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Monday, October 30, 2017

The Day I Found The Dead Man

First of all, this is a true story.  I have a witness in my dive partner Donna Sievers.  For a few years, Donna and I would meet up at some point around Laguna Beach, CA every other Friday (conditions permitting).  We were diehards.  We'd walk to a place where we could check the waves, make our decision whether to go out and then suit up and get in.  If we actually made it to the location by 7:00, we were usually in the water by 7:30.  

I've made almost 100 dives in my life.  Over 80 of them were with Donna.  She was the best dive partner I've ever had and I'm only speaking in the past tense because she abandoned me and moved to Hawaii.  There she posts dive pictures and photos of spectacular sunsets on Facebook in an attempt to make me jealous.  

It works, but I digress.

When I say we met every other Friday, I mean it.  It didn't have to be a sunny day or even a warm day.  We did as many winter dives as we did summer ones, maybe even more.  The Pacific is cold anyway so there were actually days when getting in the water felt better than being out of it.  

The day we found the dead man, it was overcast as in the picture above.  There was a fog that wouldn't burn off until later that day and our official photographer, Debbie Sullivan, wished us a fun dive while she hung back on the shore drinking coffee and patiently waiting for us to get back.  We were at Crescent Bay and conditions were just about perfect to make a dive on my favorite location in Laguna, Deadman's Reef.

The picture above is a 3D rendering of the reef that lies below the surface.  Deadman's Reef is a large patch of rock that juts up from the bottom and comes about ten feet or so from breaking the surface.  On the side closest to shore, the depth is around 30 - 40 feet depending on the tide.  As you head around the back side you'll find yourself in 40 - 50 feet of water and there's a good chance you'll see big animals like seals and sea lions as well as colorful small ones like the Spanish Shawl Nudibranchs who loved one particular section of rock.  

As you can see though, it's a bit of a haul to get out to Deadman's. When we first started diving there I asked about where the name came from and I was told it was because boat traffic in the area had caused a death or two from divers who'd surfaced in the wrong place at the wrong time. In my experience there, I never saw a lot of boat traffic, but when I dove there and had to surface for some reason, it was something that stuck in my head.  

Donna and I had swimming out to Deadman's Reef down to a science though.  We would hug the protected reef area as we swam on the surface.  Then we'd align ourselves with a certain house on one of the cliffs and kick straight out until we were about 150 yards or more from the shore.  Then we'd drop down and be within easy reach of Deadman's without using a lot of air.  That method also kept us out of any potential boat path for the most part.  

Usually, I would bring my underwater camera with me on almost every dive.  There came a point though when I decided not to any longer.  I found I was spending more time fooling with my camera than enjoying the dive and on this particular day, I left it at home. So of course, this would be the day that we saw something I'll never forget.

Donna and I began our dive by circling the base of the reef. The visibility wasn't the best.  Like I said, I don't have any photos from under the surface that day, but here's one from a different dive that shows how murky the water can be here on what we call a "good day".  As I remember it, the day we saw the dead man was about like this.

If you're lucky you get about thirty feet of visibility.  It takes some getting used to for those that are more familiar with diving in the Caribbean or somewhere the water is pristine.  You spend a lot of time looking around wondering just what may be out beyond your sight line.  

We had spent about forty minutes on the reef and had gone around the base once when Donna suddenly pointed to our right.  At first my brain couldn't process what I was seeing.  It wasn't a nudibranch but it was colored a weird black and aqua.  Slowly my eyes adjusted and I realized it was a hand.  A gloved hand was sitting immobile and raised just a foot or so off the bottom of the ocean floor.  The hair on my arms stood up under my neoprene wetsuit and a crawling fear climbed into my stomach.

What had we just stumbled on? Did someone do a solo dive out here and get in a jam?  

Donna and I swam closer and then I made out an air tank and feet with fins attached.

It was definitely a body and there were no air bubbles rising to the surface.  Whoever this guy was, he was dead.  Or was he?  I started thinking back to my rescue training and wondered if we could get him to the surface and administer rescue breaths.  Maybe he'd only just now succumbed to whatever it was.  

That's when I saw the coffin.  That's right.   A coffin.  

What the hell was this? A weird mafia hit?  Did someone get rid of an enemy here at my favorite dive spot?  

Wait a minute.  That coffin looked a little thin to be holding a body.  And the air tank was actually fused into the lid.

It was at that point that I realized what I was looking at was a piece of underwater art.  As soon as I got home, I sketched what I'd seen.  Here's what I drew.  Apologies for not being much of an artist.

I can't express the relief that flooded through my body. As we examined it closer, we found the fins were strapped on with metal stirrups and the gloves were simply fastened to the sides of the concrete coffin.  I immediately began mentally kicking myself for leaving my camera behind.

After that dive we had a string of weekends where the conditions weren't good enough to dive at Deadman's.  The next time we went out, I brought my camera but the coffin had already been overtaken by kelp and anemones.   You could barely even make out the shape.  The ocean claims things very quickly around here.

Still, I'm glad that I got to see the dead man in pristine condition.  Sure it scared me enough that I almost soiled my wetsuit, but it's something I'll never forget.

If you are in the mood for something scarier than a story about an art installation on a California reef, why not check out my book The Wash?   Or maybe my short story A Debt to the Dead?  You can find links to both on my author page at Amazon.  

Until next time, have a safe and happy Halloween!

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