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Some heroes wear tanks: Navigating the threats lurking under Lanier
Lake Lanier Recovery Divers
Photo courtesy Mark Lanford.

Editor's note: This is the second part of a series about Lake Lanier Recovery Divers. To read the first part and meet the guys on the team, click here


Before the Lake Lanier Recovery Divers hit the water, Richard Pickering, Mark Lanford, and Ronin Molina-Salas, take a few moments to breathe.

“When you hit that water, it’s go-time every single time,” Pickering said.

While the dive team prides itself on finding 98% of the items they are searching for, Pickering said that “it’s not as easy as just going down and picking something off the bottom [of Lake Lanier].”

Dangers in the form of underwater forests, debris, cold temperatures, and the bends are all “very real” and affect the way the divers approach each search.

“If your knees aren’t shaking before you jump into [Lake Lanier], there’s something wrong with you,” Lanford said.

Freezing at 45 feet

Pickering said Lake Lanier Recovery Divers hunts for items year-round in Lake Lanier because “it’s just as cold in the winter as it is in the summer.”

According to Pickering, the lake has two separate thermoclines, which are transition layers between cold deep water and warmer surface water. Pickering said that the first thermocline is around 20-25 feet deep with temperatures in the mid-50s. The second thermocline is at 45 feet deep, and the temperature is 42 degrees.

“It’s bone-chilling cold down there all year round,” he said.

Pickering said that the divers he’s tried to “bring onto the team” have all backed out after getting a taste of chilly Lake Lanier.

“It’s unnerving and it’s dangerous on Lake Lanier … it’s not easy,” he said. “So, we really pride ourselves on our resources to be able to remain calm and to get ourselves out of hairy situations which all three of us have been in before multiple times.”

Because of the danger, Pickering said he and his team members typically dive alone. Sometimes, they dive in pairs depending on the object they’re retrieving.

“People [go mountain climbing] alone because they don’t want to be responsible for somebody else’s life. Same with us,” Pickering said. “When we’re down there, we can’t even see each other from six feet apart. So, if we get in trouble, we have no idea.”

Not only is the lake startling cold, but Pickering also said it’s covered with trees, trash, furniture and other objects that make diving difficult and even life-threatening.

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Lake Lanier Recovery Divers
Lake Lanier Recovery Divers works to attach a truck to a line to pull it from the lake after the driver accidentally sunk the vehicle. Photo courtesy Mark Lanford.
Underwater junkyard

Lake Lanier is surrounded by dense trees, brush and other vegetation, but there’s a forest just as thick under the waves, too.

Pickering said when the lake was originally flooded, they stopped at 30 feet below full pool, which is 1,071 feet above sea level, and went around cutting down any of the trees that were sticking above the waterline. The tops were all lopped off, but because oxygen is necessary for trees to rot, the trunks and bigger branches are still sitting on the bottom of the lake.

“If you’re in 95 feet of water, there’s full-grown trees going 60-65 feet straight up,” Pickering said. “They don’t rot, the only thing that happens is that they lose their leaves and small branches. But the big branches are still there because they have to have air in order to rot.”

When Lake Lanier Recovery Divers go searching for lost items, they dive inverted with their heads facing the bottom of the lake and fins pointing upwards.

Molina-Salas said that because you can “only see about 12 inches in front of your face” in Lake Lanier, it can be tricky to maneuver around a lake that’s “thick with trees.”

Pickering said the visibility is so low that when people lose items in open water, it’s like “taking a phone and throwing it in the middle of the woods” and trying to “find it with a flashlight in the middle of the night while it’s raining.”

Not only are the trees hard to navigate, but ropes and fishing lines are tangled underneath a good part of the lake. Lanford said he recently had an experience where he got caught in debris at the bottom of the lake and “could have died.”

Thankfully, due to his quick thinking and ability to remain calm under pressure, he escaped the lake without repercussions.

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Lake Lanier Recovery Divers
A sonar takes a photo of the trees on the bottom of Lake Lanier. On the right side of the sonar, the numbers indicate depth in feet. Richard Pickering said that when the lake was originally filled, people went around cutting down the tops of trees that stuck out of the water. Trunks and large branches have been preserved due to the lack of oxygen underwater. Photo courtesy Richard Pickering.
Lanford’s close call

Because there’s limited visibility on the bottom of the lake, spatial orientation is also decreased.

When Lake Lanier Recovery Divers begin a search, they set up a grid underwater with ropes and lines to help pattern out the bottom of the lake into sections. They will then drop down a line from the top and hold onto it with a tether, letting them go up and down from the same location and helping the divers to not get lost.

On one dive, Lanford got caught up in some of the other lines and strings at the bottom of the lake that had tangled with his.

He said the lines were twisted around his tank and when he went to cut himself free, he dropped his knife. It was immediately swallowed up by the mud.

“It was apparent to me that I wasn’t going to be able to free myself,” Lanford said. “And I was like 35 feet down.”

With a limited air supply, Lanford said he knew he had to get to the water’s surface, so with one final inhale of oxygen, he took off his tank and began to ascend.

“I knew I needed to get to the top, so I just took a breath of air out of the tank, let everything go, and fortunately, I wasn’t tied up with anything else,” Lanford said. “And then I went to the top as slowly as possible as I was breathing out. Fast ascents will literally kill you.”

Lanford had to time his ascent so that the was letting out air bubbles “twice as fast” as he was ascending.

He made it to the top, and while all his equipment was still sitting on the bottom of the lake, he was safe.

During the interview with Lake Lanier Recovery Divers, Pickering said that Lanford was “wildly understating” his experience. “If you were to hold your breath as you come up, as the nitrogen inside your blood expands — just like a balloon — if you don’t let air out, your lungs are going to literally explode.”

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Lake Lanier Recovery Divers
Richard Pickering installs in-water props, attaching the floating platforms to the bottom of the lake. Photo courtesy Richard Pickering.
The bends

According to eMedicineHealth, the bends, also called decompression sickness or Caisson disease, is a potentially deadly medical condition caused by rapid changes in pressure during diving. It can affect almost any area in the body including the lungs, heart, brain, joints and skin.

Pickering explained that like the sky, water also has separate atmospheric pressures. The further down into the lake you go, the more you must compensate on your way back up.

The team must constantly think about the amount of nitrogen going into their lungs compressed air from the tanks.

According to eMedicineHealth, decompression sickness is caused from nitrogen in a diver’s tank increasing as they descend underwater. For every 33 feet in water, pressure goes up 11.6 pounds per square inch.

As the nitrogen increases, more of the gas dissolves into the body’s tissues and bloodstream.

Pickering explained the concept of the bends by comparing a person’s bloodstream to a can of soda.

“When you’re underwater, your body is taking in compressed air filled with nitrogen,” he said. “It’s like [soda]. Think of all those little air bubbles inside of [a can of soda]; that’s what’s inside your blood.”

“If you come up too fast, those nitrogen bubbles in your blood will literally explode in your brain, in your heart, in your lungs, and you’re going to die,” he said. “Just like shaking up a can of soda makes it explode after you open it. That pressure has to release.”

Several years ago, one of Pickering’s teammates was cutting an anchor from a log with a saw in Lake Lanier. He said since he was exerting physical energy, he was increasing his nitrogen intake through his tank.

“He forgot to account for that extra nitrogen and didn’t do enough [decompression stops],” Pickering said. “He almost died. He had to be taken to the hospital, and he was in the hyperbaric chamber for eight hours.”

According to the FDA, a hyperbaric chamber is a medical device that raises air pressure to a higher amount than normal to artificially reproduce pressures underwater, allowing the lungs to collect more oxygen. Generally, hyperbaric chambers are tubes “large enough to hold one person” or a “room that can accommodate more than one person.”

“It’s not fun being in a hyperbaric chamber,” Molina-Salas said. “That’s why I always tell [Pickering and Lanford], ‘Slow down, do a [decompression] stop if you can.’ It’s better to be super safe than to get helicoptered to the nearest hyperbaric chamber.”

Lake Lanier’s ghoulish side

“Everyone says that the lake is haunted and there are monsters down there,” Molina-Salas said. “But there’s not.”

Pickering said the closest thing Lake Lanier has to monsters are catfish, “and not those giant catfish you hear eating chickens.”

“There are no catfish the size of Volkswagens in the lake,” Pickering said. “The largest found I think was 67 pounds.”

He said he’s seen schools of catfish while diving in coves.

“Catfish can be very territorial, though,” Pickering said. “So sometimes when we’re diving, they’ll see their reflections in our masks and charge.”

“Every time it happens to me, I swear I think, ‘Shark,’” he said. “It happens so fast, and they just come out of nowhere and ram right into your mask.”

While the divers have seen interesting, scary things at the bottom of the lake, Pickering said that, from personal experience, he had never seen any ghosts.

“The only thing this lake is haunted by is stupidity,” Pickering said. “People come out here and they don’t wear their lifejackets.”

Pickering said that while there are “some drownings” that happen in Lake Lanier every year, he believed drugs and alcohol played a large part in boating accidents.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, which governs the lake, Lanier averages about 11.8 million visitors a year, most coming in the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

“Most people don’t really get just how many people come to [Lake Lanier],” Pickering said.

Lanford said that in most drownings, victims aren’t wearing lifejackets, which could “have saved their lives.”

The lake is also cold in deep water, he said, which can lead to leg cramps and exhaustion. The depth perception from the middle of the lake is also “pretty skewed.”

“[Depth perception] can kill even the strongest swimmer,” Pickering said. “I mean, you look out at the shore, and it looks … a lot closer than it is.”

“We always try to stress that you should wear your lifejacket in any situation,” Molina-Salas said. “You might think it looks dumb or silly, but we’d rather you look dumb or silly than get hurt.”

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Lake Lanier Recovery Divers
From left, Ronin Molina-Salas, Richard Pickering and Mark Lanford stand with a dive flag, a red flag with a white, diagonal stripe through it. This flag indicates to boaters and other people on the lake that divers are underneath the water.
What’s next?

As the only dive team on Lake Lanier certified by the Army Corps of Engineers, Pickering said he will “continue to dive until I can’t anymore.”

“As long as there’s a need for it, we want to provide the service,” Lanford agreed. “So, for now, we’ll keep jumping into the lake, finding peoples’ stuff and doing dock clears.”

Some of the other services that Lake Lanier Recovery Divers offers are dock inspections and clears, boat inspections, anchor removals and in-water prop setup or removal.

To contact Lake Lanier Recovery Divers or to learn more about the dive team, find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/lakelanierdivers or call 678-469-5600.