Treasures of local artifacts and long-submerged landscapes are worth a dive
|By Lori O'Brien|
As the Connecticut River slowly recedes, scuba divers will soon return to explore what lies beneath its surface.
Sara Vanessa Van Keuren of Springfield is one of those divers.
"The fish in the Connecticut River are funny creatures," said Van Keuren during an interview with Reminder Publications. "Depending on the site and whether it is visited by divers regularly will determine how comfy the fish are with people."
Van Keuren, a registered representative with the Lincoln Financial Group by day, spends as much time in the water as she can literally 12 months a year. She is a NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) instructor for At the Water's Edge in Westfield and also serves as coordinator of the Pioneer Valley Dive Club.
Van Keuren began scuba classes at the University of Maine while she was studying natural resources as part of her Aquaculture concentration. She raised American salmon and as part of that program was introduced to the business of raising farmed fish and scuba diving.
After graduating and while spending a summer internship for the Forest Service in Tahoe National Forest, she would make her way to Lake Tahoe almost everyday to snorkel.
"I love the water and always have," she said, adding that as a child she spent countless summer hours in the pool.
"This occurred every summer for many, many years," said Van Keuren, adding, "so diving seemed like the next natural step for me.
"I knew that I wanted to be an instructor some day because I wanted to see the look of excitement on people's faces the first time they breathe underwater or hear the stories of someone's first trip to some place cool," she said.
She lights up when asked about her many travels through the Connecticut River waterway.
"Part of the reason that the fish are so comfortable with people is they know that divers will sometimes open mussels for them so they get a free meal," she said.
In the last couple of years the fish have been more than friendly, they have been downright aggressive and expect a meal, she added.
"They might come over and nibble on your fingers, or as in the case with one fish in particular, the fish actually jumped onto my dive buddy's knife in order to get food," she said. "Even if you are not feeding the fish, they will swim alongside you as one big school which is fun to watch."
Van Keuren said her favorite spots in the Connecticut River are in Hatfield and Northfield.
"Both have some fish to play with and Northfield has a spectacular wall that drops to about 65 feet," she said. "It's very dramatic."
Over the years Van Keuren noted that the most unusual fish she has seen during her dives in this area is the sturgeon a prehistoric-looking fish that swims like a shark and moves its head in a back and forth motion scanning the bottom.
"They tend to stay away from divers, but sometimes on a sunny day you can see them in sandy areas of the river," she said, adding "they are neat to see."
Each year the silt tends to shift in a different way and Van Keuren said she has found unusual artifacts including old medicine bottles over the years. Under the Coolidge Bridge in Northampton, she noted that she and friends have found several artifacts since many people have lived along the banks of the river for more than a century.
"A friend of mine found an old musket that is now in one of the museums in Deerfield," she said.
Diving in the Connecticut River is a great place to go when conditions are right, according to Van Keuren.
"I check the flow rate when we are considering going in the river to see if it is at a reasonable rate," she said. "Ideally, divers should not go into the river between Holyoke and Northfield if the flow rate is over 3,000 cubic feet per minute."
Van Keuren noted the river can warm up in the summer quickly depending on the weather and she has seen it reach 84 degrees. As long as the "vis" (visability) is adequate, Van Keuren said that there are also interesting natural formations, potholes and river valleys to view that were carved by the glaciers.
When she isn't exploring the depths of the Connecticut River and other quarries and lakes across New England, she loves to dive the east side of Cayman.
"The water is warm and clear, with walls and swim throughs a plenty," she said.
Van Keuren does not dive alone she buddies up with a "wonderful dive buddy."
"We had similar goals with regards to diving and education and had a similar adventurous style," Van Keuren said. "As we dove more and more, we learned from each other as well as from our shared experiences."
That first year both Van Keuren and her dive buddy made a pact to try and dive at least once every month of the year.
"Some years Mother Nature interrupted our plans but overall, it didn't put a damper on our attitude about diving," she added.
Van Keuren's diving travels have taken her to several states along the East Coast, across New England, and the Bahamas, Cayman and the Dominican Republic.
"My favorite spots are here in New England," she said. "I like the challenge of diving in New England with limited visibility and cold water, but the rewards are great. As most New England divers do, catching lobsters is a great pastime, and then there are the scallops. You never know what you might come across and that is a huge draw for me."
Her favorite spot in New England is Old Garden Park in Rockport, with the Connecticut River coming in a close second.
"Unfortunately Mother Nature really guides us as to when we can get into the river safely," she said.
Van Keuren extols the benefits of scuba diving and encourages everyone to consider giving the sport a try.
"It's great aerobic exercise and gives you a unique perspective looking at the world," she said. "It also enriches lives by exploring new areas or seeing new things in the same areas."
Van Keuren said for anyone who enjoys history, diving provides one with a glimpse into the past when you come across wrecks or find artifacts. She added that diving can be an ideal couple or family sport.
"I love it because it has become my stress reliever and I simply love the weightless environment," she said.
Van Keuren said scuba diving is appropriate for most ages and most dive shops will allow training to begin between the ages of 11 and 14. She added that learning how to dive depends on the individual being able to comprehend the physics of diving and if they are mature enough for the sport.
Ultimately, "it's a great sport with great rewards, plus it's a fun way to stay in shape," she said.
For more information on the Pioneer Valley Dive Club, visit www.thereminder.com and click on "Featured Story Links," or email Van Keuren at email@example.com. Van Keuren can also advise individuals on local scuba diving classes available for all ages.
"The dive club is a great way to find a dive buddy," said Van Keuren of the more than 50 current members.