Just before Christmas 2008, I received an email that someone had sent to Sea Shepherd, wanting to know if they could assist in removing a net that was on a sunken ship just off of Catalina Island.
Sea Shepherd sent the message to me and I immediately called the originator of the email. It turned out to be from a scuba instructor, Donny Neel. We talked about the situation and arranged a meeting so I could pick up a DVD he had of the wreck site and net. As I watched it at home I was aghast at the size of the net.
The story behind this is that a purse seiner, the Infidel, was hunting for squid in December of 2006. They had taken a first net full of squid and dumped them in their hold. Then they made a mistake, they got greedy and hauled in another net full. As they started hauling in the net the load proved to be too heavy for their 70 foot trawler. The boat started to list and they rolled over. The boat quickly sank, although all hands were able to get to shore which was just a few hundred yards away.
The owner of the Infidel contacted some commercial divers on Catalina and paid them to remove some valuables. One of the divers was Bob Kennedy, now the mayor of Avalon and owner of the dive shop Scuba Luv. He and his team did several dives to the site, taking video and strategizing on how to remove the net that was full of the squid that was part of the last haul.
They witnessed a tragic sight. There were at least a dozen dead sea lions, several sharks and other fish and invertebrates dead in the net. They became trapped when they went to feed on the dead squid. The owner of the Infidel wanted the divers to remove the net, as it was worth more money than the boat. But after being paid by the insurance company for the value of the ship, the owner decided that he didn't want to pay the divers to remove it. So the operation was halted. In the words of Bob Kennedy, "we were one hour away from having the whole net removed when the owner decided to stop the retrieval."
There it has been ever since, in 150 feet of water, killing wildlife. Although the number of victims has decreased over the years, the net continues to take a toll. A report that came out in 2006 by the University of Washington, documented the amount of animals that died in one net that was studied for 15 years in the Puget Sound. During that time frame 3,500 animals died.
Some might say, well that is not many, but when you take in consideration that there are thousands of these nets out there, the numbers quickly add up to a very significant quantity. But this doesn't take into account the real toll. When these nets finally come to rest it is usually on a reef. This is where all benthic life either gets crushed by the weight, or gets ensnared when the net is moved back and forth in a scouring motion over the reef by wave and tidal motion.
Back to the project
Within 2 days of meeting Donny Neel and watching the video, I was talking with a new acquaintance of mine, Bonny Shumaker, about this net. It was too large for ODA to remove with the Clearwater, but Bonny said she knew someone who had a boat that just might want to help out. She contacted the owner of a boat called the Captain Jack. His name is Mike Hoover. He quickly said he would be willing to take his ship from Redondo Beach to Catalina with his crew and assist us in removing the net. I let Donny know about this and he put me in touch with Jason Mannix, an employee with the Harbor Patrol on Catalina.
Jason and his significant other, Cinde Mac Gugan (a dive instructor) offered to organize a dive team that could remove the net from very deep waters. Within a couple of days Jason emailed me that he had several divers that were willing to help out as ODA volunteer divers. I knew we were in good company when he said Bob Kennedy was willing not only to help out, but would donate all the mixed gasses that were need by the dive team.
Jason arranged a meeting of the dive team to be held on January 8th, in Avalon. I wanted to be there, so I took the Catalina Express over. The feeling at the meeting was kind of one of resolve. Because of personality differences and past history, not all people were talking to each other - not really knowing anyone in the room, nor any past differences, I left the meeting not knowing for certain how this would all come together. But in my heart, I knew it would
A date was set at the meeting. We would do our first dives on Saturday, January 10th. I made arrangements with Mike Hoover and we agreed to depart on Friday at 3pm.
In the meantime Scott Sheckman and I made up a press release and sent it to several media outlets. The first one to respond was Louis Sahagan from the LA Times. He was enthralled with the story and was excited to come out with us. He arranged to bring staff photographer Bob Chamberlin along for the adventure.
Joining us for the crossing to Catalina aboard the Captain Jack were: Dr. Bill Cooper, a research scientist from UCI, Tony Christopher, a nature film producer for over 30 years, and Don Robarge, an ODA diver for many years. One of the highlights of the trip was having Mike Hoover's family come along: wife Amber, 11 year old Sunny, and 8 year old Dana.
We headed out from Redondo Beach under clear skies and flat seas. Half way to the island we encountered 25 mph Santa Ana winds. Creating choppy seas and a not so pleasant ride. When we finally got to Avalon the Harbor Master told us that it was too dangerous for us to anchor in the harbor, we should continue on to the west side of the island to get out of the wind and waves.
Bill, Tony, Don and I departed the ship and took refuge in an apartment that Cinde so graciously let us sleep in. Because it was so windy, I called Louis Sahagan and told him not to come to Avalon in the morning, that conditions were probably not going to allow us to dive in the morning. That was a call I did NOT want to make. I have been trying for years to get the media to cover ODA's efforts and hated the thought that we may have to cancel the whole weekend due to adverse conditions.
In morning we all got together at a small restaurant in town to have breakfast. This was my first chance to meet the whole team. In total we had 13 volunteer divers, all trained in deep water diving. The recommended maximum depth for recreational diving, using just compressed air, is 120 feet. The Infidel was in 150 feet, so this required divers with training in mixed gasses. These gasses are used to reduce the amount of nitrogen that builds up in the blood stream under high pressure situations. At that depth the divers would be encountering over 4 atmospheres of pressure.
The winds had died down significantly, but the seas were not exactly flat. Somewhere around 11am we decided to go for it. The dive site is roughly 5 miles away from Avalon. As we approached the site we were met by a smiling William Frankenhalter (Shoreboat William to most) who volunteered his launch boat and services to act as a safety vessel in case we needed to get someone back to Avalon in an emergency.
We agreed to break up into 2 teams of 6 and 7 divers. The first team would head down, do their best to attach lift bags where they could and start cutting netting away as the situation provided. Each team consisted of 3 people doing the cutting and lifting, with the other members watching out as safety divers. Ron Moore and Bert filled out the team by filming the entire underwater story.
The typical setup for a diver was 2 tanks on their back with at least one spare tank strapped under their arm. Some of them had 2 spare tanks! With all that gear on they were adding about 125 pounds to their body weight. Not exactly streamlined in the water, William threw a rope in the water and towed the whole team to the float marker that was attached to the mast of the Infidel.
Because this is so deep, each diver needs to come up very slowly and take 1-5 minute decompression stops at 40, 30, 20 and 15 feet. So even though you are only on the site for 10 to 18 minutes, each dive takes about an hour in total. As the team got back to the Captain Jack, we were met with tales of awe and disbelief. Struck by a magnitude of the size of the net, and wondering how in the heck are we going to get that whole thing off of there.
I went down with the second team. Don Robarge and I were the only ones of the entire group that were not qualified to go past 120 feet, so we stayed near the top of the mast and looked down at the team doing their incredible work. Attaching lift bags every 20 or so feet, finding a strategic place to start cutting and then putting more air in the bags to send them to the surface. I could not believe what I was seeing. These people were risking their lives so that no more animals, no matter how big or small, would meet a slow, agonizing death in this killer net.
As soon as we got back to Avalon I called Louis Sahagan and told him that we were going out again Sunday morning. He said he would meet us at the dock in time for our 9am departure.
Louis interviewed a lot of the participants that day, and Bob Chamberlin took a bunch of great photos. It was great to have them along. They turned out to be great guys who were deeply affected by what was transpiring in front of their eyes. By the end of the day we had removed about 1,500 pounds of net. It was a hugely successful day, no injuries and nothing but beaming smiles on everyone's face.
I think Louis's account of the day was fantastic, and apparently so did others. He got back to the mainland around 5pm and his article showed up on the front page of the California section Monday morning.
I had no idea what would transpire. Within hours I was getting calls and email from around the country. The Associated Press distributed the story on their list. I got calls from radio and TV. I was interviewed by KABC, KNX and NPR radio. KTLA and FOX news interviewed me at my house for the evening news. KCET has expressed interest in the story. People magazine interviewed me for a possible story. Several local news and magazine company's have called about information. It was mind boggling to me how one article could do so much for a cause. Thank you, Louis Sahagan of the Times for seeing to it that this story saw the light of day and writing an excellent piece that conveyed the conviction and dedication of all the people involved in this project!
As I climbed aboard the Captain Jack I was overcome with gratitude. I wanted to hug everyone for putting their differences aside to make the oceans a little safer. ODA has gone through many programs over the years and this was not only the biggest in terms of the size of the net, but also in terms of putting so many people together for a common cause.
I called ODA an alliance because I knew there were going to be times like this when the project would be too big for us to handle. Now we had people from 3 different, and competing dive shops setting aside all else to help rid the oceans of one more deadly net. Just amazing....
Founder & President
Ocean Defenders Alliance