This all started Friday morning as I was taking my friend to the local dive shop to get his personal gear as he’s taking the open water PADI certification course the following week. My dive shop guy tells me that tonight’s boat trip out to Catalina Island for the lobster season opener has open spots as a few folks dropped out, and wondered if I would be interested. The cost is 125, so I had to mull it over a little. I had never gone on this trip, but had wanted to; as well as I’m only an open water certified diver, however, I do have the necessary experience as I’ve done several night dives, and have well over 50 dives to date. So I thought about it while my friend picked up his gear. When he pays for his stuff, I tell the shop guy that I’m in, and pay for the trip. The view as we leave Long Beach.
The instructor that certified me is on the trip; but other than him, I don’t know anyone else on board. There are a group of Japanese divers that are from another local dive shop: Cal Divers in Torrence CA on the boat. There are two Mexican divers that I briefly chat with, and a handful of white guys. I’m the only Chinese guy on the boat. The trip starts off as any standard boat trip, the only difference from my other dive boat trips is that it’s 8:00PM when we leave the port.
Here are some pictures as I play with the different night time shooting modes of the camera. Without a tripod and on a moving ship, not much I could do, but got some pretty interesting tracer effects.
The galley is in full swing and we’re quickly fed a spaghetti dinner with all the trimmings; salad, garlic bread, meatballs, etc. After the meal, I wander around and chat with random folks. I help snap a group photo for the Japanese divers. The general mood is excitement for the coming lobster opener. There are a few folks that have never done this trip, and we discuss past hunting experiences from previous years and various good spots to dive. Pretty standard conversations for these dive excursions. After getting some time to digest the food, I head in to my bunk and crash out for about an hour.
I awoke to the lack of engine noise as we arrive at Catalina Island. Excited, I jump out of the bunk and head outside to see it the boat fairly empty. Most folks are still asleep; and it’s only 10:30. We still have another hour and a half before lobster season officially opens. I get some of my gear ready; but it’s still too early. But I cannot go back to sleep, so I just hang around and chat with the few folks that are awake. I meet Brad, this is his first lobster opener trip as well, and he’s alone, so I’ve found my dive buddy.
Time ticks by very slowly. Around 11:15, everyone is woken up and starts to suit up. We are briefed before the dive by the captain and the dive masters. Words of caution and to have fun and keep our heads cool while we hunt is the main focus of the briefing. We are released to jump into the water at 11:30 with the explicit statement that lobster season doesn’t start until 12, so “we’re not to catch anything until 12” (Translation: don’t return to the boat before 12 with anything in our nets). Brad and I decide to go in at 11:45; so we suit up and are in the water.
We kick out to the front of the boat near shore and drop down. We try to stay together for a bit, but not long after the start of the dive, we are separated. There is a good amount of kelp and searching around rocks for the usual hiding spots of lobsters makes it that much more easy to lose one another. I take a look at my gauge to check my depth and my computer is off. F me, the damn battery died, I push the button on my computer and it lights up, only briefly, to tell me that I need to change the battery. *sigh* Ok, no deep dives for me, I’m sticking with staying shallow. There are small lobsters everywhere. I try dual wielding lights but it only works to spook the fish and alert the lobsters of my presence, so I switch to only one light. Good to keep my other one around just as a backup.
I run up against a few lobsters but fail miserably at catching them. They are highly sensitive to light, and vibration, so if they feel a quick rush of water from my hand pushing forward, they run; if they feel my hand or any part of me with their antennae, they run; if they see the light, they back or walk towards their rock home and back in deep within their caves. So I resort to using the light as a quick pass and moving the light or turning it off as soon as I spot a sizable lobster. I creep up on one that is at least 6-7 lbs. Having no means to catch it or little faith that I could possibly pin it with just one hand, I try to position my goodie bag behind it and scare it into backing into the bag, this fails miserably and the lobster is gone. At the mere sight of that first large lobster, my heart was racing and the adrenalin was pumping, I had to mentally calm myself down so that my air consumption returns to normal. An accelerated heart rate and adrenalin will only result in quickened pace of breathing wasting air for no reason.
I move on and spot what I feel is a decent sized lobster, but it’s walking somewhere, so I follow it, and it leads me to an even bigger lobster, so I reach and pin the bigger lobster. It’s fighting me, but I have a death grip on the little bugger. I open up my bag and thrust it into my bag and carefully and quickly remove my hand from the bag and close it. WOOHOO! I have bagged my first lobster of the night. I continue to search. I see something in my peripheral and it’s large. I get a little spooked thinking it may be a big fish, but it’s a big seal. And where ever my light was pointed, it’s head went to get food that I was apparently helping it hunt. The seal hangs out with me for a few minutes thwarting my lobster hunting. And eventually, it got bored and left. But returned later. I was down to 500 lbs of air so I looked up to see the lights and headed to what I believe was the boat. Since I was in only 30-40 feet of water at most, I slowly ascended towards the light. On the surface, I find out that the large light was just the almost full moon. The ship wasn’t far off, so I just kicked back to the boat and got on board with my first catch. I gear down and chat with my dive buddy. He’s running an aluminum 80 and is an air hog – so he lasted only about 30 minutes at depth, where I was down for over an hour. We understand that we’re preoccupied with hunting and that along with that, we need to stay conservative with our diving. My dive computer is kaput, so I definitely need to stay shallow.
Brownies and cinnamon crumb cake are baked and served along with carrot and celery sticks. We get a quick bit and rest up before heading back into the water. One of the last divers to get out of the water is holding a 6 lb lobster. That thing was huge in comparison to mine. But I was happy, mine was well over the legal minimum. Brad didn’t catch a single thing nor did the Mexican divers. One of the Mexican diver’s main light also flooded, so he went to his secondary. I had gotten out of the water at 1 AM. And after the quick bite, an air fill, and some chatting; an hour passed and we were good with our surface interval; we geared back up and dropped back in. This time we didn’t even drop into the water together. Everyone was on their own. This was an uneventful dive, no lobsters to be scene, anything around was too small to even fiddle with; but they make for good practice in catching, and it’s fun to catch and release. I see a light and notice that it’s not moving so I move close to it. It’s just a light that was dropped by a diver, so I hook it onto my rig and move on. I try the light and it’s just too damn powerful. There’s something to be said about adjusting to the dark and trying to rely as little on the light as possible as everything is skittish when the light is shined upon them. I see tons of rays, shrimp, a huge abalone, and various other things. I wish I had my camera housing and system. But I was out here for one purpose only, to grab lobsters; and the extra gear would just slow me down. Looking up I saw the big light and a little light in a different direction, learning my my previous dive, I swam for the little light and when I surfaced, I was right next to the boat. I returned the light to the dive master on post and he found the owner which was the instructor and dive lead for the Japanese crew; he came over and thanked me for finding his light.
The dive is completed with nothing to show for; the Mexican divers get nothing, Brad gets nothing, most everyone else complains that the lobsters are too small and that everything must have been scared off from the first dive. My dive lasted for about 45 to 50 minutes. As I gear down, two of the Japanese ladies are next to me, one is hunched over the side of the boat; most likely feeding the fish with partially digested spaghetti and the other trying to comfort her green sea sick friend. I chuckle; there’s always one. And on that note, I went into the galley and grabbed a nice big bowl of beef stew, threw some grated chease and onions into it and restored a little bit of energy. The boat headed to another dive spot and the captain puts a limit on our dive to 30 minutes as we still need to get back to the Long Beach port by 6AM. We find a deep spot and are told to head towards the shore for our lobsters. The captain ancored in about 60-70 feet water and for the site briefing, told us to head towards the shore for the dive. A few divers decide to sit this one out; this includes the dive buddy of the guy that grabbed the 6 lb lobster, and one of the Mexican divers.
A female diver (a certified dive master) suggests to the lone Mexican diver that they buddy up; and also notes that if they get separated, that they will not search for each other on the surface and that they will just finish their dives on their own. They both agree and are in the water in no time. I partner up with the guy that picked up the 6lb lobster and we drop in and head towards shore for a little on the surface, then at the bottom. I thought I swam fast, this guy was damn quick. But I kept up. We stayed within light distance for a good portion of the dive, but I ended up losing him in a kelp forest. So I continued my dive. There were lobsters everywhere. I grabbed one, then another. The last one I grabbed I figured was too small, but I grabbed him anyways this was the last dive and I needed to get as many as possible. But I was getting low on air and I’m sure that I’ve gone past the 30 minute limit so I search for the smaller of two lights and see one in the distance and head towards it underwater. I make my safety stop while heading towards the light, it’s still a good distance off so I surface to see two life guard boats docked next to the dive boat. I swim closer towards the boat and meet up with two Japanese divers still in the water. We wonder if it’s the Fish and Game folks checking up, but as we get closer, the captain and crew scream for us to back off and head towards shore away from the life guard boats. I hear them tell the life guard boats that they still have divers in the water and with knowledge of our position, the life guard boat carefully leave. I see someone on the life guard boat doing chest compressions. This cannot possibly be a good sign. Once the life guard boats are gone, we are told to get onto the boat as quick as possible. We’re swimming fast and they’re still yelling for us to get back. We get back on board, I gear down and secure my tank and ask Brad what happened. He said that there was something wrong with the big guy. I have no point of reference as there were a few “big guys”. I continue to gear down and look around and notice that the two Mexican divers were not there, as well as the female dive master.
I off load my lobsters into my cooler and they are measured, the smaller of the two I brought up is too small and thrown back into the water. So I am left with two legal lobsters. Not too shabby for my first opener night. Other lobster bags are checked and lobsters measure, the third dive master on the boat has six lobsters, of those, he can only keep 2 – everything he grabbed was too small.
It gets serious from here down…
After getting settled in, I got to chat with the crew and my instructor. They found the Mexican diver (Jesus) floating next to hte boat and not moving, so upon noticing this, they grabbed him and brought him on board and immediately started doing CPR. Two dive masters and one crew member switch off doing chest compressions, and according to Brad, this went on for a full 47 minutes. There is a somber mood on the boat and we’re are left to speculate about what actually happened underwater. With everyone back on board, roll is called and we head towards Two Harbors where the USC Hyperbaric Chamber is located. The life guard took Jesus, his dive friend, and the female dive master there. We head there and are told to wait for news. Time passes and I pack my gear up, shower, and just get ready to return home. Small speculative talk is everywhere. Light is starting to break and it is 6:30 before we are given news that we can get our people back. The boat’s small landing craft is lowered into the water and the female dive master and a very distraught diver is brought back to the ship. The coast guard require the identification for Jesus, and that is sent back. A helicopter arrives and lands at the chamber. And before we headed back, it took off. We are told that they were continually working on Jesus in the Chamber and possibly air lifting him to a local hospital at Long Beach. The outlook isn’t very good.
With the female dive master on board, she tells us what happened on their dive together. They dropped down to about 90 feet and were surrounded by lobsters so they were grabbing them and stuffing them into their bags as fast as they can. She recanted that she had to tell herself to calm down so as to reduce the waste of breathing too much unnecessary air. At one point, Jesus pulled his gauge and pointed to it, for which she then understood the signal to look at her own gauge. She sees that she has 1500 lbs of air, so she suggests that they head towards shallow water, and head towards 50 feet. During this time, she loses sight of him around the 50 feet mark. While doing her safety stop, she runs into a diver with the same build and similar lobster bag; and believes that she has been reunited with her dive buddy. But upon looking into the divers eyes, sees that they are blue and the diver is not Jesus. She then surfaces. I do not know if Jesus was already brought on board by this time, or if he was brought on board after she returned. She noted at at the chamber, she looked at his gauge and it was at 0 air. She also mentioned that they were down at 90 feet for about 12-18 minutes; and that Jesus gave no indication that he was low or out of air – the standard hand signals, and reiterated that he only motioned towards his air gauge – for which she understood as a signal to look at hers.
After hearing the story, we continue to speculate the different possibilities that could have resulted in the current incident. He could have had a heart attack; but Jesus was 32, that likelihood was fairly low. But regardless, we are only left to speculate the final outcome and what happened in the water. After some somber chatting with various crew members and divers, I headed to the bunk and slept. I awoke again to the stilled engines thinking that we have arrived. We were close but the boat had stopped to the 5 mph speed limit in the inner harbor. We were close to getting back to shore and it was about 8:40. By the time I offloaded my gear and was in my car leaving, it was 9AM. I slept for about an hour on the boat. I took the lobsters and headed to my mom’s house. Gave her one to prepare for tonight’s dinner, then gave the other to my friend Angel – for which he unoriginality boiled. It was dead, by the time I got it to Angels house. The one I left my mom however, was still alive and kicking at 5PM when she cut it up to prepare for dinner.
I don’t get home until about 11:30. I finish soaking my gear around 12, and chat with Charlie about things until about 1:30 PM. My eyes were heavy and I had to sleep. I passed out for about 4 hours before being woken up for dinner at my mom’s house. There I check for any news about Jesus; and continued to do so throughout the night. I finally found some news from the LA Times Blog, titled: Man dies while lobster fishing off Catalina around 2:00AM at my friends house. According to the blog, Jesus drowned.
Hindsight is 20/20, and everything I write is opinion and speculation as I am indirectly related to everything. All my knowledge is direct from the principals of the incident; and putting all the pieces together. Jesus was running out of air when he showed his gauge to the dive master. At 90 feet, with one’s heart racing as they try to capture as many lobsters as possible, and just breathing in so much air and for so long, the logical conclusion is that Jesus simply ran out of air. He was a stocky fellow, and the previous dives netted no lobsters. When I dive with my friends, both my friends and I are constantly checking our air gauge and checking each other to see how much air each of us had. On more than one occasion, I physically grab my dive buddy’s gauge and look at it myself. I know that along with hand signals, I also show my gauge. It is my belief that Jesus’ gesture to his gauge was for the dive master to actually look at his gauge. I know that folks that dive with one another frequently get used to the gesture and hand signals of one another – so it is very easy to take that for granted when you have various other things on your mind like lobsters. So the quick meeting between dive buddies to discuss certain gestures and go over what signals mean what is completely ignored. However, before the first dive, I saw several of the Japanese divers going over hand signals and their meaning before they got into the water. This was something I failed to do as well.
It is my opinion that the dive master should have known better. Knowing that a woman’s lung capacity is lower than that of your typical male, than when she’s at 1500, there is a great chance that her male dive buddy was at a much lower air amount than that. She should have taken a look at his gauge. Hell, she should have shown him her gauge to let him know how much air she had, in the chance that he had more air and could offer his secondary to her if needed. I believe this break down in communication contributed to the final outcome for the evening. Jesus simply ran out of air and drowned somewhere between 90-50 feet when the dive master lost sight of him. I cannot sit here and completely blame the dive master, as Jesus should have been watching his gauge and seeing how much air he was draining. My only guess was the fever of being surrounded by lobster, the depth, and possibility that he was starting to get a little loopy with the amount of air he was breathing in; are all contributing factors. Maybe this lead to the lapse in judgement to make the proper out of air signal as opposed to just motioning to the gauge. Perhaps when he made the gesture to his gauge, he was already out of air and in the process of drowning. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. My depth and computer readings were off so I never dropped any deeper than I could see the surface which was no more than 40 feet. I am one to always check my air gauge, and usually see a 200 lb difference each time I look at it.
Again, hindsight is 20/20; and I can only speculate with what was told to me from folks directly involved. Learn a lesson from this; and possibly pass this on to others. Jesus Marti leaves behind a wife and two young children. He was very friendly and offered up help with setting up and getting ready for the dive. He had several certifications and had certification levels much more advanced than I. I’m not sure how to feel or what I should take from all this; other than telling this from my point of view. I read the blog, the weather conditions out there were amazing; there were no changes in weather conditions that could have remotely affected what happened. Regardless of anything, this should not have happened.