteor were submerged at the deepest parts of the lake at an unknown spot. The Blisses kept the S.S. Tahoe docked at Tahoe City until vandals persuaded them to sink the boat in about 80 feet of water at Glenbrook Bay. The idea being that the ship could be seen but not touched.

But the ship eventually slid deeper into water than planned and was lost. Its location was not known until Glenn Amundson, a South Lake Tahoe engineer, discovered the vessel in 1963.

New Millennium Dive Expeditions is a nonprofit exploration group. Its dives on the steamer and the training preceding them have cost about $50,000. Anyone who wants more information about the dive team or wants to see a variety of underwater photos of the ship should go to http://www.diverssupport.com/sstahoe.htm.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com