2021 Diving Recap (Top 10)

It has been another interesting year. Last year I posted a Top 10 Diving Recap so I thought I would do the same for 2021.

I started private pilot lessons near the end of this year and I started reading Fate Is The Hunter which is a memoir by Ernest Gann about the early years of commercial aviation. In the first chapter, there is an interesting paragraph:

My thinking is almost entirely mechanical. I am only vaguely aware that in spite of unctuous advertising claims, the element about me is not natural to mankind. Like the depths of the sea, the atmosphere allows us minor degrees of penetration and easily reveals its basic structure. But there are certain secrets both elements hold in reserve, and it is not too farfetched to suppose that only the dead have ever truly discovered them.

Ernest K. Gann from Fate Is The Hunter

Finding new wrecks in Southern California has been a big focus this year and we have been very successful. As Gann says, the ocean doesn’t give up secrets easily and it is very unforgiving — especially at the depths we have been diving. Preparation and research are keys to success.

Once again, a bunch of dive and vacation trips were canceled and almost all of my diving was done locally. I did make a trip to Florida to complete my Hypoxic (aka MOD3) Rebreather training class with Mel Clark which culminated in a 300 foot deep dive in the infamous Eagles Nest Cave. A few months later, I met up with Mel Clark again for diving the amazing deep wrecks in the cold waters of Lake Huron at Presque Isle. Other than those two short domestic trips, all of my dives were done locally here in Southern California.

Despite the lack of travel, I think this has probably been my most rewarding, challenging, and amazing dive year ever. It just proves the point that you often don’t realize the adventures in your own backyard and there are plenty of great dives here — some we are still working to discover.

I definitely advanced the complexity (depth) of my dives and improved my photography and photogrammetry.

It was a very hard task to only pick ten dives and then to rank those. Just to give a sense of the challenge, most people would be really excited to dive the wrecks I did NOT include on my list. Just a few of these include:

  • Whale fall (Point Loma) – This one was a total shock that Ben Lair and I were never expecting. Finding an entire whale skeleton when you are expecting an airplane is a unique experience. This post got a LOT of attention. It was really hard to not to include it — but it doesn’t involve rust.
  • Eagles Nest Cave (Florida) – I had always wanted to visit Eagles Nest and it was amazing. Really cool cave that is massive inside. It is impossible to describe how big it is other than to say that it “swallows” even the biggest and brightest underwater lights. Again, it was hard to not include it since it has always been a dream to dive there, but it didn’t involve rust.
  • Defiance (Presque Isle, Lake Huron) – This was in big contention but lost out to the Windiate. Both are amazing. In fact, there are so many great wreck dives in this location. The Defiance sank in 1854 and is still in amazing condition.
  • Chanson d’Mer (Catalina Island) – My last dive of the year and a very fun dive. I got some really great photos that I’m proud of.
  • Grumman Goose (Catalina Island) – This one had been on my list for quite some time and it was really great to dive it with DJ Mansfield.
  • PC-815 (Pt Loma) – Such a crazy set of stories this ship had. If you want a good laugh and proof that “reality is stranger than fiction,” then take a quick read. Tyler and I had unbelievable visibility on the day we dove it.
  • Cessna (San Diego) – This “drug plane” also has a funny back story. Originally located by Steve Lawson.
  • Vashon / USS Cockatoo (Catalina) – During research into this wreck on the “backside” of Catalina, I discovered that it was originally the USS Cockatoo and was in Pearl Harbor.
  • P38 & Corsair (Newport Beach) – Rarely dived sites of two airplanes that got into an unauthorized dogfight with the Corsair pilot paying the ultimate price.

In addition to those that didn’t make the list, there were also a bunch of others not even mentioned above (Sub Tower, S.S. Florida, S.S. Norman, Valiant, Fishing Boat @ 240′ (first dive on new wreck), WW II Airplane Junk Yard (many first dives on new wrecks), Cape Charles (crazy anchor rescue), Border TBM Avenger, Rigger I, Missile Tower, Skyraider, San Vito (aka Tuna Clipper), The Prosper, etc.).

It is a little mind-boggling to think that I dove all those sites, in addition the list below, in a single year.

Stats

According to my dive log program, here are some interesting statistics for 2021:

  • Total Dives = 86
    • Rebreather Dives = 82
  • Deepest Dive = 318 feet (USS Vammen)
  • Average Max Depth = 159 feet
  • Longest Dive = 2 hour 25 minutes (USS Vammen)
  • Total Dive Time = 3 days, 18 hours, 8 minutes
    • I’m guessing at least 50% of that was on deco

Top 11 of 2021

Sorry, I just couldn’t limit myself to 10 and I had to go over by just 1. It was so hard to just get down to 10 from all of the great dives mentioned above. Here they are:

11. PBM Mariner (Pt Loma, 100+ fsw)

Tyler and I had been trying to find the PBM Mariner for quite a long time and had done numerous dives with no luck. Steve Lawson finally relented and gave us the location. Thanks, Steve!

The first dive had bad visibility but we got a great second dive and then I went in search of other debris fields. I also built a cool photogrammetry model of the entire wreck site.

10. Border Yacht (Imperial Beach, 220 fsw)

I think I am currently the only person to dive this site. Another one that Tyler and I knew existed but hadn’t been able to find…until now. The wreck is still not identified and we don’t know how it got there…yet.

It is a cool feeling when you get to the bottom of a down line and realize you found the site and that you are the only person to dive it. That will likely change in 2022.

9. The Nightingale (San Pedro, 145 fsw)

This site had been dived, but not very often and had not been identified. I first dove it in 2020 with Ben Lair. Tyler and I did a dive on it and then I did two more dives to gather more clues and to measure the length of the wreck to confirm our hypothesis.

We were finally able to identify the wreck based on the location, size, burn marks, engine type, boat type, etc. It is the Nightingale which was built in the early 1900s and sank in 1930. Very cool story and some interesting detective work to uncover the identity.

8. SBD-3 Dauntless (Pt Loma, 195 fsw)

The SBD was initially found and identified by Tyler in 2019. It was on our list to dive at the very end of 2020 but weather worked against us and it slipped into 2021. It has a tragic story behind it and I think I’ve only been the third diver to visit the site.

Thanks a ton to Tyler for taking me there to see and photograph the wreck. One of these days we will get back and build a photogrammetry model.

7. F4D Skyray (Santa Monica Bay, 205 fsw)

This site made it to the list for a few reasons: (1) It is rare that you get to dive a jet and (2) very few people have dove this wreck and (3) it has an amazing story about the pilot ejecting at 650 mph and living.

The Skyray has a very unique shape. I got some good photos and was able to build a cool photogrammetry model that really illustrates the wing shape.

6. UB88 Photogrammetry Model (San Pedro, 190 fsw)

This was a long-term project that took quite a few dives to complete the entire model. I started the project in 2020 and it was rewarding to finally finish and publish the model. It is “the” iconic wreck of Southern California in my opinion.

I also wrote an interesting companion piece showing how the wreck has eroded over the years comparing the original photomosaic and my newer model.

5. Cornelia B. Windiate (Lake Huron, 185 ffw)

This one of the classic wrecks of the Great Lakes.It was really hard to pick just one wreck from this trip. The Windiate disappeared in 1885 and was “lost” for over 100 years and was discovered in an unexpected location in 1986.

The three masts are still upright and the lifeboat is sitting off to the side. It makes for an interesting dive and is very picturesque and provokes imagination about that lifeboat. What happened is still a mystery.

4. USS Burns (San Clemente Island, 270 fsw)

The Burns is one of the great wrecks at San Clemente Island. Kevin Bond and I did this dive on the same day as the Vammen — which is unheard of. We had the perfect day.

The Burns is a destroyer that was sunk during weapons testing and it has massive guns. The barrels are over 16 feet long. It lays on the starboard side and is starting to fall apart, mainly at the tower and smokestack area are crumbling into the sand.

3. USS Vammen (San Clemente Island, 340 fsw)

It is a hard call to make between the Vammen and the Burns and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the extra depth and “exclusivity” of diving the Vammen didn’t play into my decision.

I also like the Vammen because it was a Destroyer Escort which means it is a “lean and mean.” You can tell it was designed for speed and maneuverability. It also sits upright which adds to the majesty. A phenomenal dive.

2. The Mercator (Santa Monica Bay, XXX fsw)

For a short period of time, I was the only person who had seen this wreck. Tyler and I went back for a second dive together to gather more evidence and validate our hypothesis on the ID as The Mercator.

I think this is the first new shipwreck found and identified in Southern California in quite a while. It was also a fun detective project where the facts didn’t line up until we got a key piece of evidence from a friend of my mom.

1. SH-3A Sea King (San Diego, 210 fsw)

The wreck is interesting but it’s a debris field and normally wouldn’t be my top dive, Tyler and I knew it existed but had to find it and we were the first divers on the site. The project to ID the helo took on epic proportions, but we finally did.

Later, we had the opportunity to meet the pilot and the window of the airman who perished during the crash. We took them down to the site to pay our respects and for them to find some closure.

A truly great story which makes it my #1 dive of the year.

2022 List

I have a couple international trips planned and on the horizon (Bikini Atoll and Chuuk/Truk Lagoon) but I’m not very confident that those will happen. Therefore, I believe it will be another year of domestic diving but I’m hoping to knock off some of my dream dives. Here is a list of a few possible wreck dives for 2022:

  • Andrea Doria (Nantucket, 200-250′)
  • U869 (New Jersey, 230′)
  • Oriskany (Florida, 150-210′)
  • USS Hopewell (San Clemente Island, 395′)

In addition, I have a “pet project” that Ray and I are working on that I’ll keep under wraps for now, although a few people already know about it. If we do get the right conditions and the stars align, I’ll be the first person to dive it. Tyler and I, of course, also have a growing list of new and interesting targets we are working on. Even if half of them pan out, it will be another stellar year.

There is one other dream dive that I have been researching and thinking about and feel capable to do at this point: The Britannic. She is one of the sister ships to the Titanic and sank in just 55 minutes off the coast of Greece in 1916 when she hit a mine planted by the Imperial German Navy . Special permits are required to dive it and it is very deep (400 feet to the sand). I don’t think it will happen in 2022 but if I get invited to go on a trip, I will drop everything and do it.

Special Thanks

First and foremost, a huge amount of gratitude and thanks to my wife. She puts up with my incessant talk of diving and my borderline obsessive focus on diving and finding new sites and diving deep wrecks.

I’d also like to thank Tyler Stalter for not only being a good “dive buddy” but also research partner and for always coming up with new targets to try and sites to visit.

I’ve had the pleasure to dive with numerous other people this year: Ben Lair, Justin Judd, Kevin Bond, Drew Wilson, DJ Mansfield, Mel Clark, Jack & Jeanie Weimer, Santiago Polo, and Jack Wang, I’m sure I missed a few others as well.

Thanks to Lora, Chris, Rod, Captain & Scout for all the dives we had together in San Diego. It is always fun & laughs while diving with them. We found many new sites this year while diving off the Marissa: the SH-3A Sea King, the Whale Fall, many airplanes, the boat off Imperial Beach, and the list goes on.

Thanks to Kyaa, Ray, Craig, and Moe at Sundiver. We found and identified the Mercator, identified the Nightingale, and I finally got on the Vammen and the Burns on the same day — in addition to all the other great dives this year.

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