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ODDITY: Do Bodies Really Sink in Lake Tahoe?

Lake Tahoe is one of the biggest lakes in the U.S., and it may hold some deep, dark secrets. For many people, this majestic alpine that straddles California and Nevada has an air of mystery about it.

Some even believe its frigid waters are the final resting places for unlucky, forgotten souls.

Did they sink here without a trace, never to be found again, or is this just some tall tale? We’ll get to the bottom of an intriguing claim that once bodies plunge into Lake Tahoe, they are gone forever.

The Legends of Lake Tahoe

Nobody’s sure how these stories started circulating, but they’ve persisted for decades. The most pervasive rumor is that the Mafia, involved in the casino trade, used the lake as a watery dumping ground.

Presumably, the victims were people who dared to cross the “wise guys” in business dealings.

Another Tahoe legend involves Chinese immigrants who came to the country to help build the railroad in the late 1800s. The story goes that after they laid the tracks, the bosses didn’t properly compensate the workers.

Instead, they rounded them up, killed them, and simply disposed of them in the lake.

One more variation on the theme involves the famed oceanic researcher Jacques Cousteau. Some claim he investigated the alleged sunken Tahoe graveyard himself and found something so disturbing that he refused to reveal it.

The Cousteau story was easily debunked. The others sound pretty far-fetched, too, but they have endured for several generations.

Could they possibly be true?

Why Would a Dead Body Sink in Lake Tahoe?

Typically, what goes down comes back up, at least in the case of human bodies and bodies of water. A person would normally sink like a stone because of the weight of the water that fills the lungs. The body usually resurfaces later, however.

The reason is that the natural decomposition process creates gasses, which cause it to rise. It’s similar to the effect of a balloon filled with helium instead of air.

But Lake Tahoe is unusually cold, with a constant temperature of 39 degrees in certain depths. These near-freezing conditions will drastically slow down the decomposition process.

Not to get too graphic, but the reason is that bacteria inside the body don’t take over as fast. So it’s still happening, but at a much slower rate. 

Does Lake Tahoe Have an Underwater Graveyard?

Sorry to spoil the suspense, but no evidence has surfaced to substantiate Lake Tahoe’s grisly rumors. They’ve remained a mystery for so long because of the massive size of the lake. It’s not only deep, but it’s also 22 miles long and 12 miles wide. That makes it hard to thoroughly investigate.

Another complicating factor is that not all divers are trained or properly equipped for such depths.

If you dive too deep too quickly, you may suffer from something called “the bends.” Another name for it is decompression sickness, and it affects the changing air pressure on the body.

However, in 2016, a group of researchers with the Undersea Voyager Project successfully combed the depths. They sent down a team of divers and underwater cameras for a month. What was fund were sunken boats, ancient trees, and a form of algae they’d never seen before.

However, they did not find any bodies, much less any chilling discoveries such as mysterious mass graves.

Have Any Bodies Been Recovered in Lake Tahoe?

That team of researchers didn’t find any human remains, but others have over the years. They weren’t mob murder victims or cruelly dispatched railroad builders, though. The only thing out of ordinary or unexpected about them was the condition of their bodies.

A police investigator and former coroner recalled to the Tahoe Daily Tribune newspaper an unusual detail of a 1980 boating accident. The officer, Pete Van Arnum, said the boater’s body was “perfectly preserved” weeks after the crash.

In 2011, divers found the body of Donald Christopher Windecker 17 years after he disappeared while scuba diving. He had come to rest on a ledge 265 ft below the lake’s surface. No doubt that, if the ledge weren’t there, he would have fallen farther. Remarkably, his body also showed little sign of any decay after all that time in the water.

More recently, emergency personnel was able to retrieve the intact remains of a drowning victim, Ryan Normoyle, from a depth of 1,565 feet. They used GPS to help pinpoint his location, so he was only in the water for a couple of days.

How Deep Is Lake Tahoe?

Lake Tahoe has such a reputation for being so deep that some people mistakenly believe it’s the deepest lake in the world. In reality, it’s not even close.

It’s 1,645 ft at its deepest point, making it the nation’s second-deepest lake. Crater Lake in Oregon is about 300 feet deeper.

By contrast, the world’s deepest, Lake Baikal in Siberia, is three times deeper than Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe Is Full of Mystery

Those researchers mapping the lake’s floor a few years back didn’t find any evidence of mass, watery graves. Skeptics will say, surely, that there’s no way they covered every corner of Lake Tahoe’s cold, dark depths.

So there could be lots of bodies down there, right? As technology improves and more people delve into the mystery, the entire truth may one day see the light of day. 

What have you heard about Lake Tahoe?

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  1. Glenn says:

    I read that Lake Tahoe is or was connected to some mines in Virginia City, Nevada. This helped explain how the body of a well dressed gambler was found in the lake in the 1800’s. Allegedly, he was taken to a mine in Virginia City, killed, then dumped in the flooded mine. His body sank and was sept into a passage connected to Lake Tahoe.