The Undersea World of Virginia

Some of the region’s best scuba diving is found in a quarry south of Petersburg. MATTHEW GRAHAM goes under and finds a bus sunk in Lake Rawlings.

On a beautiful, sunny day with a temperature in the 80s, it’s hard to be comfortable when encased in 7 millimeters of neoprene. The bulky full-body wetsuit makes you feel like Gumby. And with a 30-lb. air tank strapped to your back and 20 lbs. of lead weights on your waist, you waddle out toward the edge of the lake, carrying a mask and a pair of fins, feeling like Gumby’s horse Pokey is riding on your back. After wading in waist deep, however, the water instantly relieves the heat and the buoyancy lifts the heavy burden of the weights and tank. Ahhh! You relax for a moment as your dive buddy comes up on one side. You each put on masks and fins and double-check each other’s air pressure. It’s finally time to slip beneath the surface and explore the underwater world of the clearest lake between Maine and Florida: Lake Rawlings, Virginia.

Lake Rawlings is a 20-acre scuba diving mecca near Petersburg. It’s rated as one of the top 50 dive sites in the U.S. and attracts over 15,000 divers per year. Students from virtually every dive shop in Virginia, as well as those from across the mid-Atlantic come to this former quarry to learn how to dive. There is also an on-site training program and dive shop. Rented out for events, it’s also been a movie set, a site of filming for the Colin Farrell Jamestown story, The New World.

Unlike other lakes in quarries that are cold and cloudy, this one warms up to the 80s on the surface in the summer, with visibility reaching to over 60 feet, as opposed to the maximum of 20 typical of most quarries. Granite from the quarry was originally used to build the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, Interstate 85 and other roads. The lake was created when miners opened an aquifer in the 1950s. The water remains clear due to being spring fed and a unique geological and biological feature: The bottom of the lake, at 65 feet, is solid rock, not mud. And on a shallow ledge at less than 30 feet deep, the sun penetrates to the bottom where algae grows, covering the rocky ledge in a thick mat. This mat acts as a filter cleaning the water.

Down at 30 feet, you find two school buses, several cars and two boats, one of which is a sailboat used in the movie The Replacements, starring Keanu Reeves. Swimming inside the buses is an eerie experience, bringing back memories from childhood and being carted off to school. Now, however, you actually enjoy the time on the bus and look out the windows as bass swim by. After swimming out the back door, your buddy signals to go deeper by giving a thumbs-down hand gesture. You reply, making the OK sign, and swim over the ledge. The water instantly becomes colder, plummeting to only 55 degrees just past a depth of 30 feet. It’s called a thermocline, a stratum between two bodies of water at different temperatures. You’re now especially happy to be in the thick wetsuit.

Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water next to the skin. The layer heats up to body temperature and the suit acts as insulation—the thicker the suit, the better the insulation. Weights are used to counteract the inherent buoyancy of the wetsuit. SCUBA is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. It’s an amazingly simple device. Compressed air is fed from a tank through a pressure regulator to a mouthpiece that includes a rubber diaphragm. The diaphragm reacts to each inhale and exhale, opening and closing a valve to feed air from the tank and vent exhalations into the water to form bubbles. The apparatus also includes a depth gauge, air pressure gauge and a Buoyancy Compensator (BC) jacket. The BC works as a life jacket on the surface. Beneath the water, thumb-operated valves inflate and deflate the jacket to stabilize a diver’s position at a selected depth. Reaching the bottom, you look up. The sun appears as a dim bulb shooting out rays through the water. Air bubbles drift upwards like balloons. Still, even prepared for cold water diving, 55 degrees is pretty dang cold. You slowly swim back toward the shallow ledge. Crossing the thermocline into the warmer water is like stepping into a sauna. It feels unbelievably good. You slowly kick and let the fins do most of the work propelling you forward. Up ahead is a submerged streetscape with a mailbox, street sign and road barrier. Your buddy points out a basketball hoop. You each take turns pretending to dunk the ball, leaping well above the rim. If only it were that easy on land.

After over 40 minutes and with air beginning to run low, it’s time to leave. You swim slowly to the surface to minimize the risk of decompression sickness, also called the ‘bends,’ a term that comes from a symptom of becoming permanently bent over when nitrogen bubbles from compressed air lodge in the lower spine and damage nerves and other tissues. Simple tables or handheld dive computers (often in the form of a watch) are used to calculate how long a dive may last at a given depth to prevent such occurrences. Instructors worldwide boast that diving is safer than bowling due to the use of these tables and universal teaching techniques.

Popping back into the sunshine and the world of air breathers reminds you each and every time of being born. You inflate your BC, take out the mouthpiece and inhale the fresh, clean air. Back at the picnic area and free from the wetsuit, you check your dive computer. It indicates that you can return to the water in less than an hour. It’s just enough time for a light lunch and a few minutes of sunbathing before grabbing fresh air tanks and jumping back in the lake. There is still plenty to explore at this undersea playground.

For more information on learning to dive, rentals, fees and lodging, visit LakeRawlings.com or call (804) 478-9000. An open water scuba certification costs $375 and can be completed in two weekends. The place offers camping and cabins. Dive knives are not permitted at Lake Rawlings.

“Nikki” | History of the blue school bus

Tim Sims, a modern-day hippy in 1993, bought a well-used bus, converted the interior into a motor home, painted it blue and followed rock bands. It was a regular at concerts by the Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic and many others until Sims settled into a regular job at Virginia Beach’s Lynnhaven Dive Center in 2001.

The bus was named “Nikki,” for the wife of Sims’ best friend, Steve Hicks. Nikki Hicks gave great care to her husband Steve while he battled cancer in the early 1990s until his death in 1993.

In October 2005, with 275,000 miles on the bus’ odometer, Sims donated “Nikki” to Lake Rawlings and, with the help of the staff, rolled it into a deep section of the lake. In February 2006, nine lift bags were attached to float the bus, and it was relocated from the east to the west side of the lake, where it now rests upright in 27 feet of water.

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