Personal Stories

Hillary Hauser: Devil's Hole

Devil’s Hole is a flooded earthquake fault underneath a mountain in Death Valley and home of the endangered Devil’s Hole Pupfish. It is off-limits to divers, except one pair who dived to 90 feet and into a giant cavern underneath a mountain, sealed off from air, in an exploration of an ancient, bottomless, limestone cave.

In 1981 I had just returned from diving the sinkholes of South Australia for a National Geographic project, when I heard about Devil’s Hole in Death Valley. I got so excited about getting in this place that I did everything backward – I got a BIG assignment from GEO Magazine, with a retainer that I immediately used to pay my rent and other bills, then I set about getting an expedition together.

The National Park Service, which manages Devil’s Hole, said NO, you can’t go there. What?

The project was all about underwater pictures. Maybe I could get a story together and find out who might have underwater photos already. A million calls later – and there was Ernie Brooks on the phone. He was cruising down State Street in his red Lamborghini, talking on his car phone (very sophisticated for those days)…”What’s up babe?” he said.

“AGGGGH! Ernie, I just found out you’ve dived Devil’s Hole! Did you?”

Yes. “With Merl Dobry.”

“Have you got pictures?”

SURE! I’ll go dig them out, Ernie said.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Chew fingernails.

The pictures arrived. OMG, the film in the slides had red spots on them. A problem of storage over the years. I couldn’t use them.

While I indulged in my misery of what to do next, I thought WOW! Ernie Brooks had been one of the only people inside Devil’s Hole, one of the first divers in there! He told me stories about it – incredible stories. Right after he dived Devil’s Hole, it was closed forever – by the National Park Service, Department of Interior, the President of the United States, and NATO. A couple of divers had disappeared in there – but more than that, the (intensely) endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish lived there. A scientist in Nevada was going in on occasion and counting them in their shallow habitat, which was being kept alive with oxygen sensors, lights during the dark months, and other equipment.

After considerable rumbling around, I found the scientist, and convinced Jack McKenney, who was Assistant Editor of Skin Diver Magazine at the time, to go to Devil’s Hole with me and let me count fish with the scientist, and then just poke around and see if we could sneak in there.

We did, and that is the meat of the story I wrote.

But when I think of Devil’s Hole and the great adventure that it was, I think of Ernie Brooks, Red Lamborghini, “Sure, I’ll help!” and his stories of Devil’s Hole.

From there we’ve gone into years of meetings and greetings, and always – always – he salutes me with, “What’s up, Babe?” and the biggest, most positive smile, ever.

That is how Ernie Brooks will always be in my mind: a man of open mind and heart.

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