Story and photos by David Prichard and Lily Mak
The phrase, “If you build it, they will come.” was whispered over and over by a voice inside Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella’s head in the 1988 movie, “Field of Dreams.” The film became an instant classic among baseball enthusiasts. Kinsella, played by actor Kevin Costner, was instructed to turn his corn crop into a baseball diamond. If he did, the voice insisted, something big would happen.
Robert and Debbie Cameron, owners of a 22-acre (9-hectare) spring-fed quarry lake less than an hour’s drive from the metropolis of Dallas weren’t exactly plagued by voices, but since opening Clear Springs Scuba Park near Terrell, Texas, only three years ago, something big has happened, indeed. To date, more than 4,000 divers have explored its depths.
“We’re barely keeping ahead of the crowds,” said Robert Cameron. The couple have expanded the park from the opening-day facilities of two docks and two underwater training platforms to seven entry docks and nine platforms. They’ve also added a number of interesting underwater attractions, including a giant shark.
Creating a Scuba Park
For more than 150 years, Debbie’s family has owned the property where Clear Springs Scuba Park is located in northeast rural Texas. White limestone used in road construction was mined at the quarry site from the 1950s to the early ’80s. Once abandoned, the quarry soon filled with clear water from three springs. Locals knew the lake as a great swimming hole and it wasn’t long before scuba divers learned of its 40-foot (12-m) underwater visibility and varied aquatic life.
After several people approached the Camerons to lease the property for scuba diving operations, Robert, Debbie and another family member, Robert Malone, began tossing around the idea of developing the lake as a scuba park. The first major challenge for them was that none of them were certified scuba divers at the time.
Debbie recruited an old high school friend, C.B. Kloppe, who owns a scuba center near Dallas/Fort Worth airport, to come dive the lake and give them his opinion. Kloppe provided the Camerons the encouragement they needed to start the project and offered to help build it.
In addition to their friend’s recommendations, Robert traveled down to Lake Travis near Austin, Texas, and met with the owners of two scuba parks popular with divers. Armed with “do and don’t” advice from these helpful colleagues, Robert and the group worked quickly to open the gates of Clear Springs on June 15, 2000, only four months after Kloppe made his exploratory dive.
The Camerons initially put together a packet of information about their new scuba park and mailed it to all local dive stores in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and surrounding cities. They have since relied on “word of mouth” to publicize their facility and that word has apparently traveled far. Not only are dive centers from Houston and Amarillo sending classes to train at Clear Springs, but out-of-state centers from Shreveport, Louisiana, and Oklahoma City have also made regular appearances.
“Our busiest day last year recorded a total of 273 divers using the park,” Robert said.
Regular visitors have learned to arrive early at the park when the gates open at 8 a.m. to select a particular dock. No reservations are taken as Clear Springs observes a “first come, first served” policy.
Improving the Training Facilities
After building two wooden docks for diver entry and exit options, the Camerons enlisted the help of a welder to build the underwater training platforms. Kloppe and other scuba instructors described to the welder what they thought the “ideal” training platform should resemble. The result was several variations of a 10-by-10-foot (3-by-3-m) galvanized metal platform with raised side railings on two opposite sides. Scuba students can hold onto the railing and hover on the outside of the platform while skills are performed in the middle. Each platform sits 10-12 feet (3-4 m) off the bottom of the lake to guard against fins kicking up silt. The newest platforms have a metal grate surface to discourage the buildup of floating sediment.
A large covered pontoon dock was next added to one end of the lake. Over the past year, Robert has constructed four peninsula-shaped rock docks with metal stairwells leading in and out of the water. One rock dock along a natural wall area took 80 tons (72 metric tons) of boulders to create.
In addition to the dock areas, a portion of the oblong lake bends slightly out of sight from the rest of the park. This area is ideal for rescue class certification training. A natural slope entry has been reinforced with gravel and allows easy simulated water evacuations. Divers can perform simulated rescue scenarios in this area without alarming other divers around the lake. A wooden dock will be added to this area later in 2003.
Adding Above-Water Amenities
The Texas summer heat can bake divers during surface intervals along the exposed northern shore by the original docks. The Camerons responded by adding five sun shelters in the area and one more in the southwestern part of the lake. The southern shore is tree-covered, providing natural shade.
Currently, the park has two buildings. One houses an air-fill station that offers air fills, but no nitrox. The building also serves as a limited dive center with a small supply of scuba gear and tanks. For medical emergencies, the building also houses oxygen and first-aid kits. Clear Springs is within the 911 emergency service area of Terrell.
The springs in the bottom of the lake can bring the water temperature down into the mid-50s Fahrenheit (low teens Celsius) even though the surface temperature may be up in the 80s F (high 20s C) during the summer. Multiple thermoclines make dry suit rentals a desirable option.
The other building doubles both as a check-in station for divers and as a small café offering hamburgers, sandwiches, drinks and snacks. A third building is planned for the latter part of 2003 to house restrooms and showers. Currently the park has six porta-potties conveniently located around the lake.
The wooded area of the park has campsites with electrical hookups, but no water or waste disposal facilities.
Attractions Under the Water
Since May 2002, a favorite pastime with divers at Clear Springs is to escape the gaping jaws of a 50-foot (15-m) shark that lives near the southern shore of the lake. This shark’s bite radius measures about 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter — enough room to swallow two divers side by side. Too much iron in its diet has caused this steel-skinned shark to keep its 7,000-pound (3,150-kg) body permanently positioned at a depth of 25 feet (8 m). The shark sculpture, nicknamed “Sisco” after its creator Harvey Sisco, is made from two cylindrical storage tanks. It was lowered into the lake by a crane as a swim-through attraction for divers. Although the distance is relatively short from the open mouth to the rear exit, the passage through the shark is still an overhead environment and caution should be used when entering it.
Every good scuba park needs a shipwreck to explore, so the Camerons added a 1944 Chrysler steel hull cabin cruiser to the bottom of the lake. The boat is open for penetration and wreck certification practice.
To allow for deep-diver certifications, a section of a grain silo, 15 feet (5 m) in diameter, was placed in the deepest part of the lake. It rests at a depth of 63 feet (19 m), which meets the certification requirement of many training agencies. A second silo barrier is planned for placement in late 2003.
The southern shore of the lake features steep walls where instructors have students practice their buoyancy skills in preparation for diving ocean walls. Beds of hydrilla plants grow all along the lake and provide a lush landscape and nursery to the lake’s amazing abundance of fish life. Catfish, bass, crappie, bluegill and turtles are numerous in the lake. There have even been a few sightings of freshwater eels.
Early in the park’s development, Robert had a few large “pet” bass that he fed until they disappeared following one weekend filled with divers camping at the lake. After finding a sling band for a spear gun in the lake, he suspected someone might have speared his pets for dinner. Since then, there is a strict park rule banning all spear guns and fishing gear from the park.
Once Ray Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams” baseball diamond was complete, it became the playground for the ghosts of ball players “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. In a particularly moving scene, “Shoeless Joe,” played by Ray Liotta, looks around the ball field and asks Costner’s character Kinsella, “Is this heaven?” Kinsella replies, “No. It’s Iowa.”
The Camerons aren’t aware of any ghosts visiting their scuba park, but just like in the movie, they’re happy they built their Texas “heaven” for scuba divers — and that divers will come from great distances to enjoy it.
The entry fee for a day of diving is $20 per person. A discount card for 10 admissions is available for $150. You can also get a season pass for $300. All divers are asked to show their certification card and sign a liability waiver.
To reach Clear Springs Scuba Park, take Hwy. 80 from Dallas through Terrell and continue one mile east before turning onto FM 429. Go eight miles north to Cedar Grove Road and turn right and travel almost two miles to the park entrance.
For more information, including a map of the park, log on to the park’s Web site at www.clearspringsscubapark.com or call (972) 524-6820.