Text by Walter Pickel
Photography by Curt Bowen
Video by Jim Killion

Every once and a while, the ADM Exploration Foundation finds itself in a unique opportunity to gain access to a potential new cave site or revisit caves that have long been closed.  September 2013 held one of those opportunities – the ADM Exploration Foundation was offered an extremely rare chance to explore the Santa Rosa Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

The Santa Rosa Blue Hole is very famous in and around cave diving communities; a relatively deep sinkhole that is a geologic anomaly in the high desert of New Mexico. The fact that springs exist in this area is not uncommon; The Rio Grande has Big and Little Arsenic and other New Mexico rivers have both hot and cold springs.  However, the Santa Rosa Blue Hole is something visually spectacular. A classic hourglass-shaped sinkhole 60’ in diameter and 90’ deep discharging year round 63 degree water, the color of blue that would soon turn Brett Hemphill’s famed “Cobalicity Meter” on its end, at a rate of 3,300 gallons per minute.  Throughout the expedition, Brett seemed to spend countless hours and destroy countless napkins devising a new way to implement the striking blue color of Santa Rosa Blue Hole’s water into his “chart”.

  Photo: Explorers Brett Hemphill and Joel Clark descend into the Santa Rosa Blue Hole.

The initial plan to visit New Mexico was not to focus on Santa Rosa Blue Hole, but rather visit other sites that the ADM Exploration Foundation had identified as potential leads that should be scouted.  During the planning cycle, Curt Bowen, expedition team leader, contacted Richard Delgado, Economic Development Director for the City of Santa Rosa to determine the best place our team could get air fills.  After a few months of negotiating, the ADM Exploration Foundation partnered with the City of Santa Rosa and agreed to explore the Santa Rosa Blue Hole for the city, an opportunity that has not been available to anyone since the cave entrance was closed in 1976.

The history of diving at Santa Rosa Blue Hole is storied and tragic.  Every year, over 3,000 students do open water check out dives at the Blue Hole.  However, in 1976, two University of Oklahoma State students drowned shortly after straying from their open water class and entering the labyrinth of passages deep inside the Blue Hole cave system.

Although one diver’s body was recovered quickly, the New Mexico State Police were on site for 6 weeks before recovering the second missing diver’s body.  At that point, the City of Santa Rosa and the New Mexico State Police sealed the entrance to the cave system with a large steel grate and subsequently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped at least 2 dump trucks full of rocks on the top of the grate to ensure that no other divers would venture into the vast corridors below.

New Mexico State Police divers reported that the largest room found was about 17’ tall.  However, they stated that the room later collapsed while conducting recovery operations.  The maximum depth,  reached by the divers in 1976, was reported to be 225’.  This number would be closer to 190’ as the divers were not using depth gauges that were adjusted for altitude. 

Describing the size of the cave below Santa Rosa Blue Hole, one of the recovery divers Jim Syling, said “I hung off a cliff; I had a 200,000 candle power flashlight and couldn’t see the bottom or the other side.  The water was clear but it must be a big cavern, like Carlsbad Caverns”.


Photo: The old “Snorkel Pipe” installed over the spring vent explodes from the cave floor as diver Curt Bowen rides it upwards.

Red Epic Video Grab


As with any other cave expedition, planning is more of a hopeful guideline and “boots on the ground” knowledge is tantamount to success.  Pre-expedition coordination and support by the City of Santa Rosa was unparalleled to any we have ever received by a governmental agency.   They were very upfront with their needs and desires, candid on what information they had and an absolute pleasure to work with.  Our team was told of the grate, the open water students’ deaths and of another device installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  However, the lack of knowledge of the rocks and debris that had been dumped onto the small 3’ x 3’ grate installed in 1976 would prove to be a pinnacle piece of information for this cave expedition.

Our team has become somewhat famous for bringing rain to dry areas of the United States (call it a gift).  In 2011 and 2012, we accompanied record snowfall at Phantom Springs Cave and Santa Rosa literally had water bubbling from the streets due to the rainfall in Colorado.  That being said, we are used to inclimate weather and actually enjoy the rain.

The Santa Rosa Blue Hole cave expedition team consisted of:  Curt Bowen – Team Leader, Exploration, Videography; Walter Pickel – Logistics, Exploration, Photography; Brett Hemphill – Lead Explorer; Joel Clark – Explorer, Technical Support; Michael Poucher – Cartography, Explorer; Jim Killion – Cinematography and Marc Hoppe – Sound Engineer.

Brett and Joel took the advance position driving the Light Monkey van from Gainesville, Florida to Santa Rosa, New Mexico.  Had it not been for this, we would not have had the opportunity to transport as much gear as we did; from extra Molecular Products Sofnolime® to camera rigs and dollies to all of our personal dive gear, Joel and Brett hauled all of it there and back.  Not only is Joel one of ADM Exploration Foundation’s go-to explorers, he is also co-owner of one of our best sponsors -- Light Monkey.


Lead Explorer Brett Hemphill was able to enter one of the first cave rooms that had been inaccessible since 1976 and felt he could squeeze under a significant boulder.  However, Santa Rosa Blue Hole decided not to give up her secrets.  Divers tried repeatedly to remove, shift, dislodge or otherwise get the rocks out of the entrance but were thwarted by one lone “boulder” choking the entrance to the second room. 

Although the removal of the debris alone was not able to open physical human access to the cave below 91 feet of depth, it was enough the increase the fresh water discharge from the spring and substantially improve water clarity.  Improving water flow will help downstream water consumers and increasing water clarity will enhance both visitors and divers experience while visiting Santa Rosa Blue Hole.

Both the City of Santa Rosa and the ADM Exploration Foundation is open to working with one another to field a second expedition and hopefully remove the remaining debris via lift bags, cranes and other alternate methods.

The significant events during the scouting expedition were removing debris and improving the overall quality of the Santa Rosa Blue Hole, installing a new grate to close the exposed cave entrance, fabricated by the Santa Rosa Public Works Department, expert mapping and cartography by team members Michael Poucher and Joel Clark, high resolution videography and photography above and below the surface by Jim Killion, Curt Bowen and Walter Pickel and expert sound capture by Marc Hoppe.  The addition of Marc Hoppe to the ADM Exploration Foundation is based on our commitment to not only show the underworld we explore but allow it to be heard as well.


Photo: Explorers Brett Hemphill removes all his dive equipment in an attempt to squeeze into the first chamber.

Red Epic Video Grab


Photo: Red Epic Cinematographer Jim Killion documents the entire expedition in 5K HD.


As part of ADM Exploration Foundation’s community outreach program, multimedia presentations were held at both the Santa Rosa High School and Middle School.  We would like to thank Estela Tenorio-Tompson for arranging these presentations and providing us the opportunity to speak to students.

All told, each and every one of the team members feels that this scouting expedition was a great success.  We are proud to have had the opportunity to work with the City of Santa Rosa and its residents.  We would like to thank all of our sponsors: Light Monkey, Golem Gear, Petzl, Molecular Products, Shearwater Research, Fourth Element, Omni Swivel and Hexa Watches.  In addition, our team would like to extend a personal thanks to Richard Delgado, Economic Development Director for the City Santa Rosa, Albert E. Campos, Jr. , Major of the City of Santa Rosa, the City of Santa Rosa Public Works Department, Stella Salazar from Santa Rosa Dive Shop and all of the amazing people of Santa Rosa!