Diving The Tennessee River

Best Dives In the United States, Part 42
The Tennessee River in Northern Alabama
by M.D. Smith v 9.601

Please send any comments to M.D. Smith (mdsmith@HiWAAY.net)
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Divers who have never experienced the lush variety of the Tennessee River as it winds through Northern Alabama, have missed a truly unique diving experience. Huntsville is located in the center of North Alabama near the river. Many divers are trained in this area.

Granted, the visibility in the river is limited, compared to some of the Caribbean dive locations, where visibility may be 50-100 feet. In the Tennessee River it is measured in feet and inches. Saying, “well, the viz was good today, it must have been at least 2 6” , does not mean 26 feet, it means 2 feet and 6 inches. On very good days, it may even reach a Meter. Fantastic visibility for the river.

Visibility is not the alluring feature of Tennessee River diving. There are some who dive for the nearly extinct mussels. They are large shellfish akin to the Clam or Oyster. You must have developed a taste for mud, however, if you are to enjoy this delicacy. You just feel around the muddy bottom on the edge of the river channel in a rocky area, until you begin to feel the shells and gather up those that appear to be spherical and unopened. You can place a quantity of them in a net carried on your utility belt. Gloves are not recommended since you have now stirred up the muddy bottom and can not see anything, so you just have to feel your way around this zero viz environment for the gathering. This is a real “touchy-feely” experience. In the process you may also come up with a few pounds of scrap iron and on rare occasions a confederate mini-ball from the civil war era. Seems like many of the soldiers shot fish in the river in between battles in the 1860’s.

One of my favorite dive sites is located in Limestone county, just a few miles below the Browns-Ferry Nuclear plant. You don’t find near as many fishermen, boaters, swimmers and general recreational traffic here as other parts of the river. On a serene weekend afternoon, you can dive in relative seclusion against stark limestone cliffs extending out of the river to heights of 90 feet or more. The edge of the river drops to 30 feet about 10 feet from shore. Depths up to 60 feet are common as you approach the river channel.

In the shadow of the giant cooling towers of the nuclear plant, you can see varieties of plant variation, perhaps not known in other parts of the world. While the water is cooled from the reactors before it is returned to the river, it seems that only a few degrees of extra warmth, encourages biological growth not indigenous to the region. Vegetation that rises to the surface and chokes all other marine plants are common. It can also give you a very good swimming workout, but does cut down on bottom time. Sometimes, The TVA will spray chemicals on the milfoil to curtail its growth from the warm water and conducive environment. Then, these chemicals mix with other discharges in the river, to create a whole new array of vegetation and marine life. Speaking of discharges, recent laws forbid direct waste discharges into the river from homes and industry. Thus, today this problem does not pose the unattractive factor it once did.

Remaining several feet above the bottom suspended in neutral bouancy is very important. Stirring up the silt, mud and decomposing plant and marine life will make the dive less pleasant, rendering visibility down to a centimeter or two.

Some divers carry metal detectors down with them to try to locate hidden treasure. Of course, all treasure in the Tennessee River is hidden after about 15 minutes from falling there, including sets of car keys, wallets, coins and any other object that is heavier than water. It is covered over so quickly that it can not be seen, only felt. Locating dropped items of value can easily take a diver several tanks of air at 5-10 feet off the end of a boat dock. However, fees of $50 to $100 are common for those that simply have to recover an item lost overboard. If it falls from a boat in the middle of the river, it will likely never be located again. This is why finding very large items in the Tennessee River, like fishermen, don’t take quite as long to find by “feeling” as a set of keys, but may still take several days if the search area is wider than a few feet.

Night Diving down river from Browns-Ferry is another unique experience. No need to carry calumet sticks, just tie a brim or crappie fish to your BC as the fish all glow in the dark. The water exhibits a dark, iridescent green glow. Fish highlighted in their variety of glowing night colors makes for a colorful trip as they come in and out of your view of 2-3 feet in front of your mask. Even some of the little willow flies that permeate the warm summer nights have that faint glow from having hatched in the backwaters of the river and their little glowing lights are extinguished, one by one, as fish jump from the water and devour the little glowing willow flies. Since the nuclear plant is not contributory to the glowing marine life at this location of the river (because the TVA has issued a press release saying the power plant is not the cause of the phenomena), no one seems to have an explanation of this light show above and below the water at night. While other parts of Alabama are bothered by flies and misquitoes in the summertime, none have ever been seen in this particular geographic location. There must be something about the environment that discourages their breeding.

Cleanup of SCUBA gear is slightly different when diving in the river. The best equipped private diving boats, carry a small skiff behind the main boat. When you surface, you climb into the skiff boat to remove your wetsuit and outer gear. That way, the mud, for the most part, remains in the skiff boat and not the primary boat where you will shower off your face and the remaining mud and debris. A high pressure hose is used for cleaning after the heavy metal collection is performed on the wetsuits. On a good day, six divers wetsuits may collect three-quarters of a pound of mercury that can be pooled into a container for profit. Other heavy metal fragments are collected in the bottom of the skiff boat for disposal at one of the old bunkers on Redstone Arsenal that are no longer used for TNT storage.

Comments on Specialized Diving Accessories for the river:

Dive Flags are used in the water as floating warnings. This is because almost all boat owners in Alabama think a dive flag floating in the river marks a rock pile and they know what that can do to boat props and they avoid the area like Chemo-Toxic Waste Dumps found in some parts of the state. Never use a flag on your boat or they will think you are anchored on a rock pile and it will confuse other Alabama boaters.

Dive Computer: Not needed. You can’t see it, why have it.

Dive Knife: Absolutely. If you grab something or something grabs you that you can not identify, you want your blade handy.

Pole Spear: Use with caution. A dive buddy’s leg looks a lot like a 50 pound catfish in this muddy environment. If you use a pole spear, always carry first aid kit on utility belt and a larger one in the boat.

Spear Gun: Not practical in this environment unless you like Russian Roulette.

Dynamite: Normally, only used for surface fishing in Alabama. Can cause ruptured eardrums or worse underwater and is discouraged by the conservation department. Use at your own risk.

Compass: If you desire to swim in one direction and can read it held close to your face, it can be useful. When the current is strong, you can’t swim back to the boat anyway, so it is of limited value.

(Current Note: The river and lakes are routinely raised or lowered 4-5 feet for mosquito and milfoil control. When being raised, the current is less than one mile per hour. When it is being lowered, the current can be as much as 5-6 miles per hour. A thirty foot dive lasting 60 minutes can put you quite a distance from the boat if you are just floating with the current on lowering days.)

Emergency Strobe Light: Useful if you anticipate needing help from your buddy at a distance not to exceed 3 feet ( 5 feet at night).

Special Equipment: Bottom Anchor & Disposable line. Since you are never going to find the anchor line after a dive, you anchor this lightweight, disposable device to the bottom with attached line, you can ascend and do a 15 foot safety stop before ascending to the surface and not be swept further downriver while doing the stop. This is very handy and units are available at all river dive shops for about $5.00 each. It is suggested when you release the line, you attach a 6 oz. weight to the end to sink the line as boaters have complained in the past about fouled props when running over an abandoned SCUBA anchor line, especially at high speeds.

Army surplus RAD meter: This is really not a necessary item, but divers who find that they are exposed to more than 15 Rads during their dive have good documentation for later lawsuits against whomever. It can also be used to check the level in the fish you spear during your dive. You don’t want to know about the mussels.

Wreck Diving: There are about 10 cars a month that end up in the Tennessee River in the state of Alabama. Only about half of these cars are ever reclaimed and removed from the river. Discovering a wrecked car on the bottom is like finding buried treasure. The fresh water does not ruin removable souvenirs like salt water will do. Many divers have discovered pristine wrecks in the muck and have reported the thrill of discovery, including an occasional animal. If the wreck has not been charted, you must report it to troopers and leave it alone. There will be a $25 finders fee paid to the diver, however.

Batteries have been determined to be a pollutant to the river and must be removed. This is the diver’s responsibility if he wishes to claim the wreck for future salvage value on the registered list at the local county courthouse. You have to have the approximate lattitude and longitude of the registered wreck to the nearest degree (rounding off minutes and seconds).

New Creature Finders Fee: Unique in Alabama in this section of the Tennessee River is the discovery of new life forms. Several lucky divers have captured marine life that has never before been seen in any river. For discovering this brand new life form, the committee for radiation and enviromental destruction will pay you $1,000.00 for each unique discovery. They will want both live and dead samples of your discovery, so you may want to carry a live catch-bucket to document your discovery. . Specimens have to live at least 24 hours for you to collect your fee. A number of our local residents have collected on these finding fees in past years, however, very few of these classic divers are alive today. It seems that they have contracted illnesses that can not be cured

For sure, learning the ins and outs of diving in the Tennessee River takes some adjusting to your traditional dive thinking. But once you get your perspective, you will find it a most memorable diving experience. Where else could you enjoy such diversity of diving, scavenging, and surprises of all kinds, than here, in the beautiful Tennessee River, and, most of the treasures are recyclable.
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Please send any comments to M.D. Smith (mdsmith@HiWAAY.net)

This page created 12/30/95 by M.D. Smith and last modified on April 17, 1997