One-of-a-kind Bonneville Seabase beckons divers and snorkelers from around the world

By Chris Vanocur

There are two types of people in the world: Those who enjoy hanging out in hot tubs and those that don’t. Those who do seem to rejoice in sitting half-naked while simmering with strangers, chewing the fat and perhaps sipping an adult beverage. Others, like me, find this kind of waterlogged social gathering akin to hell on earth. Or, at least, hell in hot water.

My aversion to the aquatic life means I eschewed some of the more traditional Utah soaking places for this hot-water themed issue. Instead, I headed 40 miles west of Salt Lake and dropped anchor at the Bonneville Seabase.

Located on 60 acres, Seabase bills itself as “Utah’s Inland Ocean.” As I understand it—and I really don’t—Seabase’s three warm saltwater pools are fed by natural geothermally heated springs bubbling up from land once covered by ancient Lake Bonneville. The salinity of the water closely resembles that of the Earth’s oceans. While its inland remoteness might cause some to raise a skeptical eyebrow, Seabase is beloved among the national and international diving community for its assortment of tame tropical fish that swim in the depths of the pools (from 12 to 62 feet).

Seabase is owned and operated by the married diving team of Linda Nelson (who wears fish earrings) and George Sanders. They bought the place back in the late 1980s because they wanted a teaching spot to call their own. At their inland ocean, divers and snorkelers pay $20 to mingle with angelfish, butterfly fish, mono fish, porkfish, black drum and groupers. There used to be a couple of small sharks, but, after a long life, they vamoosed a while back. If diving and snorkeling aren’t your thing, $5 dollars will get you a pedicure by some “mollies” (molly fish).

Divers and snorkelers mingle with angelfish, butterfly fish, mono fish, porkfish, black drum and groupers

But Nelson and Sanders say what also helps keep them afloat (bad pun intended) are special events throughout the year: Music festivals, regional Burning Man bashes and a light festival with lanterns are just some of the big Seabase draws. There have even been a couple of underwater weddings, complete with sign language interpreters and some “yes” and “no” cue cards.

Talk of underwater love prompted me to snarkily ask if there have ever been any mermaid sightings at Seabase. Well, as it turns out, there have been. Utah, apparently, has a collection of half-female, half-fish residents, and these mythical creatures occasionally tailgate at the inland ocean’s salty shindigs.

My Seabase visit was on a hot Saturday afternoon in August. The gravel parking lot was filling up, mostly with Utah clientele. However, I did notice one out-of-state license plate (Colorado). Summer is the busiest time of year, so it’s wise to call ahead to reserve a spot. Some families even pack a picnic and make a day of it. Or a night. Overnight camping is available for an additional charge. Seabase is also open in the winter. While the water is obviously a bit cooler then, on the plus side, it is also clearer.

Did I take the plunge and swim with the fishes during my visit? I did not. But my qualms about getting wet shouldn’t come as a surprise. I did, after all, mention there are two types of people in this world. Those who hot tub and those who don’t. Being something of a nebbish introvert, the idea of spending some quality, scantily clad time with strangers in hot springs is, again, simply not my cup of warm saltwater.

However, the well-traveled and entertaining owners did encourage me to come back to Seabase for a future dip, and I will admit I’m considering it. If this surprises you—given my militant “no hot tub” stance—rest assured, I have a good reason.

You see, I checked Seabase’s calendar of upcoming events and one item caught my eye. I forget exactly what type of social function it is, but I did see some of the guests expected to attend. Blissfully, this list includes mermaids. And despite my reluctance to hang out in hot tubs, a pedicure from a molly mermaid may be a lure too impossible to resist.