What to do When Surrounded by Hammerhead Sharks. What Not to.
and a Few Other Situations My Certification Manual Failed to Cover
by Bob Keller
I was certified for open water SCUBA diving on my first trip to San Carlos, Mexico, a resort and marina on a bay in the Sea of Cortez, during the Labor Day weekend of 1988. I went with a group of friends and acquaintances who had gone through the certification classes and pool work together in Tucson, Arizona. Among them were Larry Copas and Dan Tompkins, with whom I had gone and jumped out of a perfectly good airplane a few months before. As this activity had not provided sufficient stimulation to hold our interest, we had decided to try scuba diving for our next adventure. We responded to an ad in a local classifieds type paper offering a deal on a certification package through a local dive shop, Aqua Fun.
One might think there wouldn't be much interest in SCUBA diving amongst the inhabitants of a Sonoran desert town like Tucson. Actually, Tucson is a gateway to diving in the Sea of Cortez and the people who live here are pretty much nuts for water. Arizona boasts the highest per capita boat ownership of any state in the United States. Larry, Dan and I promoted the certification classes and dive amongst those we knew and were joined by four or five others. All up there were about a dozen students in our class. All but one of us successfully certified. Jennifer Witten, who was my first dive buddy and the one that didn't, nearly killed herself. That first trip makes for quite a story in itself and should probably be told some day.
I took to ocean diving like, well, like a sea lion to water. I had found a new universe to explore. Here was a weightless, alien environment filled with life forms even more varied, bizarre and remarkable than those in any juvenile astronaut's imagination. I had discovered inner space. Anxious to dive again but having had perhaps a tad too much fun with Aqua Fun, I investigated the offerings of several other Tucson dive shops.
I promptly signed on through the Desert Divers dive shop with a live-aboard excursion operator (Silent Experience, yet another Tucson dive shop) to go on a four day trip to Isla Tortuga, which lies at 27 degrees and 27 seconds North by 111 degrees and 52 seconds West in the Sea of Cortez. This is about twenty nautical miles northeast of the town of Santa Rosalia on the Baja peninsula. Unfortunately Dan couldn't get time off from work and wasn't able to make it, but Larry and another participant on our certification trip, Len Ness, also signed on.
The day of the trip's departure finally arrived. After a brief early afternoon flight on AeroMexico from Tucson to Guaymas, Larry and I took a derelict cab into San Carlos and commenced with the requisite pre-trip partying and eating in the San Carlos bars and restaurants. Later we were joined by Len and several other divers who had driven down during the day from Tucson and Phoenix. It was long after dark before anyone from Silent Experience showed up at the marina to take us to the boat, which was at anchor in the harbor just outside the marina.
We finally boarded the Santa Barbara around 11:00. This boat was an old 70-foot shrimp trawler that had been converted for rather rustic live-aboard diving. She wasn't much to look at and her cabins didn't even qualify as small, but I still harbor a deep affection for that cantankerous old boat.
After boarding her we engaged in some more requisite partying at anchor in the harbor while the crew was engaged with making last minute preparations and loading gear, provisions, and straggling divers with a ponga. We finally got underway in the wee hours of the morning on Friday, October 21st.
So began my first voyage across the Sea of Cortez to Tortuga Island and the second of many subsequent dive trips and outrageous adventures I was to experience in and on that Sea in the coming years. Little did I realize as we made our way towards Tortuga just how adventuerous and memorable this particular dive trip was destined to be.
We awoke to a cloudy morning with light breeze and calm seas, and anchored off the southeast point of the island sometime after 8:00 in the morning. Those of us who were up had already had a little excitement. Ernesto Estrella, one of the Mexican crew members, had been dragging a lure behind the boat, and had bagged a 30 pound tuna about an hour earlier. It was a nice fish but had really been no match for the heavy duty marlin rig it had been caught on. I later came to understand that the crew was very much interested in meat with which to feed their families and that the sporting aspects of fishing were not much of a consideration to them. Some excellent tuna was offered at dinner that evening, along with some snapper that was yet to be heroically acquired by the boat's divemaster, Greg Todd.
Tortuga is a fairly small island which is somewhat elliptically shaped and about two and a half miles in length along its major axis. It is volcanic in origin, and is mostly surrounded by eroded, steep, inaccessible cliffs that break away under water to rock and boulder fields. Tortuga does not offer any real coves in which to anchor, and provides a sheltering lee at best for those in need of refuge from stormy seas. The island is covered with rocks and cacti and is heavily guano stained. It is basically a small chunk of desert isolated out in the Sea of Cortez. The abundant marine life at Tortuga provides a continuous feast for marine birds. Large populations of gulls, terns, and pelicans inhabit and visit this island. They make quite a racket. Constantly.
After eating an excellent breakfast consisting of pancakes, bacon, sausage, cantelope, strawberries and lots of hot, black coffee, I unpacked and prepared my gear. I was in the water with Larry and Len for the first dive of the trip by 9:10 that morning. Many of the more "experienced" divers stayed on board as they were still pretty green from all the partying the night before. Apparently they hadn't received good quality diving instruction and had not been taught the trick of going to depth to relieve a hangover. This was going to be my eighth dive, and my first without the direct supervision of an instructor or divemaster.
The water was about 80 degrees at the surface with a distinct thermocline requiring a wet suit top to be comfortable below 50 feet. Visibility was about 50 to 60 feet and there was a moderate but persistent current. The underwater boulder field surrounds the entire island in a ring, and the outer perimeter of this ring breaks away, sometimes rather abruptly, to a mostly featureless sand and pea gravel bottom at depths ranging between 60 and 100 feet. In a few steeper areas, an occasional rock outcropping and scattered thick stands of yellow-polyped black coral are encountered as one follows this otherwise bleak terrain sliding off and down towards abysmal depths.
Although Tortuga may be a desert above its tide marks, below them it is an oasis of life. The boulder field creates a tremendous habitat for marine creatures of all varieties and constitutes a semitropical reef environment due to the relatively warm waters and strong, cyclic currents which drive a continuous supply of zooplankton past it. Virtually every square inch of this miniature ecosystem is inhabited by some species of reef fish, sponge, lobster, barnacle, sea hare, stingray, urchin, sea cucumber, moray eel, starfish, soft coral, sea fan, shrimp, shell, worm, anemone, octopus, nudibrach, sand dollar, jellyfish, hydroid, crab, gorgonian or other denizen of this rocky reef.
The many varieties of reef fish found at Tortuga are truly spectacular in color and form. Among the inhabitants are species of cabrilla, grouper, wrasses, angels, grunts, sergeant majors, blennies, jawfish, porgies, snappers, scorpionfish, cornetfish, surgeons, damsels, puffers, porcupinefish (some quite large; bigger than basketballs when inflated), parrotfish, gobies, hawkfish, triggers, clowns, needlefish, eels, rays, squirrel fish and horn sharks. Some would argue that the juvenile Cortez Angelfish are the most beautiful of all, but it seems foolish to me to even attempt a choice. It is heaven for aquarium lovers. I have seen film of tropical coral reefs that look like empty deserts in comparison. The life density in the ecosystems at islands like Tortuga in the Sea of Cortez is very high.
All of this abundant and teeming invertebrate and fish life makes for quite a banquet for nearly everything involved. The primary business of all these critters is tied up in a ultimate game of hide and seek. The losers wind up in the digestive tracts of the winners. Most of the players towards the middle of this food chain could not survive in the blue waters of the open sea or at the abysmal depths on the gulf floor surrounding the island. They are effectively trapped in the ecosystem of the boulder ring surrounding Tortuga, and dependent on the constant supply of current borne zooplankton, to which they enthusiastically contribute.
In addition to the free-roaming birds and sea lions which are attracted by all the tasty eats, Tortuga is frequented by schools of pelagic bait fishes in search of refuge, and the pelagic predators which follow them in. Among these are machete, needlefish, anchovies, herring, jacks, barracuda, halfbeaks, mackerel, roosterfish and sharks. Sometimes some of the pelagic visitors seem to be just basking and hanging out and making the scene, such as the spectacular and huge Pacific manta ray, and a smaller species of manta, the smoothtail mobula.
The Pacific mantas are spectacular jumpers, and on a subsequent trip aboard the Santa Barbara I observed a school of them jumping high into the air and bellyflopping back into the water with a resonating smack that could be clearly heard from hundreds of yards away. They carried on like this for hours. I'm not sure that anyone really knows why they do this and have heard all manner of explanations from various "experts." I'm going to offer two of my own. One, they do it to rid themselves of parasites and remora. Two, they do it because they can. I don't think my second explanation is any less tenable than my first. If humans were powerful enough swimmers to blast themselves high into the air above the water and fall back with a noisy splash, they'd be doing it along with the dolphins and mantas too.
Our first couple of dives were fairly uneventful, if it's possible to consider diving in such an environment to be uneventful. We spent our time checking out the topography and ogling and marveling at all the sights. We dived to 90 feet on our first dive in the course of descending the anchor chain to the bottom. We then worked our way up slope through the boulder field until we had reached the shallow water at the cliff edges, and returned to the boat on the surface. We were back above water in twenty minutes, as we were diving tables back then and had to treat the dive as a square profile. We dived once again at 11:30 just before lunch, following a similar profile to seventy feet and back up through the rocks. We had been using Navy tables. At lunch we discovered that the Santa Barbara's copy of the PADI tables allowed shorter surface intervals between dives, or conversely, deeper dives for the same surface interval. Of course we switched to them and refigured our previous dives immediately.
Now equipped with the superior PADI tables, we commenced our third dive of the day at 2:00 in the afternoon. We descended the anchor chain to 90 feet again, and then turned and went down grade until we had reached 100 feet. The current had become noticeably stronger. We were hovering over the edge of the boulder field, and working hard at keeping station. The cloud cover had cleared and the sun was now shining brightly down upon the water. Even so, the light was dim at this depth and it was impossible to see far. This was my and my buddies' first dive to that magical depth where deep dives begin, and we were just hovering there, pedaling against the current and giving each other OK signs and shaking each other's hands. Mission accomplished. No problem.
We weren't the only organisms high in the food chain that were swimming around and lunching at Tortuga that afternoon.
Suddenly, a large school of silvery, streamlined fish came flashing out of the black depths with incredible speed. They weren't there one instant, the next instant they were upon us. As the school flashed by it wrapped around us and our ascending bubbles in a cylinder. There were hundreds of them and some were very handsome fish of four to five feet in length. This was my first encounter with a school of pelagic predators and they left a lasting impression. Their speed and power was remarkable, and they came in tighter and tighter as they circled. They came in so close I remember thinking it might have been possible to hold out my dive knife and wait for one to collide with it, impaling itself, and providing me with a trophy. (I'm glad I didn't actually try this.) The school was probably attracted by our bubbles and had come to investigate. It was like being inside a silver tornado.
They circled and flashed around us for probably just less than a minute. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone back into the black depths. As the sea around us became quiet again, I realized my heart was pounding with excitement and my breathing had accelerated into short, puffy hits. It took some conscious effort to calm down and begin pulling long, deep breaths from my regulator again. This fast, sleek school of fish had presented a spectacle quite different from the pretty, randomly teeming reef fish. There was something noble, almost aristocratic about them. They were hunters. They were big. They were fast. And they moved together with a common purpose. As a school they were a much larger organism than any individual member. I had sensed a collective energy and dynamic in this school of predator fish. A school mind.
As soon as this ghostly spectacle had vanished, we realized the current had increased from persistent to troublesome. We had been swept some distance from the anchor and it was too strenuous to swim against it for more than a few moments at a time. We quickly discovered that the best technique for making headway against it was to go down into the rocks and pull ourselves along hand over hand. On the way we observed a couple of free-swimming moray eels that were easily six feet long gliding along with the current. One of them struck out at a small fish as it passed. A miss. We eventually made the anchor and ascended the chain and made a safety stop at about twenty feet. We were tired and just hanging out on the chain like flags waving in the breeze, counting down the 5 minutes we had planned to spend there.
I had shut my eyes and was sort of enjoying the sensation when my attention was diverted by a sharp, metallic banging sound. I opened my eyes and caught a brief glimpse of a diver about 40 feet below us. He was hanging backside down in the water, looking up towards us on the chain, banging on his tank with the butt of his dive knife, and waving energetically at us. He was also intentionally drifting with the current and moving out of sight very quickly. I couldn't make out who it was but he showed no indications of distress. I waved back. He waved some more, then he was out of sight. We finished our safety stop and got out of the water. The entire dive had lasted 20 minutes.
As we degeared we were chattering excitedly about the school of fish that had surrounded us. Greg queried us as to what we had seen and where we had been. He enlightened us and we were informed we had just seen a school of yellowtail jacks. We continued to degear and chatter amongst ourselves and some other divers who were hanging out in the staging area. We felt this dive had gone rather well and didn't mind sharing it with others.
I nearly missed noticing Greg all geared up and quietly, unobtrusively, sliding in off the edge of the swim platform about 15 minutes later. By himself. With a four sling custom speargun that would best be described as a high energy impact weapon. Very interesting. I decided to start watching this guy closely. I learned a lot of stuff from observing Greg on that and subsequent Santa Barbara trips, although it took me several years of active diving to understand what he was doing and why and find my own levels and comfort zones with it.
I was still trying to reconcile what I had observed the divemaster doing with the diving procedures and rules I had been taught, sworn to, and tested on during the certification process, when the diver who had banged his tank and waved at us surfaced and hauled himself up the ladder onto the swim platform.
"Hey, I was trying to signal you guys. Weren't you scared by that hammerhead circling right above you?" Shawn blurted out. Larry and Len and I looked at each other incredulously. None of us had seen a shark. We didn't believe him. We had actually anticipated the possibility that we might be subjected to some pranks as we were the inexperienced initiates. And Shawn had struck me as the type of guy who wouldn't mind a little amusement at our expense. "Don't tell me none of you didn't even see it!" Shawn seemed pretty incredulous himself.
"Yea, right, Shawn." I cleverly rebutted. "And just how big was this shark?"
"It looked about seven or eight feet long. Really, you guys. No bull shit! It was circling right above you while you were hanging on the chain!" Just then two other divers surfaced near the swim platform and hauled themselves out of the water rather crisply. They seemed very excited. They insisted that they had just seen not just one, but two hammerheads sharks, and began giving us the details of their encounter. Larry and Len and I looked at each other again. You could almost hear the gears turning. Shawn and these two guys knew each other. They were buds.
There was obvious collusion here. We were no country bumpkins who just fell off the dive boat. We knew that shark sightings by sport divers were actually pretty rare events. Our certification manual had said so. When one of our instructors was queried in class regarding sharks and the possibility of being attacked by one, he had responded that less than half of all sport divers would ever even see a requiem shark throughout their entire diving careers. He went on to explain that operators offering expensive, specialized caged diving shark excursions had to heavily chum the water with many pounds of bloody bait to attract sharks. And that even though they were experts at knowing where to go and what to do to attract them, and charged a lot of money for taking you along when they did so, most would not offer a "shark encounter or your money back" guarantee. We were told we should consider ourselves fortunate to catch even a glimpse of a shark while diving.
One of the two conspirators who had just come up was wielding a small, single band spear gun. I decided to try and retort more cleverly this time. I nodded towards the gun. "So, where are they?" I asked with exaggerated sarcasm.
The diver never had a chance to answer me as Ernesto suddenly began calling out excitedly in Spanish from amidships and diverted everyone's attention. Then a diver on the upper deck of the boat began yelling "Shark! It's a shark! Shark on the surface! It's over there!"
Then another diver's voice topside exclaimed, "Holy shit! There's another one! Jesus, look at the size of it! Over there! Over on the port side!"
We all rushed up the ladder topside, almost too late to see. I caught a glimpse of a large dorsal cutting the water just before it disappeared beneath the surface. The water was calm enough that a distinct wake was visible above the shark as it went under at a distance of several hundred feet from the boat. Apparently it displaced a fair amount of water. Looked like we were going to have to throw out the certification manual on this one. I guess the book and the instructor did say "relatively rare" and not "never".
And then I was witness to one of the most dumbfounding scenarios a novice diver could ever encounter.
All of the divers on the boat except for Larry, Len and myself began yelling to each other and scurrying around frantically, grabbing up their equipment and gearing up as fast as they could. Faster, actually. Several who didn't want to wait threw BCs and stuff into the water and were noisily donning it there. Some of the Mexican crew members were throwing various pieces of left-behind gear and fresh 80s to some of the divers already in the water. Everybody was yelling. Tanks were falling over on the steel deck with loud metallic bangs and then rolling around and striking each other. It was not a good place to be standing barefooted like I was. The pandemonium was over within 90 seconds. They were gone. Larry, Len and I were left looking at each other incredulously again.
"Did you just see what I think I saw?" I asked softly. Neither of them answered. We were all watching the water around the boat with great intensity. We didn't see any more sharks. I was expecting the water to start boiling and turn blood red. I was pretty much convinced they had all just gone insane and committed suicide. After what seemed like a couple of minutes of staring at the water, Larry asked, "Well, do you think we should go too? I mean, do you think it's cool? We might not get another chance..."
Just then Greg surfaced next to the swim platform. His mask was missing. He seemed pretty stressed and tired. He was just kind of floating there. "Hey, are you okay? Do you need help?" Larry asked him. Greg gave us an okay sign and said, "I lost my mask. I'm okay. Just help me get this up." Greg held up some cord out of the water. Larry moved out onto the swim platform, took the cord, and started pulling it up. "Holy cow."
On the other end of the line was a tremendous dog snapper. It easily weighed 50 to 60 pounds. Ernesto had come back to the swim platform and gave Larry a hand pulling it up and into the boat. It was still bleeding from a pair of opposite holes on either side just behind the gill covers. The snapper started flopping around and splattering blood all over the deck. Ernesto quickly reached into a weight compartment, took out a five pounder, and deftly whacked the moving snapper in the head. It stopped flopping.
I turned back to help Greg up but he had already hauled himself out of the water and placed his gun across the platform. Ernesto started yammering excitedly to Greg in Spanish. Greg looked startled at first, then he looked down at the still bleeding snapper and reflected on it for a moment while Ernesto continued on excitedly. Then he turned his attention to us. "So how come you guys didn't go with the others to chase after the sharks?" he asked.
I've got to hand it to Len. Considering everything that had transpired in the previous five minutes, he was fast on his feet with a good answer, even if it wasn't the whole truth. "We just dived to 100 feet. We've got no time," he explained to Greg. Yea, that was it. We couldn't go chasing after sharks with the rest of them because we had an unpaid a surface interval obligation. Sounded pretty damn responsible, actually. I guess the rest of the divers just weren't very responsible. Greg smiled his "approval."
He had gone towards where we had seen the yellowtails, hoping to attract them again and spear one for dinner. Apparently not only were yellowtails considered good eating, but bagging one with a spear gun was considered to be a feat requiring considerable skill amongst spearfishing aficionados due to the yellowtails' speed. (I didn't bother to tell Greg that I thought I could spear one with a dive knife.)
Greg had failed to attract any yellowtails, but on his way back he spotted the big snapper nosing around near a rock outcropping. He said he got within range of it by moving around until he had placed a boulder between himself and the snapper and then simply swimming up to, and over the rock. Greg said he came over the rock with the gun fully extended at arm's length in front of him and that he only had to make a minor adjustment to line up on the fish as he glided in and released the shaft. He said the fish just keeled over the instant it was hit, and he thought he had made a perfect shot.
His gun had a reel on it about twelve inches in diameter that was loaded with 3/16 inch nylon rope which was attached to the five foot stainless steel shaft. The spear point on the end of the shaft had opposed retractable blades about 4 inches long that folded against the shaft as the tip penetrated the fish. After the tip had passed all the way through, the blades were designed to open and prevent the fish from simply running off the shaft if it were not mortally wounded by a less than perfect shot. All in all, it was a pretty mean contraption. Once speared, the only way a fish could get away would be to pull the gun away from the diver, or cut the line by abrading it on rocks. It was very stout line, and there was a lot of it on the reel.
Greg said he set his gun down and approached the fish, thinking it was completely paralyzed. He was going to remove the tip from the shaft and extricate the snapper and string it on some rope to pull it back. But as soon as he touched the snapper it came violently to life and took off on a crazed run, dragging the shaft and about 20 feet of slack line with it. The line went taught when it caught on the first stage of his regulator, and the snapper went into a high speed orbit around Greg, wrapping around his torso with 500 lb. test on an ever shortening leash.
When it ran out of line it collided with Greg and proceeded to beat the hell out of him with its tail. The big fish knocked his mask completely off and knocked the regulator out of his mouth. The welt on the side of his face was now a scarlet red and I wondered just how close the fish had come to knocking him out. Without a buddy, that would have been the end of Greg right then and there. Greg was pretty upset. It had been a brand new mask. After losing it, he couldn't see well enough to find it in the rocks.
Greg didn't say much more. He had obviously extricated himself from this rather nasty situation, gotten it together and overcome his difficulties, and made it back. Right to the swim platform. With the fish. Practically blind. By himself. In a heavy current. Through shark infested water. With the bleeding fish. Greg had just saved me from having to learn a valuable diving lesson the hard way on my own.
It's a good idea to take your back-up mask diving with you. I really liked this guy
He was right about the sharks too. The other divers started coming in while we observed Ernesto expertly cutting the big snapper apart. I had never seen fillets so large before. Not a single one of the returning divers claimed another shark sighting. Everybody seemed pretty disappointed. I found their attitude to be rather remarkable. I knew hammerheads did not have the reputation of great white sharks, but my reading had informed me that their behavior should be considered unpredictable. And that hammerhead attacks on humans were not unknown. It just didn't seem prudent to push your luck with stuff that could eat or horribly mangle you. Would these same guys intentionally get in a cage with a wild tiger or a grizzly bear? Isn't that essentially what they were doing when they dived in water that they knew to contain hammerhead sharks in close proximity?
I kind of shrugged it all off. It was a moot issue, anyway. They'd been scared off. At least ten divers had gone looking for them and not a single one had been spotted. All the divers were back on the boat by 3:00. The crew pulled anchor and made for a new location on the west side of Tortuga. The staging area on the rear deck of the boat was in complete disarray and Greg told everybody to remember the rules and get their gear together and stowed back in their bags.
Apparently he had been preoccupied and failed to do this himself. I decided to do him a favor and put his stuff away too. As I was stowing his regulator and console, I noticed he had one of those newfangled Orca diving computers. This guy had all kinds of neat diving paraphernalia. It seemed to be scrolling some information across the LCD readout, which caught my attention immediately. It was giving information regarding his next dive, and how long he could stay at various depths given his currently calculated nitrogen debt. Pretty neat gizmotron. Then it read out some stats on his last dive. Where it displayed maximum depth, it said 173 feet. Greg had gone pretty deep looking for those yellowtails. All by himself. I was learning fast.
We made around the south side of the island and up the west, where the Santa Barbara found a new anchorage. Many of the divers were beginning to exhibit some fatigue which was no doubt compounded by all the partying the previous night. Most had some longer surface intervals ahead of them as they had essentially done back-to-back dives when they went chasing after the sharks. It was siesta time. A few of the divers retired to their cabins, which were little more than bunkbeds with doors on them. I found them to be too confining except for sleeping. I went and fetched a notebook and pen out of mine, and joined the majority of divers who were lounging around on the upper deck.
I wanted to elaborate on what I had recorded in my dive log concerning the dives of the day. I was still using one of the teensy weensy standard issue logs that were doled out in certification class. Now that I was no longer preoccupied with performing tricks for an instructor on certification dives, I was free to focus on the primary business of diving. I had seen many new sights that day and was anxious to record them before I got so overloaded I couldn't keep it all straight. It became evident to me that I was going to need a much larger log.
And then, with the seasoned experience of all of 10 prior dives under our weight belts, there we were... hovering just above the boulder field in the twilight darkened water, surrounded by a circling school of hammerhead sharks... It was not until I looked upwards towards the surface 70 feet above us and saw the school silhouetted against the surface that the size of it was presented to my slowly dawning comprehension...
The Santa Barbara visited Isla Tortuga for the last time during a New Year's Eve live aboard ushering in 1990. I had seriously considered signing on for this trip, but decided to visit my family in Kansas City over the New Year weekend instead. My little sister, Lydia, persuaded me to join them with an offer of a plane ticket. I hadn't seen them for some years and couldn't refuse her generosity. I probably owe my life to Lydia because of it.
Twelve divers and four crew members departed San Carlos aboard the Santa Barbara, bound for Isla Tortuga on Thursday, December 28th, 1989. Greg Todd and Ernesto Estrella were aboard her, as was Vern Spidle, another diver of my acquaintance that I first met during my certification trip with Aqua Fun. The Santa Barbara's last radio communication with Guaymas port authorities was on Sunday afternoon, December 31st. By two different accounts, she departed Tortuga at either 1:30 or 2:30 a.m. on Monday morning, January 1st, and made for Isla San Pedro Nolasco, which was four to five hours away from Tortuga at her normal cruising speed. She was following a usual routine for returning from Tortuga, which often included stopping for a dive or two at San Pedro while en route back into San Carlos.
Just short of one to two hours away from Tortuga, the Santa Barbara was repeatedly pounded by a series of very large, powerful and unusual waves. She capsized and sank within five minutes of heeling over. She now rests on the bottom of the Sea of Cortez beneath hundreds of fathoms of water. All but two of the souls aboard her were tragically lost. Some of them were probably trapped in their cabins. Others who did not go down with the Santa Barbara succumbed to hypothermia and died after terrible ordeals in the 55 degree water.
The two survivors were Opha Watson, a Tucson diver, and Vicinte Gonzalez, one of the crew. Search operations were not initiated until Tuesday when Vicinte was found and informed authorities of the accident. Once searches by aircraft and various vessels had begun, they were severely hampered by cloudy weather and heavy, stormy seas. Here is Opha's account of the accident as it appeared in the Friday, January 5th, 1990 Arizona Daily Star:
He knew only their first names. There was Nora, Jenny, Joe and Jerry. And the last he knew of them was their mutual struggle to survive.
"They were cold and shivering in agony," said Opha Watson, a retired Tucson engineer who survived the capsizing of the 70-foot Santa Barbara off the coast of Guaymas, Sonora, on Monday. "It's a tough thing to see the hope and light go out of their eyes," he said yesterday in a telephone interview from his home.
When they first hit the cold water of the Gulf of California, the five clung to a door. They talked off and on. "It kept getting quieter and quieter," said Watson. "I did everything I could," he said about helping the others. But the 55-degree water gradually sapped their strength and the conversations lessened. By late afternoon on Monday, only Watson remained on the door.
"One man (Joe) held his wife for as long as he could, but she had already died," said Watson, 62, who was rescued after 38 hours afloat. "She was getting weaker and weaker and weaker. She'd said good-bye (to her husband) a couple of times," he said. Watson is one of two rescued. Sixteen people were aboard, including nine from Tucson.
Watson, who sounded weak and tired yesterday, detailed the ordeal. On New Year's Eve, while others celebrated, Watson lay awake in his bunk. Several hours later he was unable to sleep for the tossing of the ship. "Instead of laying in my bunk, I was lying on the wall," he said. "I knew I shouldn't be lying on the wall."
Concerned about the ship rolling so severely, Watson said he got out of bed about 3:15 a.m. and grabbed a flashlight seconds before the boat was knocked over by hammering waves. He managed to make it out of his cabin and he lunged into the sea. Watson said he saw others in the heavy seas, but they were quickly separated. The moon and the stars shone on the water, he said.
"Everybody was in their pajamas," he said. "When I went over, it was pretty rough," he said. Wind, spray and choppy water added to the confusion. The ship sank quickly, Watson said, and he suspected that people were trapped inside.
Watson said he saw a dive bag pop up in the water nearby - it was his. He struggled to keep his head above water while he slipped on his custom made wet suit, his gloves and neoprene boots. With some nylon cord he had in his dive bag, Watson was able to tie two dive bags and a diver's floating vest to the door knob for better flotation. He also tied a yellowed plastic fuel drum to the door knob. "I lost it on the second day," he said.
Watson noted on his diver's watch when others floated away from the door. The first woman slipped away about 12:30 p.m. Monday. The second woman, about 2 o'clock. The first man let go after three. And the last of the four, Joe, slipped away around sunset.
"There was nothing you could do," Watson said. "Without the wet suit, I would have joined them," he said. Watson said he kept busy thinking of projects, such as how to arrange the floating debris under the door so he could lie atop it. Or what he would do if washed ashore. After two sunrises and almost two sunsets, Watson was rescued by a passing yacht.
The first thing spotted by those aboard the Sala del Mar was a strip of red cloth Watson had cut to make his makeshift raft more visible. "It's the most beautiful boat I ever saw," he said.
Watson was recovering from an infected leg and a body covered with cuts and abrasions. "I ache all over," he said. "It's one big massive hurt." Watson, just before hanging up the telephone, said "I am so tired, I am so weak."
The following account was attributed by Keith Rosenblum in the same issue of the Arizona Daily Star to Vicente Gonzalez, the other survivor. Vicente was rescued on Tuesday morning after spending over 32 hours in the water. He was spotted clinging to a part of a life jacket at a distance of several hundred yards by a passenger on the ferry Benito Juarez as it crossed the Sea of Cortez from Guaymas to Santa Rosalia on the Baja:
"We had all traveled in that area previously and never believed we would encounter seas so rough," he told Raul Ruiz, of Hermosillo-based El Imparcial newspaper. Gonzalez said the boat left Isla Tortuga at about 2:30 a.m., about an hour before it capsized. A series of rough waves had brought three of the four crew members to the engine room area and Gonzalez, who had been on the deck, joined them to help try and control the lurching, he said.
"Even though the seas were rough, we managed to stabilize the boat," he said. They left, he said, "Then we saw a large wave approaching us and we knew we had to jump." Gonzalez was the third of the crew members to jump. The U.S. citizens had been sleeping in cabin areas before the rough seas began, but had been aroused, he said.
... In the water, Gonzalez, who speaks little English, said he heard voices crying to one another for several minutes "until they became hoarse. I'm pretty sure they were shouting out their names and trying to figure out the whereabouts of the others." Gonzalez at first grabbed a floating fuel tank but let it go after it banged him on the head twice. He then held on to part of a life jacket until he was rescued by a ferry that travels between Guaymas and Santa Rosalia.
Of the souls I knew who were lost in this terrible accident, I best knew Greg Todd, who often went out as the Santa Barbara's divemaster and dinner getter. I greatly admired his diving and hunting abilities as well as his considerable knowledge of the Sea of Cortez and the creatures that dwell in it. Greg was a natural born diver and he moved through the water with grace, ease and confidence. He could do the most natural and fluid dolphin kick I've ever seen. His love and respect for the Sea of Cortez was contagious. Greg and I got along pretty well and he filled the roles of a diving mentor and hunting instructor for me. To this day I seldom eat an ocean fish without remembering Greg.
Needless to say, the sinking of the Santa Barbara sent a terrific shock wave throughout the entire Tucson diving community. The circumstances surrounding her loss were both mysterious and controversial. Her basic sea worthiness was called into question, as were the safety procedures practiced by the crew and the readiness of the safety equipment on board her. Some of the controversial questions were: Why was no radio distress signal received from her when she began floundering? Why was no automatic emergency beacon deployed when she went down? If the divers had been warned that her situation was becoming desperate, why weren't they better prepared for the water when she capsized? Was she, in fact, made so top-heavy by her conversion to a diving boat as to be prone to list and heel over in heavy seas as some alleged?
I will not elaborate on these or other controversies or express my personal opinions regarding these matters. Those who were so tragically lost are gone. Finger pointing, conjecture and speculation are not going to bring them back. But I will take the liberty of harping on what should be an obvious and very non-controversial lesson to be learned from the survival of then 62-year-old Opha Watson and the deaths of the others. Had his dive bag not floated free of the Santa Barbara and been recovered by him, Opha would have perished with the other divers clinging to the door with him. I am sorry to report that this lesson was obviously wasted on some Tucson divers who must have very poor memories. Opha could not have recovered his bag if it had gone to the bottom with the boat. It's just that simple.
Don't Tie Your Dive Bag Down To the Boat. Don't Stow Your Dive Bag in a Cabin or Below Deck. Don't Stow Your Diving Weights in Your Dive Bag. Somewhat paradoxically, the rougher the sea gets, the more tempting it is do some of these things, and the more imperative it becomes to refrain from doing them. It's also very tempting to modify the weight rule to something like "Don't stow your diving weights in your dive bag while over water". Please, just don't do this. The problem is that you're going to forget they're in there and fail to remove them during the boarding chaos and departure rush that's typical of most excursions. You want to be sure that bag can float free if and when the boat quits doing so. Gaudy, day-glo colored dive bags also look much better to me than they did prior to 1990.
Reef Fishes of the Sea of Cortez by Thomson, Findley and Kerstitch, The University of Arizona Press ISBN 0-8165-0984-0
If you're interested in diving the Sea of Cortez, here's some contact information for Tucson's dive shops and operators offering various excursions and packages. They will be glad to put you on their mailing lists, which advertise and describe their upcoming dives. These cover a broad range of activities including open water through instructor certifications, economical shore diving/camping trips, weekend dive/motel packages, and live aboard diving excursions to various Sea of Cortez destinations. If you're interested in open water certification, some of these shops will allow you to do your classroom and pool work through a shop that's local to you, and then take you diving in the Sea of Cortez for your open water cert dives. Good luck, and may the sharks be with you!
Desert Divers Scuba Center