AUSTIN (KXAN) — “You are literally searching with five eyeballs, which are attached to the end of your fingers. You’re going by feel only,” described Travis County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team Captain Jeremy Turner.
Turner, the no-nonsense leader and veteran of the team, is describing the conditions his divers are up against when searching for bodies up to 100 feet below the surface of Lake Travis.
We met Turner along with his 16-member team on a windy and overcast spring day on the shoreline of Lake Travis’ Bob Wentz Park. They were there in their dry suits practicing searching for underwater bodies, dropping a dummy and prop gun off a boat, and instructing the team to go find them.
Turner’s vivid description of eyeballs on your fingertips is a reference to the near-zero visibility below the surface.
“On a regular day, you might be able to see two feet, maybe six feet,” he said. “But when you stir up that silt, you can no longer see your gauges sometimes. Sometimes you have to come out of the silt just to see your gauges, to see how much air you have left, to see how deep you are.”
Turner said, on average, his team gets called out about 10 times per year. The most people to die on Lake Travis alone in a given year was 2021, when 10 people drowned, according to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.
“The primary mission is, unfortunately, searching for drowning victims,” Turner said. “And it’s bringing those drowning victims back to the surface.”
Danger beneath the surface
The job is extremely dangerous. In addition to leftover obstacles from boaters like lines, ropes and anchors, there are also those that have been there longer. A concrete plant, barn and orchards were all at the lake’s surface when the Lower Colorado River Authority decided to fill up Lake Travis in the early 1940s.
In the case of the orchards, Turner said his divers steer clear, even if someone goes missing in the water surrounding it.
“We won’t dive it because of the entanglement hazard,” he said. “It’s too dangerous.”
There are also areas of Lake Travis where the divers won’t go because the water is too deep. While they’ll dive up to 100 feet, the lake can reach depths of more than 200 feet when full. Any deeper than that and the families will need to explore the option of reaching out to a private diver.
“Humans weren’t designed to breathe underwater, so we take our air with us, and we are limited to how far or how deep we can go based on that air consumption,” Turner said.
During their practice run, it took the divers more than an hour to locate the dummy within the search grid laid out for them by their trainers.
In a real-life situation, a multitude of factors can slow the searches significantly more.
After the initial 911 call comes in and the rescue operation turns into a recovery, the TCSO dive team is called. In most cases, the divers aren’t nearby, instead working on patrol in a different part of the county, filing reports at the courthouse or at home with their families.
“This is a volunteer position,” Turner said. “Everyone has other jobs, besides just the dive team.”
While the team is almost always successful at recovering drowning victims, at least 10 times in the lake’s history, someone has been reported as going under and was never seen again.
“It’s frustrating because you want to bring closure and you know that the families are looking at you, and they want results, and you want to give it to them,” Turner said. “There’s nothing more that we want than to bring closure.”
“The Wake: Secrets of Lake Travis” premieres Monday, May 29th on KXAN.com. You can watch it on KXAN at 4:30pm and The CW Austin at 7:00am and 9:30pm.