Missouri mines serve as underwater 'museum'

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BONNE TERRE, Mo. -- Dive clients who are growing tired of grouper, coral and underwater caves may want to explore ore carts, dynamite boxes and elevator shafts instead. Or how about a timekeeper's shack, railroad tracks and a steam locomotive?

All of this was left behind when the Bonne Terre mining system here, located about 45 miles from St. Louis, was abandoned in 1961.

Missouri's Bonne Terre Mines offer divers some of the world's most unique underwater experiences. Bonne Terre, now flooded with fresh groundwater, is the only dive site in the world of its kind, according to Doug Goergens, president of Bridgeton, Mo.-based West End Diving, which owns the mines.

"The truly amazing thing about this place is you're diving through history -- quite literally," Goergens said. "You're diving through what I think is the world's largest museum -- more than 100 years of mining history."

Goergens opened Bonne Terre in 1980; he now hosts more than 15,000 divers and 45,000 tourists per year at the freshwater dive resort -- comprising 17 miles of underground shoreline and 1,500 rooms covering more than 80 square miles.

"Many experienced divers tell me it's the best diving they've ever done," Goergens said. He said the consistent conditions, including climate, lighting and visibility of at least 100 feet on all dives, make it a sort of diver's paradise.

"We are the only place in the world that guarantees our dive quality," he said. "Here, you won't run into any weather or visibility problems. That type of guarantee is unheard of in diving."

Those types of conditions at Bonne Terre are probably what lured underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau to Missouri in 1982 to film -- a sort of watershed moment that "put Bonne Terre on the diving map," Goergens said.

Bonne Terre, which is open year-round, offers 24 different dive tours -- each one a little more difficult. All dives are operated in groups of 10 and are accompanied by one guide and an additional expert diver. Dives are open to experienced and novice divers, Goergens said.

For nondivers, Bonne Terre also offers walking tours for $12 and a boat and walking tour for $17.50. West End Diving offers weekend dive plans starting at $230 for two nights and $260 for three nights.

Travel agents earn a $30 commission per person once they've booked eight divers for the year. Once that number is reached, agents receive $240 and $30 for each additional diver booked.

For more information, call West End Diving at (888) THE-DIVE or visit the Web site at www.2dive.com.

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