Diving Below: The Depths of the Lake of the Ozarks

by Christy Wagner, Lake Ozark

Aptly dubbed The Magic Dragon for its vast, serpentine-shaped main channel, the iconic, near century-old Lake of the Ozarks gives way to four separate arms and hundreds of subdividing coves along 100 nautical miles. With a surface area of 54,000 acres, its seemingly endless expanse flows across three counties and it is the state’s second largest lake; second only to Truman Lake by a mere 1,600 acres of surface area.

Photo taken at the 15 mile mark (from the scenic overlook) at dusk; courtesy of Christy Wagner.

Ranked by some as one of America’s most dangerous lakes, those who live for and love the Lake of the Ozarks know better than to define our waters by one singular component, fictitious Netflix shows or otherwise. As deadly as any traversable waterway will inevitably be, there is also great allure.

For both primary and secondary residents (and fellow lake enthusiasts alike), we’ve boated, fished, and swam in these waters one hundred times over. We know its unfathomable beauty along with its unforgiving nature while striking a fine balance between carefree exultation and responsible navigating. From dam to dam and beneath the height of a boundless sky, we skim above unseen depths of more than 100 feet like freshly skipped rocks with no thought for what lies below.

With a wide collection of motion pictures featuring mythological creatures like Cthulhu and the Loch Ness Monster, or man-eating marine reptiles and long-extinct Megalodon sharks, we humans have a wild imagination, don’t we? One nip from a hopeful bluegill is enough to set off my inner Mortal Kombat skills while envisioning Captain Hook’s tattered robes at the jaws of a ravenous crocodile.

In actuality, however, the largest recorded fish to have ever been captured at the Lake of the Ozarks was a 134 pound paddlefish. Ever the appeal for River Monsters, our largest catfish on record weighed 103 pounds. To be fair, I’d rather not swim with either of those things.

But what does lie below the water’s surface, and what does it feel like to actually be down there?

Photo courtesy of Hart Diving & Salvage featuring a wave break rope in 10′ of water.

“Well, what I can say is that it’s always dark, so you need a flashlight,” said Corporal Dean Bartlett of the Marine Operations Division with the Missouri State Highway Patrol. “Most of the time, the water visibility is zero because it is so murky. The water temperature is usually somewhere around 50 degrees at 100 feet, even in the summer, because you are going below the thermocline. You cannot feel the pressure differential because your body doesn’t have air pockets, except for your ears and the BIG one ⁠⁠— your teeth. If your dentist did a bad job at filling your cavities, you will know it pretty quickly as you go down and the pressure squeezes the air pocket, causing extreme pain.”

Bartlett, also a technical diver, is certified to reach depths of up to 300 feet.

“The deepest that I have been is 217 feet in Bull Shoals Lake,” Bartlett continued. “The deepest that I have seen at the Lake of the Ozarks is about 150 feet. For the most part, the Lake is about 70 feet deep, but it gets deeper in the old river channel.”

Regarding search and rescue duties for first responders, unfortunately, this is a service that will likely always be necessary at the Lake of the Ozarks. With what feels like an average of two to three drownings per year, divers rely on tools to help condense their search area from the last known point of a missing person in the water.

“The sonar that we use to search with is a tow-fish, towed behind the boat,” Bartlett said of the Marine Operations Division’s Dive Team. “We try to keep the tow-fish about three to four feet off of the bottom and it shoots a sonar beam from both sides. When looking at an image on a computer screen, the shadow that the object leaves behind can tell you just as much information as the object itself. It has the capability to measure the length of an image, so if we are looking for someone who is 5’10” and we measure an image that is seven feet long, we know that it’s not what we are looking for.”

Having originally been built to provide hydroelectric power to the customers of Union Electric Company of St. Louis, the waters of today’s Lake of the Ozarks conceal a treasure trove of local history, whose hidden depths speak of times long gone, and of memories which will be buried forevermore.

“While I am working underwater, I am always looking out for old structures and foundations from old houses, while thinking to myself, ‘Someone once lived here,’” said Captain Nicholas Hutzler of the Lake Ozark Fire Protection District. “When I’m diving in areas that are very muddy, I usually think that this was probably someone’s farm. A lot of farmland was covered by water when the Bagnell Dam was built, and I find myself wondering what crops would have possibly been planted there, or what was on ‘this area’ prior to the Lake.”

Photo courtesy of Capt. Nicholas Hutzler featuring a sonar image of an unknown structure, possibly an old foundation, submerged in the Lake of the Ozarks.

Photo courtesy of Capt. Nicholas Hutzler featuring a sonar image of a sunken vessel in the Osage River.

Hutzler, who began working for LOFPD in 2001, dove with their dive team from 2002 until it was disbanded in an effort to redirect the Department’s emergency efforts in 2013.

“With the Missouri State Highway Patrol having a dive team that could respond to the Lake of the Ozarks, it was determined that our fire department could replace our dive operations with other needed forms of emergency rescue capabilities,” explained LOFPD Chief Mark Amsinger. “This includes hours of continued annual training regimens while equipping our members to proficiently deal with vessel, ice, surface and swift water rescue operations on varying waterways throughout Central Missouri.”

“The vast majority of the time, our calls to dive were primarily for body recoveries, mainly because drownings happen fast,” Hutzler explained. “It would take time to assemble a team of divers to go out to the calls, and the only thing that kept a lot of us going with the dive team was to give families some closure during a bad situation. LOFPD made the decision to no longer support a dive team for several reasons, but mainly because of the risk versus the reward. We had to risk a lot for a known ‘recovery only’ situation, and keeping up with certifications and training was a lot to do. MSHP’s Marine Operations/Water Patrol Division already had and has a very good dive team, and since the dives were almost always recoveries, time was not a factor for their (sometimes) extended response.”

Even after the Fire Department’s dive team disbanded, Hutzler has continued to dive. In 2014, he started a commercial diving business at the Lake of the Ozarks called Hutzler Enterprises, LLC. Along with his duties as a captain with our local fire department, Hutzler now relocates and repairs docks, restrings anchor cables, conducts underwater inspections, raises submerged vessels, and recovers everything from lost cell phones and wallets to tools.

Collaborative efforts by Hutzler Enterprises and Hart Diving & Salvage to clear a fuel spill from a sunken vessel (under the direction of the Department of Natural Resources & MSHP) on February 26th, 2021.

“The Lake of the Ozarks is not a recreational dive lake,” explained Ben Faulconer, Commercial Diver and Project Manager for Hart Diving & Salvage, a Lake area-based diving company of 50-some odd years which makes several hundred dives per year. “Every dive could be compared to cave or night diving, and with any stir of bottom or sediment, you are instantaneously engulfed within a plume or cloud where only a dive light against your mask and aimed back at your eyes can be seen.”

“The reality is that 30-100 feet are pretty much the same, as it takes a dive light to see what’s down there due to the absence of sun or natural light based on refraction and reflection of suspended sediments,” Faulconer continued. “The Lake is actually fairly clear but the water is constantly stirred up, so it appears murky.”

Faulconer went on to explain that what we generally see on the surface of the water is a reflection of sunlight bouncing off of whatever lies below, so if it’s green, you will get a surface color of green. Comparatively, ocean water can be green, blue, or even black.

“Shallower ocean water can be green as the natural light travels to seagrass, seaweed bottom or reef systems and the color is reflected back,” Faulconer said. “Deeper ocean water is most often dark in color as water is clear without suspended sediment where light travels until it cannot travel anymore and has still not reached bottom, in which case, it’s actually absorbed and doesn’t reflect.”

For the Lake of the Ozarks, Faulconer explains that the color we generally see is a natural light bouncing off of the bottom if unobstructed by suspended sediments or light bouncing off of the sediment that is suspended in the water. Like all divers, the crew at Hart Diving & Salvage has experienced their share of interesting submerged encounters.

Photos courtesy of Hart Diving & Salvage featuring their diver along with a sunken bass boat recovered in December of 2020.

“One of the most interesting things that I have witnessed in this lake was at roughly 70 feet,” said Faulconer. “There was a tree that was approximately eight feet in diameter. It was the largest tree that I have ever seen in Missouri, either above or below water, and at first, I thought that it was an old tank standing on end. I was and still am in awe.”

Along with restricted visibility overall, Faulconer explains that everything appears to be 25-33% larger when observed through a dive mask in the water.

“We can report that a tree is six feet in diameter so as not to exaggerate its size, but still, this is non-typically huge and would have to be hundreds of years old,” Faulconer said, in closing. “We also see large catfish and alligator gar in the 4-6 foot range and again, everything appears to be larger under water, but they’re still fun to see and always make us feel like we are diving with the dinosaurs of fish.”

Maybe we aren’t really that far off from Hollywood’s spin on life below the surface. Is it summer yet?

Pogue Hollow Cove, Lake of the Ozarks