Descent Into Devil’s Hole : Underground and Underwater in Death Valley


“Call to Adventure,” by Hillary Hauser, from which this is excerpted, will be published in December.

WE WERE LOOKING for Devil’s Hole, an enormous, water-filled earthquake fault that is part of the Death Valley National Monument. We figured something like Devil’s Hole would be easy to pick out in the parched, flat landscape, but we had figured wrong. After zigzagging the desert for a good part of the afternoon, our good dispositions were evaporating with the heat.

At the bottom of our uneasiness was the fact that once we found Devil’s Hole we weren’t sure what we would be able to do with it. We had tried for weeks to get permission to dive and photograph it, but National Park Service restrictions were severe. A number of divers had died in the hole, and the cave was also the only home in the world for the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish. Just as the snail darter had halted the megamillion-dollar construction of a dam in Tennessee, the Devil’s Hole pupfish had stopped the pumping of water from underneath the Amargosa Desert.


It was all a heated matter and, in the middle of the fire, I had convinced a magazine that a story on Devil’s Hole would be rather good. The magazine had given us a go-ahead, depending upon the pictures we could get. The National Park Service, however, didn’t want unnecessary people stepping on the pupfish, and that was that. The Park Service had given me permission to make one dive as a safety diver for the scientist who counted the fish every month. I had convinced Jack McKenney, an old friend of mine with whom I’d worked on other underwater assignments, to go with me to Death Valley to see what photos we could scare up.

I had heard about Devil’s Hole just after I returned from exploring the freshwater caves of South Australia. I was sitting in the living room of my friends Chris and Hadda Swann one evening telling them about diving in the caves. Chris, who is British, jumped up and ran to get something from another room. He came back with an old film-festival program describing Merl Dobry’s documentary on Devil’s Hole. In the program was a diagram of Devil’s Hole describing what the hole was about and how it had been formed. I had heard of Devil’s Hole because of the pupfish issue, but I had never imagined that it was so big, deep and complicated. From the diagram I could see there were multitudinous passageways that angled off the main shaft. A narrow slot edged to one side of the main shaft and opened into a giant air-filled room underneath the mountain. Below a narrow passageway that descended to 160 feet was an enormous chamber of water that continued to at least 260 feet. No one had bottomed the hole, so its exact depth was unknown.

Devil’s Hole appeared to be more exciting than any of the holes I’d dived in in Australia. In looking at all of this material, I found myself becoming curious.

The desert of Death Valley is geology in action, a silent, eternal kiln where panoramic rocks are fired day after day in sun that never quits. It is a harsh, untamed land that bears names such as Furnace Creek, Desolate Canyon, Badwater, Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate and Ash Meadows--home of Devil’s Hole. The land seems fluid still, with its boiling, bubbling, moving, cracking and faulting earth now frozen in time. Mountains have spilled their volcanic ooze down bumpy canyons in roller-coaster paths of heated chocolate bordered by vanilla-colored pumice and sand. Dark rivers of black ash snake through mounds of caked mustard clay. Sharp, jagged crags, once buried deep in granite, shoot upward in violent explosions that are frozen in midair. The land is untouched by man because it is so untouchable. The only evidence of his being there are the occasional giant anthills where he has dug for minerals. Zeolite, the soft, green, moonlike rock used to filter water, is piled up beside the roads. Old scars in the sides of mountains reveal abandoned gold or silver mines. But it is borax, the “white gold” of the desert, that gave Death Valley its 20-mule-team history.

IT WAS HARD to imagine that at one time the dry, salt-encrusted desert on which we stood was a fertile, green, freshwater land of lakes and rivers. It was even harder to imagine that such an enormous amount of fresh, pure water was now underground, hidden from sight. The geologic history of Death Valley tells us how this water system came to be. In late Precambrian and early Cambrian time, Death Valley was beneath the sea, as much of the world was. By 550 million years ago, the skeletal carcasses of innumerable generations of corals, shellfish and other sea animals had created an enormous mass of lime and sand. This mass then consolidated into a limestone and dolomite layer more than two miles thick in some areas, perhaps only tens of feet in others. In Mesozoic time (225 to 65 million years ago), a chain of volcanoes arose along the present Sierra Nevada, and the sea withdrew. The limestoned Death Valley region became a highland.

Limestone is porous, and the rainfall from a big area of Nevada northeast of Ash Meadows and Death Valley collected underground, forming a major water table. As it ran in the direction of Ash Meadows, this water dissolved the limestone. In some areas where it collected and pooled, it ate upward through the limestone until the surface land collapsed downward, creating the sinkhole.

Devil’s Hole, on the other hand, is a flooded earthquake fault, formed by one of the earthquake or faulting actions of the Mesozoic period. Extending into the earth from the base of an unnamed mountain in the Amargosa Desert, it filled with the water that permeated the rest of the underground area. In Devil’s Hole, the water began to eat away at the limestone fissures, enlarging the caverns and creating new tunnels and chambers.

Soon after McKenney and I finally found Devil’s Hole, diver Jim Deacon got there. There would be three of us on the dive--Deacon, Park Service safety diver Bob Todd and me. Deacon prepared for the morning dive. He laid down a narrow bridge of boards over the shallow shelf of bright-green algae where the pupfish live, and then we geared up.

As I walked across the narrow boards in my heavy diving gear, I looked down at the tiny fish, each one of them no bigger than a minnow. They swam leisurely around, picking at algae.

I carefully put one foot on the very edge of the shelf and lowered myself backward into a drop-off of clear, blue water. As I waited for the others, I looked down through my face mask. I could see the first ledge below me at 30 feet. At 92 degrees, the warm water was like swimming in nothing. It was so clear that visibility might have been 300 feet.

The sides of the main shaft of Devil’s Hole consisted of white limestone, chiseled over the years by water into smooth slopes on either side. Rust-colored organic material on top of the elevated ridges of stone created an ethereal, otherworldly effect. At 60 feet, I turned and looked up toward the surface. The bright blue of the shallow water at the surface illuminated the main shaft and silhouetted the sloping wall on the right side. From where I hovered, I could see people standing around on the rocks above. Just as distinct was the long, rectangular lamp that hung over the water, positioned over the pupfish shelf and turned on when algae production needs a boost. Another shaft of light beamed down from behind a rock in back of the main entrance. The slope of limestone leading up to it created a narrow ledge against the ceiling of the cave.

I turned again toward the bottom and the three of us switched on our lights. We sank to 90 feet where an enormous flat stone called Anvil Rock signaled the deepest part of our dive. This stone, shaped like an enormous anvil and obviously shaken loose from above, marked the deepest spot where the pupfish wander from their shallow shelf. Deacon started counting fish at this point while I beamed my underwater light down beyond Anvil Rock to see what I could see. I knew that below Anvil Rock was the narrow funnel that went to 160 feet and the deeper chamber. Nitrogen narcosis had robbed at least one diver of judgment and common sense here. It was in this chamber that two divers had disappeared years before. Their bodies were never recovered. One needed good lights and a safety line system to explore Devil’s Hole.

While poking around Anvil Rock, I saw a line tied permanently around a rock, angling up through the narrow passageway that led to Brown’s Room, a huge, air-filled underground chamber, accessible only through a narrow slit.

I looked at the other two. Deacon was counting fish at about 60 feet and Todd was watching him count. I wasn’t going to see Brown’s Room on this dive, so I swam up and joined the others.

Later, at a mid-desert saloon near the California-Nevada border, Deacon explained that the pupfish had been stranded in Devil’s Hole 20,000 or more years ago, when the freshwater system of the desert began to dry up and recede. Because Devil’s Hole was one of the higher habitats, these creatures were the first to be stranded, the first of the desert pupfish to evolve into its own distinct species.

The continuing desiccation of the area resulted in similar isolation and consequent reduced survival odds for other populations of desert pupfish. The Tecopa and Shoshone pupfish were extinct already, and the Warm Springs pupfish are endangered now. Other desert pupfish in the area, such as those in Crystal Spring, are all right for the moment, said Deacon, because at that desert level, the water is still flowing between the springs and ponds where the fish live and propagate.

All pupfish species have tolerated periodic difficult living conditions, usually associated with summer heat: When the sun is hot, their habitats dry up. Some pupfish survive parched summers in homes the size of a teacup. When water evaporates in these limited living quarters, salinity levels increase. The desert pupfish, Deacon said, is one of the few fish in the world that can tolerate such concentrations of salt. The fish also withstands the freezing temperatures of winter and a host of other difficulties, which include competitive, foreign species of fish and crayfish that fight the pupfish for food and space.

The irony is that the adaptable little fish probably cannot withstand what human beings want to do to it. Yet another battle was brewing in Ash Meadows over water rights at the very moment McKenney and I were there. The pupfish was again threatened by a land-development scheme that planned to turn 13,000 acres of Ash Meadows into a recreational-housing and golf-course development. It was going to be a war for water, and again, the Devil’s Hole pupfish were going to be under the gun.

WE DIVED A number of the desert sinkholes, but in my mind I could still see Brown’s Room and the safety line tied around that rock leading up to it.

Some weeks later, Jack McKenney and I returned to Devil’s Hole. We carefully laid down the narrow bridge of boards over the shallow shelf where the pupfish lived, and we geared up quickly. We stepped on the very edge of the shelf and lowered ourselves backward into the flooded drop-off. With our underwater lights switched on, we swam quickly to the first ledge below, at 30 feet. Even in the dark, the water was warm and clear. We sank on through the main shaft until we were at Anvil Rock, at 90 feet. Again, I saw the permanent safety line and pointed it out to McKenney. We quickly went for the line.

With our lights picking the way through the narrow, dark crack, I followed McKenney along the safety line, which I held in my left hand. The back of my tank scraped the limestone wall overhead as I pulled myself along on my stomach through the narrow opening. When we cleared the opening, we were at the bottom of the cavern I’d been told about. Our lights illuminated the entire, flooded room. Enormous limestone walls rose up from 80 feet, and conglomerates of granite jutted through the whiteness of the limestone to create a submerged work of art. The white line led upward through the dark cavern.

Following the line, we rose up through the clear, transparent water. It was still as warm as at the entrance of the main shaft because this water is heated by the depths of earth rather than by sunlight.

The reflection of my light hit the surface of the water, becoming as silver as mercury against the bright white walls. Because of the clarity of the water, it was almost impossible to tell the depth in which we swam. We had moved from 90 feet to the surface in a matter of minutes.

When we broke through to air, I was completely stunned by what I saw. The cavern of Brown’s Room is enormous, probably 50 feet from the surface of the water to the ceiling. About 10 feet above us, a dry passageway led off into a dark crack, another passageway. According to the diagram of Devil’s Hole, that dark crack turned down again into yet another water-filled chamber. The walls of the main chamber were rusty-brown and ancient. We were completely sealed off from the outside world, underneath a mountain in a Nevada desert.

We pulled our regulators out of our mouths and took a taste of the air. It was musty, and because we didn’t know the quality of it, we immediately switched back to our regulators. I turned off my light; McKenney turned off his. Instantly, the room became pitch black. That was enough. We turned our lights on again and headed down, free-falling along the safety line until we came to the narrow crack that led us back to the main shaft. We squeezed through the passage, inching our way along on our bellies like snakes, and we came out at Anvil Rock. Together, we rose up through the main shaft until we were back at the first ledge at 30 feet. There we stopped to have a long, close look at the tiny pupfish.

Copyright 1987 by Bookmakers Guild, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.