The Quarry Story – An Adventure into North America’s Hidden Wonders

For 80 years, the Portland Quarries have remained hidden in the background of everyday life. Almost forgotten. Many town residents did not even know where they were!

“Not so today. The possibility of opening the quarries to scuba divers carries with it a whole new way to appreciate the quarries. And sure enough, they are more than a little interested. Recreational scuba divers are a dedicated lot. They often travel quite far on the weekends just for a few hours of diving. They view the Portland Quarries as an incredible local opportunity.”

The Portland Quarries are an example of just one of North America’s hidden wonders. The above was excerpted from the Web site of the town of Portland, Connecticut, a quiet community located 20 miles (32 km) south of Hartford. The quarries, which carry the designation of National Historic Landmark because of the prominent role they played as the source of building blocks for the brownstones of New York City and Boston, open many recreational possibilities. Although the quarries are accessed by divers, the full-scale recreational park is still in the future.

Over the past half-century similar stories have been repeated all across North America. Deep pits in the ground, once the origin of quality stone and millions of yards of gravel, have been transformed into recreational Meccas.

Quarries are perfectly suited for the transformation to dive destinations. Most are spring-fed, so water is not a problem. In fact, when these man-made cavernous holes in the earth were working quarries one of the major challenges was keeping them dry. In many, as fast as the water was pumped from the depths of the pit, it filled right back up; the pumps ran continuously.

Once quarry operations were halted and the pumps silenced, the pits filled with water. Most sat for years, abandoned and often viewed as hazards rather than recreational gems in the rough. Many became the party place for local young people and the community dumping ground.

I remember a quarry not far from where I was raised. It was an eerie place. I was always cautioned to stay away from the water because it was cold and deep, not knowing that later in life I would actually be attracted to such environments.

Eventually people began to recognize the recreational potential of these water-filled holes. Rogue scuba divers who had been sneaking into the quarries under the cloak of darkness to explore their unknown depths began figuring out ways to legitimatize their pursuit.

One by one these holes in the ground began undergoing the transformation from liability to asset, from trash pit to scuba park, but it wasn’t without effort. To make them suitable for safe diving the truckloads of trash that had accumulated through the years — washing machines, refrigerators, concrete slabs, fence wire, cars, etc. — had to be removed and hauled away. Just about everything imaginable could be found in and around an abandoned quarry.

It was a slow process, as many of those involved were recreational divers with day jobs and a limited budget. Working evenings and weekends and with the help of other area divers, dive stores and clubs, progress was made. Before long, signs began springing up: “Open for Scuba Diving,” and quarry diving came of age.

The diving profits generated by most quarries were plowed back into the business. First it was picnic tables along the shore and portable restrooms, followed by floating docks and training platforms suspended at open-water training depths. Often local dive store staff, instructors and customers would do the work.

Then an interesting phenomenon occurred. After all the time and effort that was put into removing junk from in and around the quarry, quarry operators began intentionally putting junk back in. This, however, was a different type of junk. Instead of cast-off household appliances, excavation remnants and beer cans, the objects being sunk were more substantial and purposeful — airplanes, trucks, buses, boats, statues, large corrugated pipes and even a NASA Titan missile. All had been made safe for divers before being sunk.

Strategically placed to complement the abandoned quarry machinery that often rests deep beneath the surface, these objects are attractions for divers to explore. It is unlikely that you’ll find a quarry diver who has not been photographed sitting on the wing of an airplane 30 feet (9 m) down or at the helm of a sunken boat. Quarries are fun places to dive.

Perfect Training Locations

Quarries are popular training sites. Scuba instructors, especially in the East and Midwest, use quarries on a regular basis for open-water training dives and advanced classes. The dive center I worked with in New Jersey early in my teaching career conducted the confined-water and classroom portions of Open Water classes throughout the winter. Then, beginning the first weekend in April, they would schedule students for open-water training dives in a quarry located an hour west. Every weekend from April through mid-October someone from the store would meet students at the quarry for checkout dives, along with dozens of instructors and their students from dive stores in three surrounding states.

Most quarries that are open for scuba have areas designed for training, where well-marked platforms are suspended at training depth. Platforms typically are 12 to 18 feet square (4 to 5 m), suspended at a depth between 20 and 30 feet (6 and 9 m) and marked with buoys that also serve as descent/ascent lines.

Typically, instructors and their assistants snorkel the class to the buoy. While the assistants monitor the class, the instructor makes a controlled descent on the line with each student. Once all students are down, the class performs skill reviews while kneeling on the platform.

This routine provides a controlled first open-water experience and a stable place for demonstrating skills. The only danger is that although the platforms are at 20-30 feet, they often are suspended above much deeper water. If a student were to venture too near the edge and accidentally slip off, and this does occasionally happen, he most likely will descend deeper than planned before recognizing that he must establish neutral buoyancy. This is why instructors normally have assistants keep an eye on the students while the instructor is conducting skill reviews.

Once the skill reviews are completed the class often takes an exploratory swim around the quarry. Many times the platforms are connected to each other and to other items of interest by lines or cables. These serve as reference lines that guide students from one attraction to another. Such amenities are very helpful, especially since visibility in quarries sometimes is 5 feet (2 m) or less.

Another feature that makes quarries good training locations is easy entries and exits. During their original use as sources of stone and road construction material, quarries typically had at least one narrow road that wound around the inside wall of the quarry from ground level to the bottom. These roads were used to transport workers and equipment into the quarry and the stone and gravel out. Today, these roads serve as flat, smooth entry and exit locations for divers — easy to walk in and out.

Quarries are used for training students at all levels. Advanced students use the suspended platforms as the beginning and ending location for navigation training. The sunken airplanes, trucks, buses and other intentionally sunk attractions are perfect for navigation exercises and search routines.

Instructors even teach wall diving specialty courses along the sheer walls that line the inside perimeter of quarries. And since quarries generally are deep, they can be used for deep diving training as well. Night diving and limited-visibility courses are taught in quarries and, of course, the quarry diving specialty.

The water work for diver rescue courses also is conducted at quarries. The above-water gearing-up platforms that often are strategically placed around the shoreline are well-suited for pulling a diver to safety and administering simulated resuscitation and first aid.

Instructors and students both find quarries to be excellent training locations because they are a controlled open-water environment. However, students and instructors are not the only segment of the diving community that uses quarries.

Recreational and Technical Diving

Many of the same factors that draw scuba instructors and their students to quarries on a regular basis also attract certified recreational and technical divers. Quarries have something for everyone.

Technical divers are drawn to the depth, limited visibility and easy entries and exits. When wearing double tanks and strapped with various redundant systems and loads of accessory gear, it is a blessing to be able to drive to within a short distance of the entry location; this is possible at most quarries.

Quarries present abundant opportunities for technical divers to explore, practice routines and just plain enjoy diving. The cold water that typically lurks below the thermoclines generally is not an issue for technical dives, as most wear dry suits.

Recreational divers, too, find a wide variety of diving opportunities at quarries, regardless of their skill or experience level. Newly certified divers often return to the quarry where they did their open-water training dives. This is a natural progression, since new divers are qualified to dive in the environment in which they were trained.

Now no longer under the supervision of an instructor, new divers often begin by diving the same area of the quarry where they did their training dives. This provides a familiar environment where they can get accustomed to being on their own. When comfortable, the buddy team can venture beyond the training platforms.

Although visibility in many quarries averages less than 20 feet (6 m), navigation is not necessarily a major issue. The locations of prominent underwater features generally are marked by surface buoys, and often the attractions are connected to each other by lines. Divers can snorkel out to a buoy, descend and follow the lines from airplane to truck to sunken boat, etc. Once they are comfortable with the environment, they can abandon the lines and begin navigating using compass headings.

It’s tough to get lost in a quarry. If you overshoot the intended destination, simply surface and get your bearings. You may be farther from shore than planned, but you’ll still be in the quarry.

The roads that lead to the bottom of the quarry are good navigational aids and the perfect place to experiment with increasing your depth limit. The roads begin at water’s edge and spiral downward around the quarry perimeter. Typically one shoulder of the road is straight up — the outside wall of the quarry — and the other nearly straight down, into the pit. By entering where the road disappears into the water, divers can follow it downward. Or, they can drop off the inside shoulder and dive to any depth along the face of the inside wall. Either way, the road provides a reference and a path back to the entry point.

Recreational divers also enjoy searching for the sunken attractions in quarries. Most quarries offer maps that display the depth and location of the sunken boats, airplanes, buses, cars, trucks, etc., that have been strategically placed on the bottom. It is a challenge to take a compass heading, descend from shore and try to find the feature on the first try.

Even though the man-made attractions will hold your interest, quarries are not without marine life. Depending on the location, you are likely to encounter bass, catfish, bluegills and more. Some quarries even boast of paddlefish and freshwater jellyfish.

Whether you are interested in mixed-gas diving or just doing a basic skill review on the student platforms, a quarry can meet your needs, and you don’t have to board an airplane to get there.

Location and Amenities

Location is one thing that makes quarries so popular among divers. In many instances, landlocked divers are not more than a three-hour drive from a quarry. Quarries are everywhere; often they are near interstate highways, so they are easy to find as well.

Quarries that are open to divers have varying levels of amenities; picnic tables and portable restroom facilities are standard. More developed quarry sites have picnic shelters, permanent restrooms, shower and changing facilities, and air-fill services. Some even offer equipment sales, repair and rental, food services and overnight camping or lodging facilities.

Dive clubs and dive store groups often make a weekend of it. They arrive at the quarry Friday evening, camp, complete two or three dives on Saturday, a night dive Saturday night, camp and do a couple of dives before heading home Sunday afternoon. That’s six dives in their logbooks in the span of two days. And they didn’t have to travel far to do it.

Quarry operators sponsor events throughout the diving season. On holiday weekends it isn’t unusual to have musical entertainment or fireworks displays on the Fourth of July. Equipment demonstration weekends also are popular. Dive equipment manufacturers set up on site, conduct seminars and allow divers to demo various items of gear. In October, Halloween pumpkin carving contests are common. For those appropriately trained, winter brings ice diving.

Safety is a serious concern of most quarry operators. Some of the more heavily visited quarries employ safety lookouts who monitor diving activities from vantage points around the quarry. Rescue boats are stationed nearby, and well-thought-out and rehearsed emergency response plans are always in place and ready to be activated, if the need should arise.

With few exceptions, quarry operators, both private and public, charge a nominal entrance fee, typically per diver for the day. Air fills, if available, are extra. During summer months most quarries are open all week, but during spring and fall hours often are reduced to weekends and by appointment during the week. Some quarries are open by appointment only or closed during winter. A few also have restrictions on what can and cannot be brought into the quarry. Check with a local dive store or directly with the quarry before going there.

Other Considerations

As enjoyable as it is, quarry diving comes with a few other considerations. The first is thermal protection.

Since quarries are spring-fed, the water at depth remains cold year-round. Even during late summer when water temperature at the surface might be in the 70s Fahrenheit (21 Celsius), at depth it may be in the 40s (F [single digits C]). Divers can expect at least one or two thermoclines while descending to diving depth.

Cold water calls for adequate thermal protection. Quarry diving generally requires a thick wet suit, including hood and gloves, or a dry suit. Protecting yourself from hypothermia, even during summer months, is a concern that should not be taken lightly when diving in a quarry.

Heavy thermal protection means increased buoyancy, which must be counteracted with extra weight. Your buoyancy compensator (BC) must be of sufficient lift to accommodate that amount of weight. If not accustomed to diving with cold-water weighting, you’ll need to confirm that your BC is adequate.

Also, not all regulators are designed for cold-water use. If you are going to dive at the depth where the water is in the 40s or colder, you may need an environmentally sealed regulator.

If you are a warm-water diver making the transition to the cold water of a quarry, you may require equipment evaluation, weighting experimentation and then practice. Your local dive center can help you navigate the process.

Although visibility in a quarry can reach 50 feet (15 m) or more on a given day, generally it is below 20 feet (6 m), and can sometimes be in the single digits. Quarry diving gives you the opportunity to practice compass navigation and if you do get lost and need to come up, you are always within a surface swim of shore.

Depth is another concern. Quarries typically are deep, often deeper than the 130-foot (40-m) recreational diving limit. Divers must be extremely careful to control their buoyancy and not exceed the planned maximum depth.

Quarry divers should also be aware of the dangers of entanglement and overhead environments. Some quarries conceal the remains of trees and debris that have not been removed. These along with the intentionally sunken attractions — airplanes, boats, corrugated pipes, concrete drains, etc. — present entanglement hazards.

Some intentionally sunken features also create overhead environments. Divers should avoid penetrating any underwater object unless trained in the proper technique and safety precautions.

In addition to standard scuba gear, adequate thermal protection, a BC with adequate lift and potentially needing an environmentally sealed regulator, quarry divers should be equipped with a dive light, knife, compass and surface signaling devices.

Some divers visit quarries only occasionally, for skill review and practice before their annual dive vacation to an exotic destination. Others quarry-dive regularly to stay in tune and keep their skills current. And many prefer to dive quarries; they enjoy spending a weekend close to home participating in an activity they love with friends and family. It’s nearby and affordable. If you take a dive into North America’s hidden wonders; you may be surprised what you discover.

Story and Photos by Lynn laymon