If you own a small deep-water submarine — or know some eccentric big-bucks diver who does — drop me a line. I’d like to borrow the thing.
Once and for all, I’d like to prove or bust the legends or myths that hide in the depths of Lake Tahoe.
The way this idea came about is that I was told another crazy, unverified story this past week about Tahoe’s darkest legend of all. As the story goes, a fisherman snagged something for a moment in the deep water just offshore of the South Shore casinos, but it easily broke free. When he reeled up his line, to his shock, on his hook was the top of a human ear.
This might sound crazy, but in the past 25 years, I’ve heard different versions of this story at least a dozen times. In one account, a fisherman snags up, gets it loose, and reels up a partial hand where two of the fingers had been lopped off Mafia-style. It is a tale passed around called “The Legend of Three-Fingered Tony.”
Many have told me that, if you were to take a submarine down 900 feet just off South Shore, you would see hundreds of bodies suspended in the water, preserved perfectly like an underwater wax museum, most wearing clothes from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
The legend is that this is where the Mafia killers dumped bodies after executions. Some fishermen even call the spot The Grave. At Tahoe, many locals talk as if everybody knows about this, that there are lots of gangsters down there, wearing pinstriped suits, with sneers on their faces and bullet holes in their foreheads.
This makes sense. It has long been verified that Tahoe is a lake that does not give up its dead. That is because the lake is so deep, with an average depth of 989 feet, and so cold, with the temperature hovering just above freezing. So that prevents the creation of gases that would otherwise bloat and float corpses to the surface as in other waters.
This reality brings bizarre possibilities.
Lake Tahoe, as first theorized by the famed geologist Josiah Whitney, was created by a colossal earthquake where a center block of land collapsed between two faults. It might be possible that another massive earthquake here would disrupt the underwater currents and suddenly float all the suspended corpses to the surface at once.
Another possibility is that the bodies will remain submerged for eons of time, just as the woolly mammoths were preserved in glaciers from the last ice age 14,000 years ago.
Even famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau is said to have had a brush with something horrific in a deepwater dive in the mid-1970s. “The world isn’t ready for what was down there,” is the quote most commonly credited. Cousteau never released any photographs or data from the dive, adding to the mystery and legend.
Some believe Cousteau was talking about a Loch Ness monster-like creature that locals call “Tahoe Tessie.” Unlikely. But if I could get a loaner sub, maybe I could find out.
Apart from Tahoe’s maximum depth of 1,645 feet, another legend is that there is a hole somewhere on the bottom of the lake that is linked to an underground river system that feeds into Pyramid Lake north of Reno. This would explain how drowning victims at Tahoe have floated up at Pyramid. Or would it? Others say it just means that bodies floated over the spillway at north Tahoe could be carried via the Truckee River to Nevada and Pyramid Lake.
So this past week, I went submarine shopping. I found a personal submarine called the Gemini, “the family submarine,” available for $845,000, but it would only go 150 feet deep. Plus, my boss said the paper probably wouldn’t spring for it. So I went to EBay to see if a better deal was available. Nope.
A little more searching led to the Phoenix, “a 213-foot personal luxury submarine,” but it was priced at $78 million. That’s a little on the high side.
A Bay Area engineer, Graham Hawkes of San Anselmo, has invented a glider- like submarine that he says is certified to 1,600 feet deep. This could be ideal for Tahoe, but the price is well over $1 million. So I contacted his agency on Friday and suggested Hawkes take me on a demo dive at Tahoe. Together we could solve the legend of Tahoe.
Or perhaps you own your own submarine as a great little hobby and would like to take part in this expedition. So, like I said, drop me a line — just not a line off Tahoe’s South Shore with a hook on it.