While visitors drove to the lake in September to go boating, jet skiing or just have a good time in the warm sun, Richard Pickering and his recovery dive crew were suiting up to go under the 40-degree Fahrenheit water.
Ronin Molina-Salas, 22, and Pickering, 60, sat alongside a dock and discussed the dive target sitting somewhere along the bottom of the lake beneath their fin-clad feet: a bracelet, passed down from generations of ancestors, that a woman had lost.
Pickering, Molina-Salas and Mark Lanford, 58, spend their time, typically weekends, “just sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring” and fishing things out of Lake Lanier.
“People call and we go find whatever they lost,” Pickering said. “Our success rate is really good. We (find) probably about 98% of what we go after.”
The three men have different levels of experience but have been diving together under the name Lake Lanier Recovery Divers for three years.
Lake Lanier Recovery Divers
Find Lake Lanier Recovery Divers on Facebook at www.facebook.com/lakelanierdivers or call 678-469-5600.
With over 40 years of experience, Pickering has dived in waters across the world, from Lake Lanier to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.
Several years ago, Pickering was at Holiday Marina when he saw some men trying to find an Apple Watch that fell beneath the murky waters. He told them that he was a licensed diver and asked if they wanted him to “give (finding it) a shot.”
“I have a really uncanny sense of sight,” Pickering said. “I’m one of those people that can walk along a path and look down to a clover patch and pick up a four-leaf clover just like that. The odds in that are … small, but I see things that don’t belong.”
Pickering said he jumped in the water and “was up and down in two minutes” with the watch. He said they were thrilled because “they’d been trying to find the (watch) for hours.”
The object recovery bug bit Pickering and he continued to pick up things off the bottom of the lake, finding like-minded people to work with and founding Lake Lanier Recovery Divers.
“It’s a tremendous responsibility and it’s awesome to be able to help people,” Pickering said. “We’re meeting wonderful people on the lake. They’re all excited when we show up and even more excited when we find their stuff.”
Pickering said that he’s found everything from iPhones to boat anchors to rings from beneath Lanier. He said rings are “super hard to find.” He’s found 29 rings and is hoping to recover his 30th before the end of the year.
While phones, keys and glasses are among the more common items Pickering finds, he said that he would never forget having to dive for a set of dentures.
One evening, Pickering said he got a call from a client, and he agreed without knowing what he would be looking for.
When he arrived at the dock, “there were elderly men all sitting around just sizing me up” before asking him to help find one of the men’s dentures.
“I just said, What? Is this a joke? Am I being pranked?” Pickering said.
They weren’t joking. Pickering said they were eating chicken wings when a man bit into one harder than expected and tossed the bones into the water.
“I guess his teeth just went with it,” Pickering said.
Pickering got into gear and descended for the dentures.
“When I got down around 40 feet, I saw all these blobs just floating in the water; it was like ‘The Twilight Zone,’” Pickering said. “I started to reach for them and they kind of moved away from me, so I got closer and got my light up to them. They were half-eaten chicken wings. It was so gross. I was diving in a sea of chicken wings.”
He found the dentures, though.
“Yeah, he’s still wearing them,” Pickering said. “He washed them and put them back in his mouth.”
Lanford has been diving for about 20 years, mostly in clear water on vacation.
About six years ago, he started diving at the golf course at Aqualand Marina for lost balls. He said he and his friends would then hit them off the dock “like a diving range.”
“I just realized one day that I loved picking up stuff from the bottom of the lake,” Lanford said. “It was a lot of fun.
“I will tell you though, the first time I jumped into Lake Lanier with scuba gear, my knees were shaking,” he said. “But when I got down there, I (thought) it was pretty neat.’”
Lanford lived in the Bahamas for five years, but he made sure to “keep up with everybody back home,” especially Pickering. He said he watched Pickering’s posts on Facebook and decided he wanted to be a part of Lake Lanier Recovery Divers.
“(Pickering) had created a really nice service for people, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Lanford said. “The reward from seeing somebody’s face when you come up with something that they thought they’d lost forever is just beyond belief.”
Since working on the Lake Lanier Recovery Divers team, Lanford has come across “weird, interesting” items along the bottom of the lake. One never fails to make him laugh.
One July afternoon, Lanford and Pickering were diving for an anchor and “just happened to be together that day” when they got a call from a “repeat customer.”
According to Lanford, the man thought his truck was in drive but was in reverse and accidentally backed into the lake after unloading a boat into the water. The truck still had a trailer attached to the back.
“The truck was hilarious,” Lanford said. “I just couldn’t believe that happened.”
“(The truck) was a long way out there,” he said. “I mean, it floated for a while before it sank.”
“And then it got completely jack-knifed to the ramp,” Pickering said.
Pickering joked with the owner of the truck.
“I said, ‘What’s the year, make and model of the truck?’ And he tells me,” Pickering said. “And then I asked, ‘What color is it?’ He says, ‘Blue, why?’ And I said, ‘I just wanted to make sure I’ve got the right truck.’”
As they descended, Pickering said the truck’s windshield wipers were still on, so he turned those off along with the ignition.
“We also got out his wallet,” Lanford said.
“But then I looked around and there’s a bag of Bojangles’ biscuits floating on the ceiling,” Pickering said. “So, I grabbed it and when we came back up, I said, ‘Hey, I got your breakfast.’”
While Molina-Salas is “just getting started” diving, he is probably “the most qualified.”
“He went to commercial diving school,” Pickering said.
Molina-Salas dived for about two and a half years before attending Commercial Diving Academy in Jacksonville, Florida.
After graduating, he returned to Georgia and found Pickering’s posts on Facebook. He reached out to him and asked if he could join the team.
Pickering said that not many people make the cut to dive with him because they “panic. They’re not used to seeing all the trees on the bottom and they get intimidated.”
After taking him out for some test runs, Pickering welcomed Molina-Salas onto the team.
“I love it,” Molina-Salas said. “I’m ready for any big adventure with these two guys.”
Molina-Salas said that he spends his off days on the water, preferring jet skiing. One day he found something: A floating suitcase.
“I almost ran over it,” he said. “But I looked at it and it was really nice, so I pulled it out of the water.”
He grabbed it and took it to the docks where he “unfortunately” had to open it and go through the contents to try to find the woman that owned it.
Molina-Salas said that he was able to find an Apple watch and contact the owner’s husband through the device.
“I texted him from the watch ... and then I put my number in so he could call me,” Molina-Salas said.
“He calls me and tells me he’s not in Georgia, he’s in California,” he said. “And his wife is at the lake, and he didn’t know she was there.”
Molina-Salas said that while the woman was grateful her things were recovered, he “brought anger amongst” the couple “by trying to do a good deed.”
Lake Lanier Recovery Divers’ services extend to all bodies of water. Molina-Salas can’t forget diving for a wallet in a tilapia pond.
Two women had been fighting while fishing, and in a fit of anger, one had thrown the other’s wallet into the water.
“(Molina-Salas) said, ‘It’s only in eight feet of water. This’ll be easy,’” Pickering said. “But then he got there, and he (saw) the fish and the mud (and thought) this is terrible.’”
“I smelled like fish for a week,” Molina-Salas said.