Editor's Note: This is the first part of a series about Lake Lanier Recovery Divers. Stay tuned for the next story where we learn about the dangers of diving, hear about some close calls and get the divers' opinions on the famous question: Is Lake Lanier haunted?
While visitors drove up to the lake in September to go boating, jet skiing or just have a good time in the warm sun, Richard Pickering and his recovery dive crew were suiting up to jump into 40-degree Fahrenheit water.
Ronin Molina-Salas, 22, and Pickering, 60, sat alongside a dock and discussed the dive target sitting somewhere along the bottom of the lake beneath their fin-clad feet: a bracelet that a woman had lost, passed down from generations of ancestors.
Pickering, Molina-Salas and Mark Lanford, 58, spend their time, typically weekends, “just sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring” and fishing things out of Lake Lanier.
“People call and we go find whatever they lost,” Pickering said. “Our success rate is really good. We [find] probably about 98% of what we go after. It’s very rare that we don’t find what we’re after.”
The three men have different levels of experience but have been diving together under the name Lake Lanier Recovery Divers for three years.
With over 40 years of experience, Pickering has dived in waters across the world; from north Georgia’s Lake Lanier to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.
Around 10 years ago, Pickering was at Holiday Marina when he saw some men trying to find an Apple Watch that fell beneath the murky waters. He told them that he was a licensed diver and asked if they wanted him to “give [finding the watch] a shot.”
“I have a really uncanny sense of sight,” Pickering said. “I’m one of those people that can walk along a path and look down to a clover patch and pick up a four-leaf clover just like that. The odds in that are … small, but I see things that don’t belong.”
Pickering said he jumped in the water and “was up and down in two minutes” with the watch. He said they were thrilled because “they’d been trying to find the [watch] for hours.”
The object recovery bug bit Pickering and he continued to pick up things off the bottom of the lake, finding like-minded people to work with and founding Lake Lanier Recovery Divers.
“It’s a tremendous responsibility and it’s awesome to be able to help people,” Pickering said. “We’re meeting wonderful people on the lake. They’re all excited when we show up and even more excited when we find their stuff, and that gives us that positive reinforcement.”
Pickering said that he’s found everything from iPhones to boat anchors to rings from beneath Lanier. He said rings are “impossible — they’re super hard to find.” He’s found 29 rings and is hoping to recover his 30th before the end of the year.
While phones, keys and glasses are among the more common items Pickering finds, he said that he would never forget having to dive for a set of dentures.
One evening, Pickering said he got a call from a client, and he agreed without knowing what he would be looking for.
When he arrived at the dock, “there were elderly men all sitting around just sizing me up” before asking him to help find one of the men’s dentures.
“I just said, What? Is this a joke? Am I being pranked?” Pickering said.
They weren’t joking. Pickering said they were eating chicken wings when a man bit into one harder than expected and tossed the bones into the water.
“I guess his teeth just went with it,” Pickering said.
Pickering got into gear and descended for the dentures.
“When I got down around 40 feet [below the lake’s surface], I saw all these blobs just floating in the water; it was like the Twilight Zone,” Pickering said. “I started to reach for them and they kind of moved away from me, so I got closer and got my light up to them. They were half-eaten chicken wings. It was so gross. I was diving in a sea of chicken wings.”
He found the dentures, though.
“Everybody always asks me [if] the guy's still wearing the dentures,” Pickering said. “Yeah, he’s still wearing them. He washed them and put them back in his mouth.”
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Lanford has been diving for about 20 years, mostly in clear water on vacation.
About six years ago, he started diving at the golf course at Aqualand Marina for lost balls. He said he and his friends would then hit them off the dock “like a diving range.”
“I just realized one day that I loved picking up stuff from the bottom of the lake,” Lanford said. “It was a lot of fun.”
“I will tell you though, the first time I jumped into Lake Lanier with scuba gear, my knees were shaking,” he said. “But when I got down there, I [thought] it was pretty neat.’”
Lanford lived in the Bahamas for five years, but he made sure to “keep up with everybody back home,” especially Pickering. He said he watched Pickering’s posts on Facebook and decided he wanted to be a part of Lake Lanier Recovery Divers.
“[Pickering] had created a really nice service for people, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Lanford said. “The reward from seeing somebody’s face when you come up with something that they thought they’d lost forever is just beyond belief.”
Since working on the Lake Lanier Recovery Divers team, Lanford has come across “weird, interesting” items along the bottom of the lake. One never fails to make him laugh.
One July afternoon, Lanford and Pickering were diving for an anchor and “just happened to be together that day” when they got a call from a “repeat customer.”
According to Lanford, the man thought his truck was in drive but was in reverse and accidentally backed into the lake after unloading a boat into the water. The truck still had a trailer attached to the back.
“The truck was hilarious,” Lanford said. “I just couldn’t believe that happened.”
“[The truck] was a long way out there,” he said. “I mean, it floated for a while before it sank.”
“And then it got completely jack-knifed to the ramp,” Pickering said.
As Lanford and Pickering began to suit up and grab their gear, Pickering joked back and forth with the owner of the truck.
“I said, ‘What’s the year, make and model of the truck?’ And he tells me,” Pickering said. “And then I asked, ‘What color is it?’ He says, ‘Blue, why?’ And I said, ‘I just wanted to make sure I’ve got the right truck.’”
After some banter back and forth, trying to make a bad situation a little better, the truck owner asked them to make sure his horn still worked.
As they descended, Pickering said the truck’s windshield wipers were still on, so he turned those off along with the ignition.
“We also got out his wallet,” Lanford said. “Which was just kind of floating around in [the truck’s cabin].”
As Lanford worked on securing a hook to the truck, Pickering said that inside the cabin, he also found the man’s breakfast.
“But then I looked around and there’s a bag of Bojangles’ biscuits floating on the ceiling,” Pickering said. “So, I grabbed it and when we came back up, I said, ‘Hey, I got your breakfast.’”
“It was a pretty involved operation,” Lanford said. “I’ll never forget it.”
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While Molina-Salas is “just getting started” diving, he “has probably got the most qualified.”
“He went to commercial diving school,” Pickering said.
Molina-Salas dived for about two and a half years before attending Commercial Diving Academy, CDA, Technical Institute in Jacksonville, Florida.
After graduating, he returned to Georgia and found Pickering’s posts on Facebook. He reached out to him and asked if he could join the team.
Pickering said that not many people make the cut to dive with him because they “panic; they’re not used to seeing all the trees on the bottom [of the lake] and they get intimidated.”
After taking him out for some test runs, Pickering welcomed Molina-Salas onto the Lake Lanier Recovery Divers team.
“I love it,” Molina-Salas said. “I’m ready for any big adventure with these two guys.”
Speaking of adventures, Molina-Salas said that he spends his off days on the water, preferring jet skiing and exploring new places.
One day, Molina-Salas said he found something in the water as he was jet skiing. He got closer and discovered it was a floating suitcase.
“I almost ran over it,” he said. “But I looked at it and it was really nice, so I pulled it out of the water to show [Pickering].”
He grabbed it and took it to the docks where he “unfortunately” had to open it and go through the contents to try to find the woman that owned it.
Molina-Salas said that he was able to find an Apple watch and contact the owner’s husband through the device, leaving his own name and number in a text message.
“I texted him from the watch and said, [told him I found his suitcase,] and then I put my number in so he could call me,” Molina-Salas said.
“He calls me and tells me he’s not in Georgia, he’s in California,” he said. “And his wife is at the lake, and he didn’t know she was there.”
Molina-Salas said that while the woman was grateful her things were recovered, he “brought anger amongst” the couple “by trying to do a good deed.”
Another memory that Molina-Salas will never forget is diving for a wallet in a tilapia pond.
He said that Lake Lanier Recovery Divers’ services extend to all bodies of water, and he and his team have dived for items in other places like Lake Sinclair, Lake Allatoona and private ponds.
Molina-Salas said two women had been fighting while fishing on the tilapia pond and, in a fit of anger, one of the women had thrown the other’s wallet into the water.
“[Molina-Salas] said, ‘It’s only in eight feet of water; this’ll be easy,’” Pickering said. “But then he got there, and he [saw] the fish and the mud [and thought] this is terrible.’”
“I smelled like fish for a week,” Molina-Salas said.
He said he “had fish hitting me and swimming all around me,” but he was able to recover the wallet within an hour.
“But it was so gross,” Molina-Salas said. “I told [Pickering], ‘We’re never doing business here again.’ That was the nastiest dive I’ve ever done.”
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While Lake Lanier Recovery Divers has pulled lots of interesting stuff out of Lake Lanier, it’s not all fun and games; sometimes, it can mean life and death.
“When people get their stuff back, they’re [thankful],” Pickering said. “They have no idea that we just risked our lives for whatever it is that they needed.”
Stay tuned for the second part of this series to learn more about the dangers of diving in Lake Lanier and the answer to the big, famous question: Is the lake really haunted?
Lake Lanier Recovery Divers
Find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/lakelanierdivers or call 678-469-5600