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Underwater cliffs and monster bass (up to 13 pounds) attract divers to this sizable reservoir straddling the U.S.-Mexico border near Del Rio. Some 540 miles of shoreline on the Texas side makes the lake’s underwater features easy to reach.

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On a diving trip this spring, I explored a ship’s observation wing and swam along its starboard navigation deck, stopping to enjoy the view. I wasn’t on a cruise ship, but rather above one. The ship in question lies 17 miles out from South Padre Island and 132 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico with the top of its superstructure—the observation wing—at 62 feet deep. Here, in 2007, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department sank the Texas Clipper, a 473-foot-long ship that served as a troop transport during World War II, then operated as a cruise liner, and finally retired as a training vessel for Texas A&M mariners. Now, resting on the bottom, it creates an artificial reef populated by corals, barnacles, and sponges, and offers shelter to all manner of fish and other marine life.

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Roughly 110 miles from Freeport, I plunged six feet down from the M/V Fling, into the Gulf of Mexico to explore the Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Here, rays of sun stream through Jolly Rancher-blue waters, a setting unlike anything near the shore. A school of fish gathered under the boat and a torpedo-shaped barracuda hung motionless in the water 20 yards away. Admiring his buoyancy control, I swam down to the reef, clearly visible 80 feet below.

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A scuba diver glides through Gulf waters near Port Aransas. (Photo by Erich Schlegel)

Under water, light behaves differently; colors sparkle, then fade. Sounds magnify and distort. Liquid cradles a body accustomed to mere air. Down and up become abstractions. Swimming equals flying. Water replaces atmosphere, and the sea floor or lake bottom might resemble a barren moon or the most riotous field of flora imaginable.

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I first met the clear, bracing waters of Balmorhea’s swimming pool on a family vacation decades ago. Wading far into the shallow wing of a pool that stretched nearly the length of a football field, I imagined I stood in the middle of an ocean. Apparently other people had a similar reaction, because in the 1970s, scuba divers began frequenting this remarkable oasis in the desert.

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