San Diego's Bottom Scratchers – grandfathers of scuba diving, fathers of skin diving

When men went under water

Jack Prodanovich and Black Sea Bass, c. 1954. The disappearance of larger fishes first became evident during the war.
  • Jack Prodanovich and Black Sea Bass, c. 1954. The disappearance of larger fishes first became evident during the war.

“The first thing people said to you was, 'Well, aren't you afraid of sharks? You don’t even wear a knife.' Everybody was under the impression that if you got in the water out there you’d get eaten up by a shark.”

Potts took the world record by shooting a 401 1/2-pound black sea bass off the Coronado Islands in 1954.

Potts took the world record by shooting a 401 1/2-pound black sea bass off the Coronado Islands in 1954.

Jack Prodanovich pauses, working his shrubby eyebrows up and down, straining to get it right. His voice rises and accelerates as he explains.

“So in order to clarify this we made it a rule to catch a horn shark by the tail — to prove to the public that our particular sharks are not dangerous.” Prodanovich is acquainted with the creatures found off the San Diego coastline. He was one of the three young men who were venturing past the foaming combers of the Sunset Cliffs in 1932 in search of abalone, fish, and lobster. They wore vested swimsuits, swimmers’ goggles, and carried ten-foot poles topped by five-pronged spears. They took to attaching the horn shark's horn, a tooth-like appendage jutting in front of the dorsal fin, to the key pocket of their swimsuits. The horn dangled down, scratching the bottom as they held their breath, searching for game. When Prodanovich, Ben Stone, and Glenn Orr decided to form a skin diving club, they had no trouble choosing a name.

Jack Prodanovich was one of the three young men who were venturing past the foaming combers of the Sunset Cliffs in 1932 in search of abalone, fish, and lobster. They wore vested swimsuits, swimmers’ goggles, and carried ten-foot poles topped by five-pronged spears.

Jack Prodanovich was one of the three young men who were venturing past the foaming combers of the Sunset Cliffs in 1932 in search of abalone, fish, and lobster. They wore vested swimsuits, swimmers’ goggles, and carried ten-foot poles topped by five-pronged spears.

The Bottom Scratchers, organized in 1933, is the oldest and most exclusive skin diving club in the world. In forty-five years the group has accepted only nineteen members. Thirteen are still alive, most of them now in their fifties and sixties, and the majority still dive. In the sport of diving, which they freely admit to inventing, there is no more prestigious a title than Bottom Scratcher. They are the grandfathers of scuba diving because they are the fathers of skin diving. The club’s members developed or discovered the fundamental equipment and techniques for encountering the ocean beneath its surface, and in so doing unzipped it for the probing and hungry hands of future generations.

Jack Prodanovich, c. 1943. His underwater Brownie is on exhibit at Scripps Aquarium (along with his first face plate).

Jack Prodanovich, c. 1943. His underwater Brownie is on exhibit at Scripps Aquarium (along with his first face plate).

Jack (Walrus) Prodanovich, 64, was and still is the most prolific inventor in the group. “Glenn Orr and I started diving,” he says matter-of-factly. His first contribution was a pair of goggles cut from automobile radiator hose, which encircled the mirrors from compact/makeup cases scraped clear. Through this piece of backyard technological wizardry, which required fine adjustment to guard the wearer from seeing double, Prodanovich and the other Bottom Scratchers saw forty-pound halibut and fifteen-pound lobster a few yards off the beach. Modern divers must travel as far as one hundred miles west, to San Clemente Island, to find comparable marine life and water clarity, which they view through face plates that are only slightly different from another Prodanovich original.

Wally Potts: "When we first started diving off Sunset Cliffs it was so lousy with abalone you could throw a nickel out there anywhere and it would land on one."

Wally Potts: "When we first started diving off Sunset Cliffs it was so lousy with abalone you could throw a nickel out there anywhere and it would land on one."

Until well after WWII, wetsuits were unheard of. The Scratchers thrived in fifty-five-degree water wearing nothing but swimsuits over their goose-pimpled skin. Hence the name, skin diving.

Swim fins didn't surface until about 1940. The closest thing they had prior to that time were rumors that Tahitian boys strapped palm fronds to their feet for propulsion. The Bottom Scratchers might have given that a try if Owen Churchill, of Churchill Rubber, hadn't invented the first rubber fins.

Wally (One Long Dive) Potts, 60, who along with Jack Prodanovich forms the backbone of the club today, recalls the coming of the swim fin. “The lifeguards and the Red Cross didn’t like swim fins when they first came out," he says. “You know, anything new is hard to get accepted."

Prodanovich was the first diver to discover the fins. He was walking on the beach at Casa Cove in La Jolla and spied a little boy digging in the sand with one. Together they searched for and found the mate. Prodanovich tested them on the spot and loved them.

“The first thing (about fins) I was impressed with,” says Potts, “was you could hear the water going by your ears. Plus, before, it had taken several kicks to get to the bottom; with fins it only took a couple.”

The Bottom Scratchers are free divers, which means they hold their breath while underwater, sometimes for as long as four minutes. Scuba diving, using compressed air, is a completely different activity, one the club frowns upon. When self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) was introduced into the United States in 1949 (ironically, by Bottom Scratcher Connie Limbaugh), the club voted against its use. “We thought tanks had no place in sport diving," Potts recalls. “We wanted to limit them to over twenty feet of water.” He shakes his huge bald head in frustration. “Skinning it, we knew we could never get all the abalone. When we first started diving off Sunset Cliffs it was so lousy with abalone you could throw a nickel out there anywhere and it would land on one. When tanking caught on, places we'd been getting abs from for years dried up in a couple summers.”

In a way, the dwindling abalone population has written doom across the clubhouse walls. One of the tests prospective members must perform in order to gain admittance to the club is to make one thirty-foot dive, without fins, and come up with three abalone. The last time it was done for membership was 1969, and even then the abs were planted first. These days it's difficult to get three abalone on a thirty-minute dive using scuba gear. Prodanovich is as frustrated as Potts is about it, but a little more outraged.

“Twenty years ago I could take any kid, give him a mask, and get him so enthused he'd be a diver for the rest of his life,” he laments. “Today I can't even find an abalone to show him. It's a rough deal. The stuff is just like the buffalo — it's gone. We saw it when it was good; you might say like when the settlers came west and saw all the deer and geese and ducks and bears."

The Bottom Scratchers did not sit still as they watched the abalone and even the fish and lobster disappear from San Diego waters. They were instrumental in getting the abalone catch limit lowered from ten to five (it is now four), and have pushed continually for a moratorium on the taking of abs with scuba equipment. They’d like to see a law enacted similar to the one in effect north of Pt. Conception, which allows the taking of abalone only while free diving.

When asked how it feels to know he helped originate the sport of diving, Potts beams, “It feels good.” But he quickly qualifies it. “It feels good and bad. There are a lot of people who have no sense of preservation. Take abalone: they're helpless; they don't run from you. People used to come in and leave them lying on the beach because they didn't know how to fix them. A guy goes out and brings in a bunch and he's a big hero. Not many people were doing it then, so they thought it was a big deal.”

Potts has the kind of body you'd expect of someone who could stop breathing for three minutes and dive to sixty feet. Although somewhat softened by his sixty years, he still carries a massive chest, deep as a milk truck; his hefty frame seems to have been built to withstand long chilly mornings in the Pacific. His endurance in cold water is legendary in diving circles, and he still grumbles about wearing a wetsuit. He's the kind of man you'd like to have on your side underwater, so it was appropriate for him to be cast as the first villain in the pilot film that developed into the television series, Sea Hunt.

Lamar Boren, a member of the Bottom Scratchers, was a pioneer underwater photographer and a seminal figure in the creation of Sea Hunt. He had been a commercial photographer in San Diego when he was introduced to the club during the war. He was fascinated by (“Went ape over," says Prodanovich) a baby Brownie in a brass underwater housing (developed by Prodanovich) and soon was the club photographer. Boren later became the chief underwater photographer for the series starring Lloyd Bridges as the intrepid Mike Nelson.

“Believe it or not,” laughs Potts, “I was the first heavy to cut an enemy's air hose underwater. They ended up playing that thing to death, didn't they?’’

Prodanovich's underwater Brownie is on exhibit at Scripps Aquarium (along with his first face plate). He's proud to have played a role in underwater photography's development, but in those days he was just enjoying a hobby he was suited for and creative in. “You'd have done the same thing,” he says. “1 was just in the right place at the right time.” In those early days Prodanovich's inventive mind gave him the freedom to do almost anything he wanted underwater, but after building the camera housing and snapping a few pictures he lost interest in it.

“People thought we were pretty much nuts to be going into the water and doing what we did.” he says, gazing backward in time and smiling at the image. “I'd take pictures and I could hardly get the people to develop them. They'd say, ‘Well, we developed these but there's nothing even on 'em: we don't know what we're looking at.' I'd say, 'These were taken underwater.’ 'Taken underwater? With what?’

Prodanovich's forte, however, is spearfishing. As equipment improved along with their techniques, he and Potts were able to go deeper and stay longer. They naturally got interested in bigger fish. The forty-pound halibut and fifty-pound white sea bass and three hundred-pound jewfish languishing off Casa Cove began to look accessible to them. They were both working independently on spearguns when they happened upon a French couple up at Laguna Beach who had an Italian spring gun. It was the first gun either had seen and it was all they needed.

After years of development, in about 1945, they began to land big fish (more than one hundred pounds). Since good rubber (used for launching the spears) was not available until after the war, their arrows could not be thrust with the force needed to pierce the scale of large fish. Therefore, Prodanovich invented and patented the power head, which uses the cartridge from a .38 police special. The first fish over one hundred pounds was actually landed by Potts using a pole spear with the power head. Later, Prodanovich held the world record for spearing the largest fish, right outside of La Jolla Cove — a 310-pound jewfish. He also got it with the power head. When rubber arbolets became powerful enough, the power head was rendered obsolete. Potts took the world record away from Prodanovich by shooting a 401 1/2-pound black sea bass off the Coronado Islands in 1954.

“We discovered these gulf and broomtail grouper,” says Potts proudly. “We used to think anything big was a jewfish. One time one of our fish hit the papers and we got a call from Dr. Carl Hubbs from Scripps. ‘That ain't no jewfish,' said Hubbs. ‘We're interested.’”

The gulf and broomtail grouper had not previously been known this far north. They congregated in what the club called the “grouper grounds” just off Boomer Beach in La Jolla. Dr. Hubbs became the official scientist in the club and was made a member in 1955.

The gulf and broomtail grouper are barely known in local waters anymore. In the mid-Fifties the Bottom Scratchers voluntarily placed a ban on shooting them: a law was enacted protecting them in 1960. It is a very lucky diver who sees one today. Likewise with all the larger fish species.

“We knew the white sea bass would come in to Boomer Beach in May. You could set your calendar by it,” says Prodanovich. Spearfishermen had been shooting white sea bass there for years. “Then the commercial people got wind of it and they went to gill nets and wiped out the white sea bass. Every year when they migrated here it was just like fences off La Jolla with the gill nets. Now it’s hard to get a legal bass because when he’s big enough, he’s gill netted.”

The disappearance of larger fishes first became evident during the war. It started with the sharks who used to gather in the caves area in the southeast corner of what is now the underwater park in La Jolla. The war effort needed the shark liver oil.

“Years ago in the summer you could see the leopard sharks, the big soupfin sharks, and the dusky sharks in there. Hundreds of ’em, some twenty feet long. Every year they'd be there. Then the war came and gill nets took care of the sharks.” The shark fishermen had the nerve to ask Prodanovich to help them set their nets. He still can’t believe it.

“The time for onshore commercial fishing is over,” he says. “The whole commercial spectrum is the same thing. We're taking it faster than it's replenishing itself and it’s going to be gone.”

As steadily as the big fish who have exited the beach areas of San Diego, the Bottom Scratchers themselves have dwindled, and Potts says no more members will be admitted. “Our plan was not to be a big club, but a good club, a solid club — one that’s gonna be here today, tomorrow, and all the time.”

The Bottom Scratchers stayed good and solid by letting in only people the club, by unanimous vote, felt would be a credit to them and their sport. There was Connie (Dr. Grouper) Limbaugh of Scripps, a scientist and shark authority, who taught several of the Bottom Scratchers how to use scuba equipment. Limbaugh was killed in an underwater cave in France, one of two club members to die while practicing his sport. One of the men Limbaugh taught to use scuba gear, Jim (Sheepshead) Stewart, went on to become the head diving officer at Scripps. He's currently in the Antarctic, directing diving operations for a Scripps research expedition.

Harold Riley was the other member to die while diving. Potts and Prodanovich and some of the other Scratchers recovered his body from the sea off Torrey Pines in 1970. Riley was brought into the club primarily for his organizational and legislative expertise. He formed the San Diego Council of Diving Clubs in 1969. The circumstances of his death remain a mystery, but Potts thinks he tied into a fish he wasn't ready for in an effort to prove himself to the club. He was buried in his purple and silver Bottom Scratchers jacket.

The current club president, a post that floats between members who have shot the biggest fish every year, is Bill Johnson. He is the owner of two sport diving boats, the Bottom Scratcher and the Sand Dollar. Potts says Johnson shot the fish using scuba gear, which is technically against club rules. But the bylaws aren't as cast in iron as they once were. Neither are the men.

Down in Wally Potts' den is a wall covered with a fishnet, a lifetime of memorabilia entangled in it. An ancient pair of swim fins hangs ready to engulf bare feet and overcome the surge. Below them is a pair of radiator-hose goggles, the inner-tube headband gathering dust and growing brittle with age. A face plate that he designed and built stares blankly at the floor, sulking in its eternal dryness. Dangerous steel spearpoints, the kind Potts still makes and sells to dive shops, litter the net, each vying for its own story to be told. In the middle of this menagerie of gear and shells hangs an object that resembles the tooth of a killer whale. It is the horn shark's horn. Potts explains that long ago he filled the hollowed-out horn with lead. Though cracked and yellowing in several places, it still has a heavy, authentic feel to it. He stares down at the talisman, cradling it in his palm like a precious stone. The bottom scratcher is showing signs of age. Potts doesn't speak, but the message is in his face, on the wall, in the silence swirling around the room. Oceans change. Things get dusty and rusty. People’s bodies get old while the youngsters inside them watch helplessly as the summers pass. He hangs the horn back in the net, chuckling self-consciously. “Kids,” he says.

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