DIVE DRY WITH DR. BILL #476: 50 YEARS... AND I STILL DON'T HAVE IT DOWN PAT!
Jon Council's great article on Cap Perkins last week was a reminder that Catalina has been home to some of the true legends in SCUBA diving. The deep diving records set by Cap, Parry Bivens and John Samazan as well as Zale Parry in our waters occurred when the only place I was "diving" was in my bathtub! I can't hold a candle to those pioneers.
However, this winter does mark the 50th anniversary of my very first use of SCUBA gear. It happened back in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Illinois, where I grew up (although I'm still not fully completed with that process of course). We had one SCUBA tank, backpack and regulator; and the only "instruction" I received was "Do not hold your breath." Much of the diving I did back in the 60s was in the warm, clear, shark-free waters... of the deep diving wells in an outdoor swimming pool. As one of Roosevelt Pool's lifeguards, I had to vacuum a quarter section of the deep well each morning. Mostly that was done with a Mark V diving helmet on my head and a hookah hose in my mouth to supply air from the compressor on the lifeguard stand. Given the weight of the helmet, one had to be careful not to lean over too far!
In the spring of 1969 as my graduation from Harvard approached, I was facing the dilemma of finding a job. In responding to a letter of inquiry about a teaching position at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, headmaster John Iversen asked why a marine biology student with some experience on SCUBA was looking for a job high up in pre-Calypso John Denver country. I replied that my girlfriend lived in Colorado. He asked if I'd consider a position teaching marine biology on SCUBA at the Catalina Island School for Boys in Toyon Bay. Since I had been studying island biogeography with none other than Dr. E. O. Wilson, I responded with a very enthusiastic "YES!!!"
John came out to Cambridge and interviewed me. Since the SDS had taken over University Hall the previous day, I had been up the entire night observing and fell asleep on the cafeteria counter during the interview. Somehow I got the job. Later, he asked what my SCUBA certification was. "Certification?" I replied. Heck we'd been diving sporadically for almost eight years without any such thing... and had survived somehow. That led to my coming out to SoCal a month early to get open water SCUBA certified by Ron Merker of Newport Beach's Aquatic Center. Ron, another true pioneer in the diving community, taught the rigorous Los Angeles County course. This was back in the days when PADI was a mere three year old, and NAUI still a pre-teen.
I arrived on Catalina August 24th aboard the Golden Doubloon dive boat out of San Pedro. When I woke up in the morning, I came up on deck and took my first look at the island. I had spent much of the previous summer free diving in the waters off Greece, since SCUBA was forbidden there due to the many wrecks and antiquities. Catalina looked just as beautiful as the Greek islands of Rhodes and Crete... and the natives here spoke English (my Greek was sketchy)! I did have to get Wayne Stout at Tom Cat's to carry ouzo though. I did my first ocean dive at Arrow Point that day and in late afternoon, the school's launch, the K.V. (for Keith Vosburg, founder of the Toyon school) picked me up and transported me to my new home.
One of my greatest fears about diving in an actual ocean was the dreaded great white. This was five years before Peter Benchley even wrote Jaws. After 50 years of off-and-on diving here, I still have all my fingers, toes, arms and legs. I braved the depths and took my students out on dives to study our local marine life. Many of them were better divers than I was, since most of them had grown up in SoCal. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to learn about Catalina's marine critters... a difficult task back in the days before good field guides and the Internet were available.
Now I can't say I've been diving all 50 of those years. Heck, there were periods when I actually had real jobs and no time to pursue this interest. One of those periods I deeply regret not diving was the late 1970s when I managed Chuck Liddell's Catalina Island Odyssey. One of the partners we had at the time was John Magilavy and his dive boat Oceanus (with Pastor Ron Eroen as the dive master). In the two years I worked there I never once went out on the boat with them despite frequent invitations
Now I must be a real slow learner because despite those 50 years I have yet to perfect my SCUBA skills. My second dive of 2012 involved an attempt to film a critter I really wanted to capture (on videotape). I descended to the depth I expected it to be and looked around for some time without success. Finally I knew I had to begin my ascent as my air gauge had reached my turn-around point. Suddenly a huge cloud of sediment headed my way. I saw no sign of bat rays, or other divers, and had no clue why this was happening. Visibility dropped from 35 to 10 feet and I lost visual contact with any landmarks that could guide me back to shore.
Now I'm reasonably experienced, so I simply turned to the new digital compass in my dive computer to determine the direction back to shore. I pressed the button to activate it. Nothing. I kept pressing and it wouldn't activate. No panic necessary... I was not in any danger. I knew I merely had to make my ascent with the proper safety stops and all would be well. As I rose toward the surface, I began hearing familiar sounds... of boats passing overhead. During my last safety stop at 15 ft, several zoomed right overhead. On my final ascent, I held my video camera high over my head so it broke the surface first and hopefully the boats would see it. After all, it was insured and my head was not (well, except for the life insurance... but I wasn't quite ready for my son to cash in on that!).
When my head finally entered the atmosphere, I looked around to see where I was. Holy mackerel (and I don't mean the fishy kind)... I was in the middle of the fairway well outside the Avalon harbor mouth. Not exactly where I expected to end up. After a much longer surface swim than I desired, I was able to exit the water and relax. So that's where 50 years of diving has gotten me. I guess it will take another 50 years to finally get it right!
Image caption: Bill as Roosevelt Pool lifeguard in the late 60s, Bill's dive boat at Toyon in the early 70s (shortly before it sank); Dr. Bill at Cousteau Memorial plaque, Dr. Bill and #1 dive buddy Andrea celebrating 50 years of diving (for him, not her... she wasn't born then).