The Last Dive Into Devil’s Hole.
by Chris Dixon
James Houtz came into this world nearly 80 years ago during a raging snowstorm. He lived the first three years of his life in a tiny Colorado outpost called Allen’s Park, but at the age of four, he and his older sister moved to Catalina Island after their mother was offered a job running a popular Girl Scout camp. When the Houtz’s weren’t on the island, they lived in an equally remote cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains above Los Angeles. Jim was rarely indoors, spending his early years hiking playing and hunting in the hills or diving and spearfishing in Catalina’s crystalline waters. Eventually he also took up surfing, growing particularly fond of the long pointbreak rollers around Santa Barbara.
A fanatical obsession with diving eventually led Houtz to enlist in the U.S. Navy’s submarine forces on an underwater demolition team – the precursor unit to the SEALS. He dove to recover spent torpedoes and Regulus II missiles (the first nukes ever to be launched from submarines) and led in acoustical experiments aimed at helping ships and subs run silent through the water.
Houtz was honorably discharged in 1960. He became a diving instructor and fell in with a team of experimental mermen who were working determine what sorts of exotic cocktail of oxygen, nitrogen, helium and other inert gasses might prevent the deadly state of deep dive drunkenness known as nitrogen narcosis.
By the early mid 1960’s, Houtz began a well-publicized mapping exploration of the deepest depths of a gigantic, tidally influenced western aquifer whose sole connection to the earth’s surface is a tiny volcanic fissure near Death Valley – a scar called Devils’ Hole. The hole is home to a critically endangered species, the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, and is steeped in lore. Native Americans held that a beast hid in its depths that would leap from the water and pull careless humans to their deaths. The Reverend Ethan Allen believed it a gateway to Hell, while Charles Manson thought his Family could hide safely in its depths during the coming chaos of Helter Skelter, and find a lost city of gold.
Merl Dobry and Jim Houtz inch their way through a narrow passage on the way to Brown’s Room. The photograph illuminated a world of utter darkness darkness at 92 feet. Photo courtesy, Jim Houtz.
Houtz completed over 300 dives here – far more than any other human. The Hole nearly killed him too. “I was doing a bounce dive,” Houtz told me during an interview in 2010. “Going down and coming right back. I was coming back up at probably 225 feet when it suddenly became very obvious that there was no more air in the tank. I had a cable to follow, but it’s not straight up. You’re meandering and following all these narrow passageways. I had two, maybe three breaths in the tank, so it became an issue of mind over matter. I had trained in this particular category very, very extensively, but needless to say, when I broke the surface, in what we call the egg room, I was a pretty happy camper.”
In early 1965, Devil’s Hole provided Houtz the unfortunate opportunity to best Jacques Cousteau in a world record deep cave dive to 315 feet. That June, a group of four young friends, two fairly experienced divers, snuck into the cave’s tiny slit opening just after sunset and descended with flashlights and scuba gear. They were mesmerized by fantastical chambers walled by cream-colored limestone. “But once you round that first bend at ninety feet – you don’t know what dark is,” said Houtz. “There’s no reflection down there. The walls are limestone. They look smooth, like clouds, but they’re rough. Rub your hands against it and it’ll take the skin right off.”
A half hour later, one young diver failed to surface and two of the friends went in after him. With batteries low and tank volume dropping, yet another disappeared. At dawn the next morning, Houtz stood at the mouth of the cave, charged with taking the lead in a massive rescue effort.
What follows is a terrific Soundcloud interview about the rescue with Houtz. It was just posted up by San Diego State University professor Kim Stringfellow as part of The Mojave Project. — CD
Read More About Houtz, including his later plan to build his own island nation here.