Lloyd Cunningham: “I have a real passion for underwater photography and I have a real love of the Iowa Great Lakes and West Lake Okoboji. I’ve dived in the Caribbean and Florida but this is my favorite place to dive. Its fresh water and there are plenty of great places to dive.”
Weeks before a summertime rush of visitors flood the cool waters of West Lake Okoboji, Lloyd Cunningham is already here. Donning a wet suit with scuba gear in hand, Lloyd prepares for an icy dip into 40 degree water.
Lloyd Cunningham: “I think that’s what the water is going to be today….40-43 degrees. Dives are generally short and I tend to dive no more than 35 minutes because you chill all the way to the core through your wetsuit.”
This excursion is much more than recreation…it’s a trip back in time. From a 1940s ice truck to 100-year old structures, Cunningham opens an underwater gateway for the rest of us.
Lloyd Cunningham: “The bottom of the lake is a time capsule in my view of its history and past. And that’s the major draw for me. Every dive is a treasure hunt.”
Lloyd, a retired newspaper photographer for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, spent his weekdays documenting fires, accidents and Friday night football. His free time was spent here….at West Lake Okoboji. Much to the surprise of many longtime Iowans, this glacial water body is a hidden scuba-diving gem.
Lloyd Cunningham: “Its deep. This lake is 134-138 feet deep in some spots. And that depth lends itself to clear water. Anything that falls into the lake: sediments, silts, and sands that you see in the Midwest lakes all settles through to the bottom leaving the top very, very clear. Its unique in the Midwest and a haven for divers.”
Okoboji was formed by the Wisconsin Glacier. One of only three blue water lakes in the entire world, visibility can extend to 40 feet during peak periods.
However, that window is only briefly open. The spring days of mid-May present the best opportunity to catch a glimpse of the lake bottom. We journeyed alongside Lloyd from the water’s edge to a structure brimming with fish.
Lloyd Cunningham: “There is a water tower intake built by the city of Milford in about 1917. The tower is roughly 15 feet tall and is a crib full of stone at the bottom and holds uprights an 8-inch iron pipe. It’s a wonderful dive for first timers.”
Lloyd has clocked more than 350 dives in Okoboji. And while his first-hand accounts keep him coming back, it’s his underwater photography that has captivated residents and tourists alike.
Lloyd Cunningham: “It was amazing to me the first time I was on the bottom of the lake that I could actually make pictures here.
Making a good underwater photograph is a balance of working with the water and working with the light, working with the visibility that you have and taking all those into account as you approach the dive.”
One of his signature photos is a 1940’s era ice truck resting for more than 50 years below the surface. But it requires expert navigation to find.
Motoring out to the center of West Lake, Lloyd found his spot in a matter of minutes.
Lloyd Cunningham: “On the bottom of West Lake Okoboji is something called the ice truck. In 1948 it slipped off the ice and into 15 feet of water in the middle of Smith’s Bay. When I began diving most divers had thought it had rusted away.
It has become the most popular dive site in West Lake Okoboji now. I think the reason its such an interesting dive site because its place in history and its centrally located and in shallow water.”
Much of the floating matter in these images was stirred up by our divers. The swirling sediment can create a dark and hazy-image. It’s just one of the reasons underwater photography requires skill and patience.
Lloyd Cunningham: “Good diving practices are to always dive with a buddy. But with a bottom as soft as this bottom it can easily be stirred up by random or clumsy kick of a fin. You’ll lose the visibility that your after when you’re trying to make good quality underwater images. So in that case I mostly dive alone.”
The ice truck….underwater ship wrecks…fish sanctuaries…these are images that have captivated Lloyd during his dives. But so have the stories behind them. Lloyd says his photographs have drawn the attention of local “historians” always curious if he has come across a relic from decades ago.
Lloyd Cunningham: “People will have seen a boat sink from the lakeside cabin and wonder if I’ve seen it down there. Every dive in West Lake Okoboji is a treasure hunt when you dive in this beautiful lake.”