GRANTSVILLE - Most Utahns probably think they must travel to Belize, Australia, Hawaii or some other faraway destination to go snorkeling and see tropical fish and even sharks.
Jenny Bezzant, of Pleasant Grove, discovered otherwise on a recent trip to the Bonneville Seabase on the western end of Grantsville.
Snorkeling in the warm waters of a naturally salty hot springs, Bezzant and her family watched as Seabase employee Julie Latendresse fed a pair of 30- to 40-pound jacks that exploded from the depths of the greenish-colored water.
"This is our first time here," said Bezzant. "We had some friends in from Florida. They wanted to expose us to snorkeling and we'll expose them to dirt biking."
Christina Beck, of Winter Garden, Fla., said she had been trying to get her friend to try scuba diving. The snorkeling trip to the White Rocks Bay, Aquadome, Habitat Bay and The Abyss diving pools in Utah's west desert was the next best thing.
"This is a lot different than Florida," she said. "But it's the best place you'll get in Utah."
While Utahns can snorkel or scuba dive in reservoirs with decently clear water such as Lake Powell, Flaming Gorge, Fish Lake, Blue Lake or Bear Lake, the Seabase offers a unique experience. It's designed to simulate ocean dives, complete with 68 species of fish, including a pair of nurse sharks that are close to 9 feet long. There are pompano, puffers, groupers, angel fish, grunts, jacks, tangs and rabbit fish at depths as deep as 60 feet. And all this at 4,293 feet in elevation.
Divers and snorkelers from all over the world flock to this remote outpost about 40 miles west of Salt Lake City.
"People in Australia and Fiji know about us, but a lot of people in Grantsville or Tooele don't," said George Sanders, who, with Linda Nelson, owns the Seabase and the Neptune Divers shop in Salt Lake City.
When the couple bought the area in 1988, the hot springs, which is near the Great Salt Lake without being connected to that ecosystem, was trashed by years of abuse. They had to haul away numerous dump trucks full of trash.
"We're insane," said Nelson, a trained chemist. "We own Neptune Divers and we wanted people to have a good experience with snorkels and fish. This was a luxurious add-on. It was a trashed hot springs that was a disaster."
At first, Nelson thought the water quality and chemistry were all wrong for tropical fish. But the waters were close enough to sea conditions to allow the fish to live.
Many of the creatures at Seabase are "rescue fish" that outgrew home aquariums. Some less-than-perfect species came from the aquarium at The Mirage resort in Las Vegas.
"They don't want them if they're not pretty, just like the showgirls," Sanders said, joking.
As it turns out, the high calcium content in the springs' water seems to be an elixir for fish and humans.
This is, obviously, not a natural environment, which means Sanders and Nelson can stage events like an underwater pumpkin carving contest the Saturday before Halloween, allow divers and snorkelers to feed the fish and build an underwater golf course.
The relatively shallow White Rocks Bay is covered during the winter, allowing for a warmer experience.
Habitat Bay has an air-filled, underwater glassed-in structure that allows a place for instructors to converse with students. It also includes a sunken ship and a longer channel for compass training.
The Abyss, at 62 feet deep, is the newest pool. It has safety stops and a platform at 60 feet.
There also are warmwater showers, dressing rooms, a diving shop and instructional area and a snack bar.
Nelson said the best conditions are early in the morning when lack of divers stirring up the clay sides and bottoms of the pools helps the water clarity.
Best dive around
* BONNEVILLE SEABASE, on the western end of Grantsville, is open year-round for diving and snorkeling.
* DAY-USE FEES are $15. Scuba packages can be rented for $21, while snorkel packages can be rented for $10.75. Wetsuits are also available.
* HOURS ARE Monday, Thursday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., by reservation. Night dives and group reservations also can be made by appointment, and winter hours are shorter. Call 435-884-3874 or e-mail Seabase at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* FOR MORE INFORMATION, visit http://www.seabase.net.