Many important events have transpired since our last shake down cruise of the Clearwater back in August 2007. Although she was more than sea-worthy, this circa 1970's Canadian Coast Guard patrol boat was definitely not scuba diver friendly. For several weeks, Jim Lieber, Chris Bell, Erik Burrows mulled over the vital steps we'd need to take to transform the Clearwater into a safe platform for six divers on potentially heavy seas.
The first challenge was to construct seating arrangements that would hold the divers and their gear during transport. Also, we needed a robust ladder that would allow us to safely exit the water with heavy gear. After going back and forth on the exact design, Jim used his computer skills to create a 3D model of the ideal set-up. It was only because of Jim's software talents that we were able to machine, weld and assemble the whole structure ourselves. Jim, Lisa, Jared and I spent the better part of 3 weeks obtaining the materials and machining per the design. When we finally had all the pieces in place, Erik welded them all together. It is now installed on the stern.
The second hurdle was to design, fabricate, and install a seating arrangement that allowed the divers to gear up without flailing about on the deck. We came up with 2 separate benches that can accommodate 3 divers each, and also hold 2 tanks for each diver so they can put the tanks on their backs while seated. The benches are now installed and work great, just like those found on professional recreational dive boats! We even put in extra storage areas on top of the back rests. This will be used to store gloves, masks, fins and other dive related items.
Working on a very limited budget as a grassroots/volunteer organization, just completing these two important tasks took us about 5 months to accomplish. Be we are done and finally took our first official dives of 2007 on December 16. The dive team consisted of Chris Bell, Erik Burrows, Phil Robledo and myself. Jim handled first mate duties, with Jared Rubin and John Milligan providing the deck support.
We received a tip from California Wreck Divers that there was a wreck in waters shallower than the infamous Olympic wreck, from a vessel known as the "African Queen". We got the GPS coordinates and headed out ready to dive about 6 miles from Angles Gate, just off of San Pedro.
When we arrived at coordinates, however, we couldn't detect anything on our depth finder that would indicate that a wreck was underneath. To make the most of the trip, we eventually decided to dive down and see what we could find. The bottom was 80 feet deep and Erik and Chris volunteered to be the first ones to investigate. After 20 minutes of bottom time, they surfaced with bad news: no trace of a wreck.
After a half-hour surface interval, Phil decided to try his luck with Erik and Chris. Down they went, and up they came with the same news - nothing but sand and some anemones. So we repeated the surface interval and this time I went down with Erik. For over 20 minutes, we performed a short grid pattern in the chilly water with poor visibility and had to call it quits for the day.
Even though we were skunked on this expedition, the Clearwater and all the upgrades we installed worked out fantastic. The seats are ideal and the exit ladder is top notch. I don't think we could have done a better job if we had had professionals design and fabricate them.
Two weeks later on December 29th, we decided to resume our search for the African Queen. The dive crew consisted of Chris Bell, Erik Burrows and myself. Before heading out to sea, we took on fuel at the dock where I met the two-man crew of an awesome new Lifeguard vessel. Noticeably impressed with our mission, I asked them if they had ever heard of the African Queen and they responded with an optimistic "No, but let's go find it"! Armed with their advanced side-scan sonar, I was confident we'd find the wreck.
We headed out to the coordinates at our top cruising speed of 10 knots and were about halfway to the site when Captain Les and First-mate Tim flew by us at an amazing 30+ knots (nice boat guys!). Arriving 20 minutes ahead of the Clearwater, they initiated a sonar grid search, however, could not find anything that looked like a wreck. As we were talking, a huge transport ship was heading directly for us. Captain Les said that this area was in the path of a deep water channel for the large, deep draft ships. His final words were "It's nice that you guys are so dedicated, but it doesn't so you any good to be dead".
Heeding those words of wisdom, we high-tailed out of the area and headed to the familiar wreck of the Olympic. Chris and Erik went down the anchor line, kicked 10 feet and saw the wreck. They quickly went to work and started cutting up some of the netting that continues to engulf the wreck (see our ongoing Olympic Wreck Mitigation Report to learn more). They also found a trap, hooked it up to a lift bag and sent it to the surface. After 20 minutes bottom time, they came up with another bag loaded with netting and trap remnants.
After a necessary surface interval, Chris and Erik headed down again to the Olympic. This time they came up with a huge, heavy crab trap that presented an excellent opportunity to try out our new electronic davit system installed on the Clearwater. In contrast to the difficult team effort involved with hauling out these dangerously sharp-edged burdens from the water onto a heaving boat, a push of a button brought up this death trap onto the stern deck easily and effectively for proper disposal.
On the very last day of 2007, I learned that ScubaBoard reported that divers had found and photographed an abandoned gill near the Olympic wreck. Phil Garner and Ross Overstreet were diving on a deep water reef about 100 feet down, where they came across an absolutely huge net. It was resting on the bottom except where its floats raised it by about 30 feet. Although they were only able to explore 200 of an estimated 1300 feet of net length, they came across 12 dead sea lions, several cormorants, and a whole variety of other dead animals engulfed in this abandoned killing machine.
At one point, Phil and Ross tried to cut away some of the strong monofilament net in order to remove it and bring it to the surface. As Phil was cutting, the net started to fall and swallow him. For several minutes, I'm sure his life passed in front of his eyes as he struggled to cut himself free of the nearly invisible entanglement. He was finally able to cut himself loose and headed to the surface, but dropped his expensive underwater camera in the panic. Luckily, his dive-buddy Ross retrieved the camera so we could all see the carnage online.
Although I've seen some horrible images in my work as an environmentalist, I was notably disgusted by the photographs of all the dead animals dispatched by this abandoned rig. There is nothing more saddening to me than to see animals dying needlessly in these ghost nets. I emailed and quickly called Phil to get a better assessment of the location and depth of the net to see if this was a feasible mission for ODA. Both Phil and Ross vehemently cautioned me against an ODA volunteer expedition, insisting that this was a job to be handled by professional salvage divers.
As soon as I hung up with them, I called a few contacts at the Coast Guard to see if they could help. They said this was an unusual call and that they would have to have a meeting and get back to me. Later that day, I heard from Martin Maytorena with the Department of Fish and Game (DFG). We talked for quite awhile about where the net was located and its condition. Martin said he would send out an expert dive team the next day to assess the situation and let me know if ODA could help in any way.
Three very stressful days later, Martin called me back and said that the DFG had discovered the net including a marker identifying the fishermen who owned it. With this vital information, DFG was able to contact the net's owners to request immediate removal. The fishermen quickly responded and acted efficiently to haul it out. I'm happy to report that this particular blanket of death is no longer a threat.
Through good collaboration, we were able to get this extremely serious problem resolved, but not before it claimed the lives of many animals that suffered a slow painful demise via an invisible man-made killer. Despite their amazing ability to live in such a harsh environment, these creatures became silent victims of a type of fishing gear that has no specific target that mindlessly kill whales, dolphins, seals, birds, and other "bycatch".
Martin asked me to convey his sincere appreciation to everyone that was involved in this rescue project, and I deeply thank Phil, Ross and their dive buddies for having the courage to not only report it, but for taking the dramatic photographs that helped catalyze the mitigation effort. I have asked DFG a number of follow-up questions including: final body count, the legality of the net setting, and if there will be any fines associated with this tragic incident. I will report what I learn on this website.
So the year of 2007 has come and gone and ODA looks forward to the wonderful possibilities in 2008 now that we're officially back in the water with a new boat and new hope. With a formidable ally in the vastly improved Clearwater, we are now in a much better position to reach remote sites to remove more nets and traps than previously possible with the Garibaldi. But this new found freedom comes at an increased price – maintaining, fueling, and docking the Clearwater costs us over $700 per month. Diver or not, you can help ODA stay in the life-saving business with a personal Donation.
As you can see on our home page, we have inserted a useful Google Calendar with a schedule of our dives and cleanups. Please consider coming out with us. We will continue to provide check out dives for anyone that wishes to join ODA, where we can show you how to safely remove traps and nets during one of our upcoming expeditions.
Hope to sea you all on the Clearwater soon - We've got some animals and habitat to save!!
Founder & President
Ocean Defenders Alliance