A very special and unique place.

Swimming In Mono Lake: A Unique Experience
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

You really owe it to yourself to swim in Mono Lake, one of these fine summer days. Like many things about this place, swimming is a strange and unique experience.

And, like many experiences of this place, swimming will also be most appreciated if you respect and prepare for a few special challenges.

Many visitors express surprise that swimming in Mono Lake is allowed, let alone encouraged. I've wondered why.

Is it because this lake seems so alien to human life, so much the sole prerogative of brine shrimp and birds? Is it because, after learning about the jeopardy in which the lake's ecosystem has been placed by stream diversions, they fear that any direct intrusion by people will have negative consequences?

It's sure been hot this summer. For those of you who come up to the mountains to escape the heat, we apologize profusely for our recent, unusual highs approaching 90 degrees.

The upper layer of Mono Lake water, recently, has been more than 75 degrees. With the sun beating down on you, it feels more like 80 like a warm swimming pool.

The easiest access is at the south shore, from the South Tufa or Navy Beach parking areas. At Navy Beach, you'll have the shortest walk to the water. Both places are off Hwy 120, about five miles east of Hwy 395.

But try entering the water at some of the other visitor sites nearer Hwy 395 and you'll discover the "Mono Muck." In fact, another name for the "Old Marina site" north of Lee Vining is "Sneaker Flat," because so many people leave shoes behind in the mud.

Another spot that catches people this way is at the end of the Reserve's boardwalk below the Mono Lake County Park, on the north shore. You can sink knee-high or deeper, fast.

The south shore is nice and solid, however. As you approach, don't be put off by the dark band of alkali flies. The other day, I "cast a spell" over a group of kids which, I guaranteed, would create a force-field around each child to repel the flies. (It worked, of course, since these herbivorous critters always behave as if they wish pesky humans would just keep their distance.)

So don't worry about the flies. When you go into the water, though, some interesting things to look for are fly larvae, pupae and adults moving around on the submerged rocks. The adults climb down there to lay eggs and feed, enclosing themselves in silvery bubble air-supplies all the while.

You won't have to go as deep as usual before laying out prone to float. Try it in thigh-high water. This water, two-and-a-half times as salty as the ocean, is full of dissolved minerals which will support your body. You can't sink!

There's no need to swim in place to stay afloat, or even to hold your breath. If you normally plummet like a stone in freshwater, this is the place for you.

Float on your back and your feet will bob at the surface, while your head stays high and dry. There's a well-known photo of Mono Lake Committee-founder David Gaines reading a newspaper while floating like this in the lake.

Those dissolved minerals that support you are (in order of concentrations) baking soda, table salt and epsom salts (carbonates, chlorides and sulfates).

To leap ahead a bit, when you emerge from this strange mix of chemicals and dry off, you'll be coated with white stuff.

A rinse in fresh water will leave you clean and refreshed. Clean, because of the soapy character of that baking soda, and refreshed, well, the primary use for epsom salts is to soak tired feet.

I notice the soapy character most. After a swim, the shower leaves my hair soft and easy to comb, as though I'd rinsed with a hair conditioner.

However, all that comes later. During your swim, you'll have no problem spotting the other primary life form here — brine shrimp. Artemia monica is a species unique to Mono Lake. Every cubic inch of the water, seemingly, has shrimp and, in places, they gather together in solid-looking clouds. There are trillions of them (literally) in this lake.

You won't be able to avoid swimming through the shrimp, so don't even try. Like the flies, they are harmless. If you have swim goggles or a mask, they are fascinating to watch underwater. Even from the surface, you will be able to differentiate free-swimming males, females and mating pairs, all performing acrobatic feats as they twist and turn. Most of the time they travel upside down, feeding on microscopic algae as they go.

In my opinion, tufa formations are the most fascinating sight under the lake.

Here's where goggles or a face-mask are so helpful. They serve two key purposes. The obvious one is to let you clearly see what's underwater. The other, perhaps more critical purpose at this lake, is to keep the water out of your eyes.

It stings. A lot. Mono Lake is very, very salty. Stream diversions since 1941 led to the loss of half the lake's volume, doubling the concentration of its salts. People used to swim here with their eyes open underwater. That is not a comfortable thing to try, nowadays.

So if you don't have a mask, keep your head above water. And always bring along a jug or bottle of fresh water to wash off after swimming and to rinse with; salty-wet hair tends to drip into the eyes.

Another good idea is to apply Vaseline to your lips before snorkeling. I've stayed too long in the lake, a few times (an hour or more, when we had specific tasks to accomplish), and later suffered from swollen, cracked lips.

Does this begin to sound like too much trouble? I hope not. A swim in Mono Lake, at least once, is one of those basic necessities for a complete, fulfilled life.

I swam out to some of the larger, most distant towers at South Tufa recently. I was using a mask, snorkel and fins, which let me stroke free-style and cover some distance without worrying about salt in my eyes or coming up for air.

As I approached the towers, they began to loom overhead. I could feel their presence grow some 20 feet above me, but my attention as I closed in was pulled more and more beneath the water. Vision strained to pierce beyond the 15-foot visibility that day (it can be better, but that's about average), seeking a first sight of the bases of these towers.

Finally a mass, dark, mysterious, growing, began to make its presence known. I kicked in closer.

The feeling wasn't at all like walking up beside a land-based tower. I was seeing the hidden roots of towers. They shared the blue-green space with me — or rather, I was invading their space. This is, I expect, something like swimming toward a whale or an iceberg. So much is underwater, unseen, that it can be a bit unnerving.

But that feeling dispersed after I got close. The sun lit up the tufas just below the surface. Down farther, the rocks turned green, then deep blue toward the lake bottom. I was floating, effortlessly, above 20 feet of water. These towers were over 40 feet tall from their roots — where groundwater springs emerged from the lake bottom — up to their exposed tips.

Though the mass was consolidated and interconnected, forming an island some 30 feet long and 10 feet wide, individual free-standing towers thrust out from it underwater.

I saw arches. And columns. The sunlight caught the shine of crystals (gaylussite — a precursor to the calcium carbonate tufa material) on some of the surfaces. And over the tops of several towers, clouds of shrimp hovered in swirling, vertical columns.

Snorkeling in Mono Lake will not provide the spectacle and drama of an ocean coral reef. There are no schools of tropical fish. Colors are muted here.

But it is fascinating — unlike anything you will ever see anywhere else. And both the water and the tufa formations are very, very alive down there.

If you think you've "done" Mono Lake, but haven't done it this way yet, you owe it to yourself to swim in Mono Lake one of these fine, hot summer days.

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