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More Than a Mirage

Where others saw nothing but desert, a couple looking to train divers saw an ocean of possibilities.

What: Mini ocean in the Utah desert used as a facility for scuba diving, snorkeling and training
Who: Linda Nelson and George Sanders of Bonneville Seabase
Where: Near Grantsville, Utah
When: Started in 1988
Startup costs: $100,000

In the middle of the Utah desert, 900 miles from the nearest ocean and 4,250 feet above sea level, a geothermally heated manmade ocean known as Bonneville Seabase beckons divers and snorkelers from places as far off as Australia and Thailand. This desert oasis was dreamed up by Linda Nelson and her husband, George Sanders, both world-class divers who wanted to create a training facility to complement their existing dive shop. Their passion for the sport gave them the faith to create an ocean when all they saw was desert. In fact, before Bonneville Seabase became the vibrant facility it is today--200 yards across at its widest and populated with French angelfish, nurse sharks and porkfish in bays as deep as 62 feet--it was a flat piece of wasteland covered with garbage.

When confronted with the gargantuan task of bringing their ocean world to life, Nelson and Sanders had a few things going for them. Nelson knew how to read a geothermal map and was aware that saltwater springs ran beneath the ground's surface at their chosen site. Meanwhile, Sanders owned a construction company and had just the right equipment to excavate the property. With little help from anyone else, the two set to work on a project that others deemed absurd.

"Nobody thought we could do it, and we had to prove [them] wrong," says Nelson. Within a couple of years, the facility was completed and the couple was welcoming Bonneville Seabase's first divers into waters brimming with fish, which they got from aquariums and rescue organizations.

What seemed like a crazy idea turned out to be a smart one--at times, annual sales have reached $300,000. Meanwhile, over the past two decades, the couple's ideas have only gotten more spectacular. Nelson and Sanders are currently scheming up grand plans for an underwater golf course. Says Nelson, "We're hoping to have the first 'Underwater Open' one of these years."

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This article was originally published in the July 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: More Than a Mirage.

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