From La Jolla's Bottom Scratchers to today's scuba divers

I started to get dizzy, started to see lights

  • Image by iStock/Thinkstock

In April, Ryan Sweeny and a friend went spearfishing for white sea bass in kelp beds off the North County coast.

They held a contest to see who could land the biggest fish. When the friend scored first with a 48-pounder, it was game on. Sweeny remembers diving down through a kelp forest so dense it was like trying to swim through a salad. After a couple of attempts, he spotted a suitable target hovering at a depth of perhaps 30 feet. He took aim, squeezed the trigger, and hooked up. The sea bass surged and ran the line in the reel attached to his speargun, and that’s when the trouble began.

“It started towing me through the kelp. I thought, if I get stuck in here, I’ll be dead. We’d be talking body recovery at that point.”

As a spearfisherman, Sweeny represents a fringe minority of the sport. Most spearfishermen depend on scuba tanks for air, but Sweeny is a free diver. In its simplest terms, free diving is an extreme form of snorkeling, one of the most physically challenging forms of underwater hunting. That’s because free divers hold their breath for two minutes or more and plumb depths below 100 feet. According to statistics, free diving is the second most deadly of adventure sports. You can run out of breath and drown. You can also get eaten by a shark.

Ryan Sweeny

Ryan Sweeny

But in the majority of cases, what kills a free diver is not a toothy predator but a phenomenon called shallow-water blackout. Most of the time, shallow-water blackout happens within a few feet of the surface, or even after a diver surfaces — hence the name. The Diver Alert Network claims that up to 40 people die each year around the world from such free-diving accidents, more than half in the United States, and most of those in the warm waters off Florida. But it happens here, too. In October 2010, a 25-year-old man from Rancho Peñasquitos drowned near Mariner’s Point in Mission Bay while free diving for lobster at night.

Deadly or not, free diving has mushroomed in popularity over the past decade. The attraction is this: unencumbered by scuba tanks, which are bulky and loud and release clouds of air bubbles, the vastly quieter free diver gets much closer to sea life.

Sweeny’s bass did in fact hang him up 40 feet down in the kelp, and the symptoms of hypoxemia — the medical term for oxygen deprivation — set in quickly.

“I started to get dizzy, started to see lights. I started to go numb and have contractions.”

With his dive knife, Sweeny chopped at the stalks that gripped his legs and torso until, finally, on the doorstep of losing consciousness, he got free and kicked his way to the surface. When Sweeny was sufficiently recovered, he reeled in the fish still struggling at the end of his line.

“Fifty pounds,” he says. “I won.”

Free diving is divided into two different camps: sportsmen and competitive deep divers. Free-dive photographers or spearfishermen comprise the bulk of the sportsmen. They rarely stay down for more than a minute and a half and prefer to work above the 100-foot level, a depth that your average competitive free diver would scoff at. The world record is just over 700 feet, down and back, on one breath.

Spear fishing without air tanks

Ryan and Volker discuss the process of free dive spearfishing. Ryan relates the story of his largest catch, a 50-pound white sea bass, which was also his closest brush with death.

Ryan and Volker discuss the process of free dive spearfishing. Ryan relates the story of his largest catch, a 50-pound white sea bass, which was also his closest brush with death.

Competitive free divers use a weighted sled that pulls them into the depths. Once there, they inflate a balloon that will jet them back to the surface. A pilot named Herbert Nitsch is the current free-dive world-record holder. Last year, he attempted to drop to 800 feet and topple the 700-foot-depth benchmark, but a severe case of the bends required that he be brought topside with assistance, thereby negating his bid for the title.

Competitive free diving may be a relatively new sport — the first world championships were held in 1996 — but the act of free diving itself is not new. People have been free diving of necessity since the fifth century, especially in Korea and ancient Greece, where the best breath-holders, according to archaeologists, found work harvesting sponges off the ocean floor. A crude form of free diving has been described throughout the Hawaiian Islands and in Japan. But modern free diving, as we now know it, began in San Diego.

“Before WWII, in the 1930s, the first official free diving in the U.S. started in La Jolla with a club called the San Diego Bottom Scratchers,” Stathis Kostopoulos says by telephone. A free diver himself, Kostopoulos lives in Los Angeles and publishes articles about the history of the sport. The founding Bottom Scratchers were Glenn Orr, Jack Prodanovich, and Ben Stone. “They likely witnessed divers in Japan or the Polynesian islands. They wore crude homemade masks back then, and they made their own snorkels from garden hose.” The La Jolla Cove was ideal. “Conditions were good. The water was always clear in the cove. Back then, there was no construction and no residential runoff.” Kostopoulos says there is no evidence of free diving in the U.S. before the Bottom Scratchers.

Original five bottom-scratchers in La Jolla caves area in 1939.
Left to right: Glen Orr, Jack Corbaly, Ben Stone, Bill Batzloff, Jack Prodanovich.

Original five bottom-scratchers in La Jolla caves area in 1939. Left to right: Glen Orr, Jack Corbaly, Ben Stone, Bill Batzloff, Jack Prodanovich.

Lamar Boren, who became a famous underwater cinematographer and whose résumé includes work on the television shows Sea Hunt and Flipper, was a Bottom Scratcher, as was Carl Hubbs. Hubbs taught biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1944 to 1969.

Bottom Scratcher membership topped out at 19. When the original members died, so did the club. They are credited with designing the first face masks and modern goggles, snorkels, and fins. The La Jolla Cove is where a Scratcher named Wally Potts perfected the rubber band–powered speargun design still in use today.

“You get one shot,” Sweeny says of spearfishing. “You’re connecting yourself to a big fish with a line. You play a game of tug-of-war in his environment, where you can’t breathe. And one of you is going down.”

A veteran of seven or eight years of free diving, Sweeny at 36 is thin and wiry of build, not unlike a soccer player. “I’ve jumped out of airplanes, fallen through the ice on frozen lakes, broken bones snowboarding. I’ve raced motorcycles. I’ve woken up in hospitals and wondered where I was.” Sweeny designs actionwear by trade, clothing and protective gear of a sort worn by snowboarders or cyclists, surfers, skaters, spearfishermen, rock climbers, divers, and so on.

He describes the current local free-diver spearfishing community in this way: “Small and kinda like a tribe.” This tribe has its own elders and governance in the form of the San Diego Free Divers; Sweeny is a board member. The club was founded in 1994, and some of the members are still active free divers in their 70s and 80s, even though the sea constantly reminds a diver of one’s place in the food chain.

“For example,” says Sweeny, “if you spear a fish, you’ve got about 15 minutes to get it into the boat before the sharks show up.” Sharks are drawn by the scent of blood in the water.

Has that ever happened to him?

“Yes,” Sweeny says over dinner at the Waterfront Bar & Grill in Little Italy. “I’ve gone through quite a few of my nine lives.” Before the evening is over, he invites me to go out on his boat.

I accept.

“We have a saying,” says Michael Timm. “‘The scuba diver looks around the sea; the free diver looks inside himself.’ If you don’t have control over your mind, you won’t dive deep, and you won’t live very long.”

Michael Timm in front of his Sports Arena Blvd. scuba shop, Dive California.

Michael Timm in front of his Sports Arena Blvd. scuba shop, Dive California.

Timm owns Dive California, a scuba shop on Sports Arena Boulevard that dates back to 1953. He teaches both scuba and free diving, and he heads a Meetup group called “Total Immersion Divers,” which he thinks has between 40 and 50 members, more of them traditional scuba divers than free divers. At 49, he is tanned and fit, with remnants of a German accent.

“The urge to breathe?” Timm says. “We all get that. You have to overcome it. One thing we teach our students is to deal with the contractions.” He explains how one’s diaphragm contracts as the breath is running out. If it goes on long enough, contractions are followed by what appear to be the same experiences those who’ve had near-death encounters describe. “Some people see a black tunnel. Others see lights. But the contractions are super uncomfortable.” Overcoming them, Timm says, “is the difference between holding your breath for three minutes or for nine minutes.”

Nine minutes?

“It’s doable,” he says. “Yes. When I began free diving, I was fearful of holding my breath for 20 seconds. You have to practice.” Dry practice, that is, while lying on a bed or a couch. “You hold for three minutes, then take a three-minute break. This gets you used to carbon dioxide buildup.” Timm says he can now hold his breath for six minutes while lying on the water’s surface.

After a stint in the German navy, Timm shipped out to the Canary Islands. There, he fell in with some locals who were free-dive spearfishing. “I got hooked.” He came face-to-face with death when a dive buddy went down one day and never came up. “We found him in 60 feet of water. He still had a fish on his spear. He died for this stupid little fish.” It was Timm’s first encounter with shallow-water blackout.

Timm’s own free-diving limit is 125 feet, or about the height of a 12-story building. “Number one is this: if you can’t imagine doing it, then you can’t do it in real life. I visualize my dives, and I learned about that from a variety of other sources.” Tony Robbins, the life coach self-help guru, is invoked. “It’s a very powerful tool, to see your goal, and to get the clutter out of your mind, and to reduce your resting heart rate.”

Timm says that free diving is one of the fastest growing sports. “It’s the next step from snorkeling,” with this caveat: “Water is generally a scary element for a lot of people. I tell students to give it time. We lived in it for nine months. Give it time, and you’ll find your way back.”

“In my mind there’s only one real major risk associated with free diving: shallow-water blackout.”

Tom Neuman, MD, FACP, PhD, is an authority when it comes to dive physiology. His areas of expertise include undersea and hyperbaric medicine, pulmonary disease, and decompression sickness. He graduated from New York University and is co-author of Physiology and Medicine of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. Neuman talks with his hands, sometimes with his entire upper body. He lives near the coast in Del Mar and is semi-retired. He is, as he puts it, “pushing 70.”

“Without going into a huge amount of detail,” he says, “[shallow-water blackout] is holding your breath until you pass out. Normally, you can’t do that. Ventilation is triggered by the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood. Human beings are relatively insensitive to low oxygen in our blood, compared to high carbon dioxide.” What limits the ability to hold one’s breath, Neuman says, is one’s tolerance to carbon dioxide. “The moment you start holding your breath, the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood starts to go up.”

In more scientific terms, it’s the physiological consequences of carbon dioxide buildup that trigger respiration. “The term for the change in pH [in the blood] due to elevated carbon dioxide is called ‘respiratory acidosis.’ You don’t really have a sensor in your body for carbon dioxide — you have a sensor for the pH of your blood. You feel short of breath. You want to breathe.”

Neuman says that the oxygen level in one’s blood doesn’t go down in any appreciable amount for the first minute to a minute and a half of breath-holding. “But go past that, and your oxygen level goes down to the point that you can lose consciousness.

“But let’s go back to what we said about your body’s sensitivity to oxygen and carbon dioxide. Your carbon dioxide level is still low because of previous hyperventilation. And you’re relatively insensitive to the amount of oxygen in your blood. At that point, you’re capable of passing out underwater.”

Shallow-water blackout comes on without warning. Paradoxically, a victim has no sensation of being out of breath. “If you look at the number of people that die diving for abalone each year…some deaths are shallow-water blackout, some of them get hung up in the kelp, and some of them are my age and happen to have the big one while they’re in the water.”

Neuman is a hook-and-line fisherman; he also snorkels for abalone in the chilly waters up north. “The time before last, [when] we were up there free diving for abalone, three people along the Northern California coast died that weekend. I don’t know where they were diving or to what depth, but I do know that three of them went into the water alive and came out dead.”

We meet at a Starbucks in Del Mar on a gray Tuesday morning, and before our time is over, Dr. Neuman will have taught me to hold my breath for two minutes. He impresses on me that breath-holding is a bit of a mind-over-matter game. I ask him to explain why blacking out happens most often in shallow water, at the end of a dive cycle, when a diver is nearing or even at the surface.

“Down at 33 feet, the pressure of the air in your lungs is twice as high as the pressure at the surface,” Neuman says. “As you come back up to the surface, the atmosphere pressure drops, and the partial pressure of oxygen in your lungs drops, too, not only because of the oxygen you’ve consumed, but because of the change in barometric pressure that’s around you. As you get closer and closer to the surface, the faster and faster it falls. The oxygen level in your blood plummets as well because of the change in barometric pressure. And all of a sudden your brain’s not getting enough oxygen. The central processor says there’s not enough juice to run it, and it shuts off. And what happens when you pass out under water? You drown. The game is now over.”

Local spearfishermen Ryan Sweeny and Volker Hoehne

Local spearfishermen Ryan Sweeny and Volker Hoehne

One qualification for becoming a Bottom Scratcher was that a prospect had to catch a shark by hand. “They’re talking about a horn shark,” says Volker Hoehne, a local free diver. “They’re not particularly hard to catch, horn sharks. But you want to grab them near mid-body. If you grab their tail, they’ll whip around and bite you. And sometimes it’s in an inappropriate place.” He laughs. Horn sharks eat shellfish. “Their jaws are very powerful.”

Hoehne goes on to say that it’s bad form to grab any shark by the tail, be it a mako, a seven gill, or otherwise, because of a built-in bite reflex. I tell him I can’t imagine grabbing a mako shark by the tail for any reason in this lifetime.

“I’ve done it,” Hoehne says. Has he ever speared a shark? The answer to that question is also yes. “Sharks don’t like to die. You shoot one, he’s gonna figure it out and come around and eat you.”

Hoehne is 48. He was born in Germany, but his family moved to Southern California when he was 3. “I grew up in Solana Beach.” Solid of build, his features are sun-bleached, his eyes a shade of blue. Hoehne has been a financial analyst for Fortune 500 companies but at present works for an organization called the Watermen’s Alliance.

“I look at regulatory issues, like, is the law being implemented in accordance with what the voters approved?” Hoehne admits to having a vested interest. “What we do relates to spearfishing. We represent interests from the Oregon border to the Baja California border. When some agency wants to restrict our ability to spearfish, we step in and try to regulate.”

Hoehne began to fish when he was in the fourth grade, at about ten years of age. “Every day, I was surf fishing in front of the Chart House in Solana Beach. Then, later, instead of waiting for the fish to decide to die” — as he describes hook-and-line fishing — “I thought, I’m gonna shoot these things.” He appropriated his dad’s dive mask and fins and got his parents to spring for a speargun. “I swam every day” in the cold Pacific with no wetsuit. “I thought it was normal to be shaking so bad by the end of the day that I couldn’t aim.”

As for free diving and fish, Hoehne says that sound is important underwater. “Even more important than that is what you’re thinking. White sea bass, for example. When I stop looking for them, I see them. The trick is to move slowly, at the same speed as drifting kelp. If you get excited, the fish can sense it. They live in a different world than we do. When you move your hand underwater, you create a pressure wave, and they feel it. Every fish knows I’m there. But they don’t know what I’m doing.”

The talk shifts to close calls. “Death taps you on the shoulder and reminds you of your mortality and tells you it’s not your time to go,” Hoehne says. Events of a life-threatening nature are not so much frightening as an experience that brings clarity. “Only one thing becomes important: you want to live.” For example, Hoehne once got stuck in an underwater cave. He says he thought, “If I don’t get out, I’m dead. At times like that, you don’t care where your car is parked or about your taxes or anything.”

“Do you get seasick?” Ryan Sweeny asks before we head out in his boat. No, I say, seasickness has never been a problem for me. I’ve spent countless hours in pleasure boats of every description, I say. “Well, I get seasick,” he admits. “I take scopolamine.” He wants to know if I’ll be going in the water today. “I brought an extra mask and fins and a snorkel,” he says, “but no wetsuit.”

“What’s the water temperature?” I ask.

Free diving methods and equipment

Michael Timm from Dive America explains basic the methods and equipment used in free diving.

Michael Timm from Dive America explains basic the methods and equipment used in free diving.

“Around 60 degrees.”


Sweeny’s fishing boat is a white 20-foot fiberglass Chaparral with a Yamaha 150 outboard motor. He is stowing gear and wiping dirty footprints off the deck when I pull up alongside the craft, still at rest on its trailer in the parking lot of the marina across from SeaWorld. Sweeny’s friend Suzanne, a biochemist from Bay Park, is going out with us today. She is 36, German, athletic-slender, with a thatch of deep-burgundy-colored hair. Volker Hoehne is along for the trip, as well. Hoehne and Suzanne are the second and third German free divers I’ve met in the course of researching this story.

We motor slowly through the channel that opens out into the bay. From there, Sweeny turns north. He cranks down on the throttle, and we pound it up the coast to La Jolla. At high speeds, water is unforgiving. The little Chaparral slams down hard in the troughs between swells. For a passenger, the first order of business is to get a grip on something, so as not to bash one’s teeth on the gunwale.

Within minutes we arrive at an area off the La Jolla coast that Hoehne thinks has promise. Sweeny cuts power. He lets the current push the boat to a spot just outside and above a football-field-sized mess of kelp and drops anchor. The Chaparral rollicks like a carnival ride in the six-foot seas. The peanut butter–and-banana sandwich I ate earlier in the morning now feels as if it’s lodged in my throat. I burp and swallow drool. For the first time in my life, I am seasick, and it is every bit as bad as they say. But I keep my condition secret, fearing that the trip will be cut short.

Sweeny shows me how the boat works, how to start the outboard, how to pull up anchor. “Or just cut the line if you have to,” he says, “and tie the line to a float. We can always come back for it.” He shows me the boat’s ship-to-shore radio. He shows me how to make a distress call. Sick as I am, I get the message: if things go disastrously wrong with the divers today, I am the designated driver. I belch peanut butter, trying hard to focus on what he’s telling me.

While this is going on, Hoehne methodically inserts himself into a faded blue-gray camouflage wetsuit with the thickness and texture of a computer mouse pad. “I’m gonna be cold today,” he says. “My suit’s got holes in it.” The bottom right leg of his wet suit looks as if it’s been gnawed on by something with sharp teeth. I ask him about the suit’s thickness. “Five millimeters,” he says.

Hoehne and Sweeny each pour a mixture of hair conditioner and water into their suits. “The conditioner helps it to not stick to your skin when you’re trying to pull it on,” Sweeny explains. His suit is seven millimeters thick. The fins he will use today are prototypes made by a designer friend, each about three feet long, with carbon-fiber blades. Sweeny’s suit is black with blue camouflage inlays. Three hundred dollars, he thinks, is what he spent on it. Add a few hundred more for booties and gloves, a hood, a dive mask, and snorkel. “My dive watch was 600 dollars.”

Each diver carries a black aluminum speargun that looks something like a pool cue with a pistol grip. A detachable tip at the end of a rubber band–powered spear shaft connects to a spool of fishing line on a reel used to hand-crank a fish in. For good measure, Hoehne will also clip his fishing line to 100 feet of quarter-inch yellow rubber tubing that floats on the surface and acts like a shock absorber in the event that he nails a big one. He can attach an inflatable yellow float to the line for use as a surface marker.

Each man straps on a weight belt, then slips overboard and into the water without any of the deep-breathing exercises I’d imagined they’d do. Hoehne, then Sweeny, pops to the surface in temporary shock. Each gripes about the cold before they paddle off into the kelp paddy in search of game fish.

Talking about swimming with a blue whale

Ryan and Volker talk about watching a blue whale feed and free diving nearby.

Ryan and Volker talk about watching a blue whale feed and free diving nearby.

Ryan's blue whale encounter

A first-person view as Ryan swims with a blue whale at a safe distance.

A first-person view as Ryan swims with a blue whale at a safe distance.

Meanwhile, the little Chaparral pitches like a bull on a rope. I take deep breaths and stare at the horizon; I’ve heard this is what you’re supposed to do when seasick. Somehow, I manage to hold on to my grits. Suzanne stays topside with me. She explains that she’s only been free diving a handful of times and doesn’t yet feel confident in water this deep.

Hoehne returns to the Chaparral a half hour later, empty-handed. “I saw a manta ray down there,” he says, “and there was a school of barracuda. But not much bait. There was a school of Spanish mackerel, but they weren’t acting very harassed.” He explains that bait fish acting harassed — scared — would indicate the presence of a larger and possibly spear-worthy fish. “The bait fish near the top didn’t look too chewed up, either.” He did see a small calico bass with a research tag. Otherwise, “It doesn’t seem very fishy here.”

Sweeny climbs back onto the boat, likewise empty-handed. “I saw calico bass in the kelp, and a school of barracuda.”

Hoehne and Sweeny take turns pouring hot water from a large red thermos jug down the fronts of each other’s suits. “You gotta keep your core temperature up,” Sweeny says. Later, he will tell the story of another free diver who brought soup and oatmeal along on his boat that he heated with a propane camp stove. “Without that extra heat, I couldn’t stay in the water very long.”

Sweeny hits the starter and the big outboard revs, coughs blue smoke, and dies. He hits the starter again. An alarm sounds from somewhere in the control panel. The motor is, for reasons unknown, dead. We are stranded in plain view of the La Jolla coastline, maybe half a mile out to sea. My stomach lurches and gurgles in the chop.

As a game fish, the white sea bass is prized by free divers and hook-and-line fishermen alike. They can get big. The largest one on record weighed 93.1 pounds and was five feet long. As a species, they are elusive and spook easily, to the extent that free divers have a code name for the fish: the ghost. “You won’t see any for hours,” Sweeny once told me, “and then you’ll turn around and one’s right by your face mask.”

The window of time during which white sea bass pass through the coastal shallows is short, and this has to do with tides and temperature and the time of year. “White sea bass prefer still water,” Sweeny explains, conditions that occur only two or three times during a day’s tidal cycles. They also favor a slack tide. That means you have either a low tide on the verge of a high tide (“good, because a lot of fresh, clean water is coming in”), or a high tide going to a low tide, where a lot of coastal sand is riffled and the visibility is impaired. “And that’s exactly what the white sea bass likes: dirty, still water, 10 to 15 feet of visibility, and water temperatures in the low 60s.”

It occurs to me that one needs a fairly extensive understanding of marine biology and aquatic-life behavioral studies to be successful in the spearfishing game. “That sort of knowledge comes from years of doing it,” Sweeny says, “and [what I learned] from my mentors.”

Sweeny keeps pressing the starter, which does nothing useful. Finally, after a half hour or so, he determines the cause of the engine alarm: “The low-oil sensor goes off when the oil falls below a certain level.” The two-stroke outboard burns a mixture of gas and fuel oil, he explains as he pours thick black oil into the motor’s plastic oil reservoir. This time, when he turns the starter, the outboard roars to life. (How do you spell relief?) We pull up anchor and speed farther north up the coast.

Volker Hoehne cleans off one of the markers at Tombstones, an unofffical underwater memorial park off the coast of La Jolla.

Volker Hoehne cleans off one of the markers at Tombstones, an unofffical underwater memorial park off the coast of La Jolla.

We stop almost directly across from the La Jolla Woman’s Club, about a quarter mile offshore. We are in maybe 35 feet of water, floating over a spot unofficially known as Tombstones. We drop anchor. A curious harbor seal pokes its Labrador retriever face up out of the kelp and paddles over for an inspection.

“Years ago, I met Wally Potts,” Hoehne says. “He was in a wheelchair by then; his diving days were over. What he said was: ‘When I die, put a marker out there with the rest of the guys for me.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Tombstones, it turns out, is an underwater memorial, a symbolic graveyard, if you will, commemorating the members of the Bottom Scratchers. Over time, memorial markers have been placed for other fallen watermen.

Hoehne wire-brushes the sea growth from the faces of some of the markers. “I see new ones, but I don’t always see all the old ones. I’m gonna guess there are about 12 to 40 of them down there. They’re made out of rocks, old anchors, headstones, gravemarkers, rocks with plaques on them with the writing all gone. People have been doing this since the 1940s, and the sea dissolves things. Lore has it that someone put a steel scuba tank out with the name Jacques Cousteau engraved on it. I haven’t seen it.” Carl Hubbs may have the most enduring of the markers at Tombstones, his name set in some manner of white plastic lettering.

Free diving to Tombstones

A first-person view of free diving to Tombstones, an underwater memorial off the coast of La Jolla for free divers who have died.

A first-person view of free diving to Tombstones, an underwater memorial off the coast of La Jolla for free divers who have died.

Now all three divers get in and explore the underwater graveyard. Once he’s topside again, Hoehne notes that there was a dive mask stuffed into a cinder block that he hadn’t seen before.

We pull up anchor and head north to Table Rock at Black’s Beach. The sky is socked in and the air temperature is dropping. The ocean is the color of two-day-old green tea. We anchor in 11 feet of water, which seems improbable out on the open ocean, but the false shallows are created by a reef below us. Hoehne goes off the side of the boat into the water. Sweeny follows. They poke around just long enough to interest Suzanne, who jumps in, paddles about, dives once or twice into the murk, then climbs back aboard the heaving Chaparral.

“It takes balls to jump into water with so little visibility,” she says. “You can’t see anything.” She tugs off her fins and white plastic mask and snorkel. “Those guys have balls.”

But they get no fish here, either. The ocean has coughed up nothing worthy of taking a shot at. “I saw an angel shark,” Sweeny says. “I probably should have shot it, just to get a fish on the boat.”

Hoehne disagrees. “They don’t ever move. You can pick them up, and they still don’t move.” He says there’s no sport in shooting at a fish that is essentially a piece of furniture.

We pull up anchor and tool north toward a spot where a tidal creek empties out into the surf. Hoehne is off the boat again, exploring a kelp bed. He sees nothing but a knobby sheep crab with large claws. He brings it back to the boat, the crab dripping and flailing. It looks more like a giant spider than a sheep. Hoehne puts it on ice in the cooler. He will eat it later, he says, in a salad with baby spinach.

Sweeny puts the little Chaparral into overdrive and ramrods it across the surface of the ocean due south toward Mission Bay. It is twilight. The outboard powers up to 38 knots (about 45 miles per hour). We hydroplane across the tops of the swells and catch air over the troughs. Oddly, this cures my seasickness.

Then Sweeny kills the throttle abruptly and yells a strange word:


“It’s a mola mola,” Hoehne says. “They swim on the surface and they eat jelly fish.”

Sweeny spins the Chaparral around to get us a better look. He says that molas, also known as sunfish, can get big — 4000 pounds or so. This mola, at least what we can see of it, looks to be the shape of a rubber raft turned sideways, with a mutant tail and two fins. One fin points at the ocean floor like a plumb bob, the other breaks the surface of the water, not unlike a shark’s fin. We are directly off Mission Beach, maybe 300 yards out and in sight of the roller coaster at Belmont Park. I can feel the ocean rollers passing under the hull. The ungainly mola mola quietly sinks below the surface of the darkening chop. Sweeny powers up the outboard. We thud back into the channel.

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More from SDReader


I was very disappointed by the article. I am not sure if the author sensationalized it or if the divers sensationalized the information presented. At first glance, it is clear that Sweeney is new to the sport. This is clear by the equipment shown in the photo and described in the story.

“With his dive knife, Sweeny chopped at the stalks that gripped his legs and torso until, finally, on the doorstep of losing consciousness, he got free and kicked his way to the surface.”

Really, Kelp does not grip your legs or grab you like some sea monster. If you are wearing scuba fins with loose straps or a big knife on the outside of your leg, you may catch one strand. This is the most sensationalized paragraph I have read in a long time. You might as well say a polar bear had you and you stabbed it to get away.

“I started to get dizzy, started to see lights. I started to go numb and have contractions.”

Sounds like childbirth, not shallow water blackout.

“As a spearfisherman, Sweeny represents a fringe minority of the sport. Most spearfishermen depend on scuba tanks for air”

Sweeny does not represent the spearfishermen who have hunted here quietly for years. Some of his statements are embarrassing.

“For example,” says Sweeny, “if you spear a fish, you’ve got about 15 minutes to get it into the boat before the sharks show up.” Sharks are drawn by the scent of blood in the water.

I have shot fish in the local kelp for over 25 years. I have swam with fish on me for hours. I can honestly say that sharks are the last thing on my mind. The only time there is a shark issue is when a novice diver leaves a fish on the bottom because he is unable to dive the 5o-70 feet to get it. The sharks that show up are seven gills, and they do not come after us; they quickly swim away from us. The only shark that will cause problems will be the one you never see. Bad boat drivers are the biggest danger.

Having spent time with Dr. Neuman, I can tell you that he is humble to a fault. His experience dwarfs that of Sweeny and Hoehne. They should learn from his humble approach. Your article correctly points out the danger of shallow water blackout. Dr. Neuman articulates it well in layman terms.

Hoehne returns to the Chaparral a half hour later, empty-handed. “I saw a manta Ray down there,” he says, “

There are no Manta Rays here, maybe you saw a Bat Ray?

No reputable spearfisherman would consider shooting an angel shark, at anytime. Most of us learned as kids that Sheep crabs have no meat and are not worth killing. Guess you guys had to kill something for the article.

My father-in-law knew most all of Bottom Scratchers..tons of stories about diving here n Sea of. Cortez. He Actually used one of their first spear guns. I snorkeled off La Jolla as a kid loved the water, hated cold..(skinny kid syndrome).. can't wait to show him this story. *Dude above needs to chill. Author does pretty well n might be first story.

My father, Wally Potts, loved the purity of breath hold blue water hunting. Thank you for mentioning the Bottom Scratchers, and on a personal note, my Dad. His experience with shallow water blackout was arguably the first documented case on record. It happened off La Jolla Shores and his buddy Jack, a genius equipment innovator and a vital contributor to the sport, his partner and best friend, saved his life by pulling him on the paddleboard and pounding on his chest when he floated to the surface. His report most definitely included seeing stars. As the daughter of a pioneer blue water hunter, I can't recall ever hearing tank divers and free divers put in the same "hunter" category, but the love of the ocean was shared by all. Conservation and beach access were always important to the Club, and everyone has a right to enjoy it as they see fit. There is a Reader article done in 1978 that comes straight from Jack and Wally themselves, if anyone cares to look it up. It's cleverly titled "Thanks but no Tanks" Telling tales of the hunt are often sensationalized. Bringing new attention to the sport of breath hold spearfishing is a good thing and I know the Bottom Scratchers would like it. I

I appreciate your perspective, lyndeelogan! I especially like that you point out tales of the hunt are often sensationalized....and lest we all forget, this is a description of several interviews, through the lens of a (possible?) non-diver.

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