Gateway to Freshwater Fun: Diving on the Lake Tahoe Charter Dive Boat “Payah Kun”

Lake Tahoe has long been a favorite destination for local divers, Northern California dive shops looking for a quiet spot for training courses, and a select few technical divers exploring some of its deeper wrecks, such as the 300 foot deep SS Tahoe. The diving here is magnificent, with constant visibility of 60 to 80 feet, no currents or tides to worry about, and plenty of interesting sites with historic shipwrecks, vertical walls and huge underwater rocks to explore.

Recreational shore diving is possible at Lake Tahoe, but accessible dive sites are generally very limited. On the west side of the lake, for example, the Rubicon Wall is one of the most beautiful advanced dives (with a rock wall dropping almost vertically to over 800 feet), but to get there you have to walk (with everything your gear) down a winding trail with a 200 foot drop to the beach, then about 600 feet of surface swimming to reach it. Add the 6,224 feet of elevation and it can be a grueling workout, long before you start your dive.

The Payah Kun dropped anchor at the bay’s first dive site. Crystal clear waters and no waves, currents or surf make it an ideal way to scuba dive in the lake.

Longtime South Lake residents Tom and Carrie Loomis, along with their daughter (and instructor) Sid, operate a new dive boat that now operates out of South Lake Tahoe. Their business, JustSoScuba, takes divers aboard their custom-built dive boat, the Payah Kun, transporting up to 6 divers in speed, safety and comfort to dozens of dive sites on Lake Tahoe. Departing from South Lake Tahoe on the weekends, she can reach the Rubicon Wall and Emerald Bay dive sites in less than 20 minutes, providing plenty of time to enjoy the scenery above and below the water. For those looking for a day or two of diving on one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, this is definitely something to add to your schedule this summer.

Payah Kun divers have plenty of deck space and large benches to prepare for before diving. The charter provides 80 cubic foot tanks for all divers on board, reducing the amount of gear you’ll need to get to the lake. They will also provide regulators, buoyancy compensators and other equipment available for hire, if required. On board, indoor seating is also available for those wishing to protect themselves from the sun, a private dressing room and a marine toilet (head) available.

Spent a day out on the lake on the Payah Kun on July 16 and was lucky enough to enjoy Tahoe’s only dive boat and some of the best sites on the lake. Our first dive was my favorite destination here – the famous Rubicon Wall.

Divers enter the water near the famous Rubicon Wall

After arriving and dropping anchor, we started by relaxing and enjoying the scenery and the fresh pine-scented air. With an air temperature of 80 degrees and a water temperature of 72 (at the surface), it’s pure pleasure to be here and away from the city for a weekend. The one day dive program on the Payah Kun is basically not a program at all – 2 dives with plenty of time before, after and in between to enjoy the water and take in the beautiful scenery. There’s never a rush to get ready and into the water, and long dives aren’t a problem for those who consume their air well either – if you’re a 90-minute-per-dive diver, you are welcome to stay down without any pressure to stick to a schedule. As an experienced diver myself, I enjoyed the pace of the day, and I’m sure new divers would enjoy it even more.

Diver Chris Constantine prepares to dive wearing a dry suit. Wetsuits are also sufficient for diving in Tahoe, especially in the summer.

The main diving season at Lake Tahoe runs from July to mid-October, and by late summer the shallower areas of water warm up to the mid-upper 70s. It’s perfect for swimming and snorkeling, but for scuba diving you’ll need a bit more insulation.

Once you drop below 20 or 30 feet there is a steep thermocline, and at dive depths of 40 to 100 feet the temperature is in the low 50s (and for your information, below an average depth of 600 feet, the water Temperature is a constant 39°F, but you won’t have to worry about that.) A full suit, including hood and gloves, is required here, and some divers opt for a dry suit, even in the summer. If you’re not a drysuit diver, you’ll be fine in a drysuit, especially since you’ll have plenty of time to warm up between dives on the boat.

Diver Jack Chung explores the Rubicon Wall.

The best thing about boat diving on Lake Tahoe is that you can just get in the water, get off, and enjoy your dive – no carrying gear or surface swimming needed. Today we anchored very close to shore and entered about 20ft of crystal clear water, where you can clearly see the rocks, minnows and sand below. After a giant stride entry, an “OK” signal to our divemaster, and a quick surface check, it was just a matter of descending and following the underwater terrain to the edge of the wall. From there we explored huge rocks, cliffs that mirrored the dramatic falls you see above the waterline, and saw some small fish and crayfish. Unlike scuba diving, you won’t see a ton of water life here while scuba diving.

Because we dive at an altitude of 6,200 feet, it is very important to use a dive computer and understand how altitude affects your dive profile. Due to reduced air pressure you are limited to shallower depths, a safety stop is required at 12ft, and there are other considerations as well. The Payah Kun divemaster will let you know what changes you will need to make to your dive, but an altitude diving course from your local dive center is definitely the way to go if you dive here regularly.

After going up the Rubicon wall, we made our safety stop by simply swimming towards shore until we reached 12 feet. We surfaced right next to the boat (which you can see underwater from 40ft away which helps), climbed the ladder and our divemaster helped us back to the bench. With the gear off and after a nice dive we had some snacks and again enjoyed the scenery and waved at a few passing boats.

Divers and crew enjoy a surface interval at Emerald Bay

A surface interval here at Lake Tahoe is not only necessary, it was one of the most enjoyable parts of our trip. When everyone was back on board and ready to go, we slowly made our way to Emerald Bay and cruised around the shoreline and Wizard Island. Waterfalls, ospreys, eagles, there is no shortage of things to see here. Time spent on the Payah Kun is really much more than a trip to a few dive sites – it really is a half day excursion of the lake and all of its attractions.

For our second dive, we visited the Historic Houseboats, located near the southern shore of Emerald Bay. There is a buoy here reserved for dive boats – and with so few divers visiting here it is rarely used. The barges are located just below the buoy in 20 feet of water and are easily visible from the boat.

Barges at Emerald Bay are a favorite shallow dive. Here you can explore the sunken barges that once carried goods all around Lake Tahoe before the roads were built around the lake.

The site consists of two barges, constructed of solid ponderosa pine timber at a depth of between 10 and 40 feet. The barges were owned and operated by the logging companies, who used them to transport firewood for part of the year, then employed them as car ferries during the summer months. They were intentionally cast in the 1950s when they lost their usefulness.

The barges have spent nearly 7 decades underwater, but still intact

This second dive site was a great follow up to the first. Being relatively shallow, we had no restrictions on dive time here. Your bottom time will likely depend more on your flight level than your decompression status. Non-divers can snorkel above and dive to the barges to check them out as well.

Needless to say, we had an amazing time diving Lake Tahoe, largely due to our experience on the Payah Kun. Boat diving on Lake Tahoe is much easier than shore diving, and having experienced divers in charge of the operation made our dives both safer and much more enjoyable. Having a dedicated dive boat here is a great opportunity and I highly recommend taking a trip here this summer to experience it for yourself.

JustSoScuba accepts reservations on their website. They take up to 6 divers per trip, and with larger groups they can schedule morning and afternoon trips to accommodate up to 12 divers. Divers can book individually or in groups, and dive shops and clubs can also charter the boat for the day. Reservations are first come, first served and some weekends fill up.

The cost of diving on the Payah Kun is $250 each, which includes tanks, dives at 2 different locations on the lake, a tour of some of Tahoe’s most beautiful areas (like Emerald Bay), snacks and a professional divemaster on board. You will dive at a relaxed pace and on the water for 5-6 hours. Dive shops, clubs and private parties can also choose to rent the complete boat. Divers are also welcome, and non-divers are also welcome on board at a discounted rate. (Note that the cost to rent even a modest motorboat on Lake Tahoe is $150 an hour plus fuel, so $250 for a half day on the lake – including tanks , food and an experienced crew – is not a bad deal. ).

Just So Scuba owner Tom Loomis encourages divers to reserve their spot in advance, and reservations are first come, first served. It is also important to remember that the summer diving season ends in October, leaving only a few months to dive with Just So Scuba. Reservations can be made online by visiting their website, emailing them at [email protected] or by phone at (530) 416-8519. At the last check there are still a few places open for the coming weekends.

JustSoScuba – Information and reservations on Tahoe rental boats


Texts and photos by Chris Constantine, California Diver Magazine

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