Treasures of the Deep: Scuba Diving in the Finger Lakes

You don’t have to go to the ocean to find sunken treasures and interesting aquatic wildlife. The waters of the Finger Lakes can yield quite a few surprises.

While you may enjoy the Finger Lakes for its panoramic vistas and above-water sports, there’s a lot more waiting just below the surface. “When you dive in the Finger Lakes, you never know what you’ll see,” explains scuba instructor Greg Paul. “Some of my best dives have been when I went in search of one thing and found something entirely different.”

Digging out relics is only the start of an adventure, claims Greg. “Once I clean off an old bottle or plate, then the real work begins. Where did this come from? Are there any marks to help me out?” He doesn’t always find the answer, but he has collected an interesting array of articles from his dives, including fossils, antique milk bottles, and plenty of discarded glassware.

Do Not Try This at Home
Greg’s passion for diving began in his grandfather’s pool, when he and a friend decided to make their own diving equipment. “I used an old Shop Vac for an air supply,” he explains, “and tied barbells around my waist to keep me down. I was doing fine until my mother got a glimpse of how close the electrical cord was to the water. That’s when I caught holy hell!”

Rather than risk further diving experiments, Greg’s mother enrolled him in a scuba diving class at the YMCA. Thirty years later, he’s still at it, although his equipment is now significantly upgraded. Greg is a certified commercial hard hat diver from The Coastal School of Deep Sea Diving in California. Later, he became a scuba instructor certified by PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), the world’s largest and most recognized recreational diving organization.

“Scuba diving is a great family activity,” claims Greg. “Kids as young as 10 can begin learning. My 12-year-old son has already been on 25 dives, and he’s only been diving for a year.”

Where to Dive
Before going for a dive, it’s best to check with the local sheriff’s department. Most locales recommend specific access points. “Since September 11th, scuba access to the lakes has tightened up. In some areas, there are regulations about how close to a dock you can dive. Local authorities can help you find public boat launches as well,” explains Greg.

In Skaneateles Lake, you might chance upon fossils of horn corals. These fossils were formed 300 to 500 million years ago when a shallow sea covered Upstate New York. Unlike corals in the ocean, these corals lived solitary lives on the sea floor and never formed reefs. Try looking for these south of Three Mile Point, also known as Stag Horn Point.

You might also check out remnants of a jet plane in 85 feet of water on the northeast side. Visibility in Skaneateles Lake is usually 20 feet or better.

Seneca Lake, at 600 feet deep, offers spectacular cliffs well below the water line. It’s rumored that the east side of the lake is home to relics from the Sullivan Campaign in the late 1700s, a military effort against the Iroquois living in the area at the time. You’ll also find plenty of bottles at the north end of the lake near Geneva.

Keuka Lake’s most interesting underwater treasure is an old paddlewheel boat. This lake abounds with old bottles, discarded by cottage dwellers decades ago. The underwater landscape, like the surrounding terrain, is hilly.

If you relax your breathing, you may get an up close and personal look at one of the sizeable bass so relished by local fishermen. “Sometimes they’ll swim right up to your mask, which can startle the heck out of you,” says Greg. “But the kids love it.”

Canandaigua Lake abounds with interesting rock formations (see sidebar) and sunken boats. Bottle hunting is great near Squaw Island at the shallow north end of the lake. Check out the drop-off point near Naples where fishermen usually cluster. Here you’re likely to find lures, anchors, and even fishing rods in water from 20 to 60 feet.

Mud puppies, also known as water dogs, live in Canandaigua Lake. They can grow up to 15 inches long and live sluggish lives on the bottom of lakes and streams. They’re harmless amphibians with external gills and four squat legs, and although you probably wouldn’t want to touch them, they’re easy to pick up. “They look like something out of your worst nightmare,” Greg says. “Imagine a giant, brown salamander with the head of a snake and the body of a lizard.”

Conesus Lake is also good for bottle and plate hunting. Greg recommends avoiding the north end of the lake due to weedy conditions. Rumor has it that a payload of gold was dumped into the lake during the Sullivan Campaign, with an estimated worth of up to $2.4 million. You’ll find great fish viewing in this lake, including very large walleye and muskee, especially if you’re diving at night. And if you’re unlucky enough to come upon a mud puppy, you’ll not soon forget the experience.

Words of Advice
According to Greg, diving in the Finger Lakes is best done early or late in the year, before algae growth impairs visibility. “It’s a trade-off. The lakes are cold in the spring and fall, but you can see better. You’ll definitely need a wet suit, but in the summer you can get away with wearing a ‘shortie.’”

Greg advises not to dive after it rains or after a heat wave, when algae growth is at its highest. “And avoid Canadice and Hemlock Lakes altogether,” he adds, “since they supply water for Monroe County.”

Turtle Stones and the Legend of Bare Hill
The following excerpt from the Ganondagan State Historic Site recounts the origins of the Seneca people. It also provides an interesting explanation for the turtle stones commonly found along the Canandaigua shoreline.

The Seneca are known in their own language as ‘Onondowahgah,’ or people of the Great Hill.

Tradition relates that long ago, two men paddling home from a hunting trip found a small, brightly colored serpent floating on a leaf. They put this serpent in their canoe and took it home.

The people were much amazed and the whole town fed the snake. The snake grew until it was no longer satisfied with insects or mice but craved rabbits, then deer, and even bear. When the people became exhausted from feeding it, the great snake broke out of its pen and began eating them.

So huge was the snake and so ravenous its appetite, that soon it ate all the people of the town. Then it began hunting human beings, going from town to town, spreading terror and death. Finally, all were eaten except the people who lived on a great hill overlooking Canandaigua Lake.

There, in a dream, a boy and girl were told to make a bow of white pine, a string from the girl’s hair, and an arrow of dogwood tipped with a pure white arrowhead. These two, the last survivors, shot and killed the serpent. As the snake died, its body rolled down the hill into Canandaigua Lake, disgorging human skulls. To this day, no trees have grown where the serpent rolled down the hill. It is said that the round stones at the bottom of the lake are the skulls.

The boy and girl were the first People of the Great Hill, the founders of the Seneca Nation.

Sarsaparilla Bottles
Sarsaparilla was a tonic made in the early 1800’s from roots of the smilax vine. Advertised most widely as a cure for syphilis, it was also known to aid the “perspiratory functions of the skin” and to impart “tone and vigor to debilitated constitutions.”

Sarsaparilla bottles were hand blown in the mid-1800s before bottle molds were used. When the glassblower was ready to finish the neck of a bottle, he would dip an iron rod, or “pontil,” in molten glass and fuse it to the bottom of the bottle. The bottle was then free of the blowpipe and ready for finishing. When the pontil was broken from the bottle, it left a characteristic ring-shaped scar on the base, called the “pontil mark.” On more expensive bottles, this mark was polished off.

The bottle shown here is from an apothecary in Lowell, Massachusetts. Photograph by Dody Paul.

Diving Resources
Contact the following businesses to obtain equipment and find out about diving trips in the Finger Lakes:

Aquatic Center of Rochester
2725 East Henrietta Road
Henrietta, NY 14467 • (585) 334-1670

Pisces School of Dive Inc.
783 Fairport Road
East Rochester, NY 14445  • (585) 381-2842

by Joy Underhill and Greg Paul
Greg is a certified commercial hard hat diver from The Coastal School of Deep Sea Diving in California. Later, he became a scuba instructor certified by PADI. He lives in Henrietta with his wife, Dody.
Joy Underhill is a writer who is enthusiastic about the Finger Lakes and what the area has to offer.

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