‘Ocean in the desert’ brings tropical fish, international scuba divers to Utah

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Courtesy of Bonneville Seabase

TOOELE COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – Who would have ever guessed that resting under an ocean of garbage, would be an ocean, of well, an ocean?

When Linda Nelson and her husband, George Sanders, purchased a 60-acre plot of land from Grantsville City in 1988, there was a lot of work to be done, but they knew what they had bought would be a unique way to continue to pursue one of their favorite hobbies: scuba diving.

“They needed a new snowplow or something, so we had to get an appraisal, and then they doubled that,” she recalls of the deal with the city. “I wasn’t going to go for it, but then I thought ‘there’s nothing quite like that, we’ll go ahead and do it anyway.’”

Now, Nelson and Sanders are the proud owners and operators of what they call the “only ocean in the desert of Utah.”

Courtesy of Bonneville Seabase

It took about eight dump trucks full of garbage — and a bit of construction know-how from Sanders, who Nelson says is “very brilliant at making things happen” — eventually, a body of water now known as Bonneville Seabase came to the surface.

What makes Bonneville Seabase so unique, especially for Utah and likely the entire world, is its warmth and salt content at an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet. With a salinity rivaling that of ocean and water temperatures, which can range from 60 degrees in the winter to the mid-80s in the summer, Bonneville Seabase serves as an excellent place for diving fanatics to practice and receive scuba certification.

“You need to go to what they call ‘open water’ for training,” Nelson explains, differentiating what the Seabase offers as opposed to a diving class in a regular swimming pool. “To become actually certified, you need to be out in a natural-type environment, which is what we provide.”

To add even more authenticity to the experience, Bonneville Seabase keeps its pools, which have a maximum depth of 62 feet, filled with a number of exotic fish. At the moment, Nelson says the facility has a number of black drums, mullets, butterflyfish, sailfin mollies, blennies, and clingfish (yes, those are all real fish that mostly reside in tropical regions).

For a while, they had a couple of nurse sharks that grew up to 10 feet long, before dying at 24 years old — quite a long life for the species. When the sharks passed away, Nelson was afraid their business would take a hit, but in actuality, the opposite happened. Class bookings picked up considerably because people had been afraid previously to dive with sharks, although Nelson says they were very tame creatures.

A pufferfish named Missy — although Nelson admits they didn’t know whether it was a male or female — was also quite popular with the Seabase’s guests. Missy was known for showing off to inquiring divers, looking to get a peek at ocean life in Utah.

“It would swim up to people and look at their mask and blow bubbles, or you know, and make funny faces. It was a very cool fish,” she recalls.

Nelson found a love for diving during some time off from the job in her former career. As an employee at Kennecott Copper Mine, she was given a couple of months off due to a labor strike. With nothing to do at home, she got into scuba and has completed successful dives in the Arctic, the Antarctic, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Red Sea, to name a few.

At Bonneville Seabase, she has accommodated a clientele as international as her personal logbook, with visitors from places as far away as China, Russia, Great Britain, and Australia.

She laughs when asked if the “ocean” in Tooele County reminds her of anywhere she’s been on one of her exotic dives, saying “Nope, nothing quite like this.”

For one, there is no coral at Bonneville Seabase. There’s also not a lot of the invertebrate animals that make the real ocean their home, Nelson says that’s because the water at their place doesn’t meet the proper conditions.

Still, it’s theirs and it’s a unique treasure surrounded by little else on the west side of the state.

“We have our own little ocean,” she boasts. “It will never make us rich, but it does cover its own costs. It’s a hobby, it’s a fun thing.”

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