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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#386: The "SCUBA Police"

SCUBA divers sometimes joke about the "SCUBA Police" who might check to see if a diver is diving without a snorkel or some other piece of required equipment at some dive sites, or whether they are going it solo where such diving is prohibited. Some even joke about being stopped for having MOF (mask on face). Well, last Saturday the phrase "SCUBA police" acquired an entirely new meaning for those of us diving at Catalina Island's Casino Point Dive Park! No one was looking to see if divers had their snorkels, and I was not cited for solo diving. This time it was something a bit more serious... but somewhat humorous as well!

A friend of mine, Kevin VanHook (no relation to Captain Hook) was diving out near the old "swim platform" at the north end of the park when he saw something shiny buried in the sand. Kevin carefully "unearthed" it and discovered it was an intact round of ammunition. Rather than bring it in, he made a circle of rocks around it and returned to the stairs. I happened to run into him (or he me) after he exited, and Kevin told me what he had found. I mentioned that Casino Point had been used for gunnery practice during World War II, and it was probably a round from that era. Strong swell and surge from the storm last Thursday may have exposed it after all these years. He asked if he should report it to the Harbor Department. I mentioned many of us local divers had seen such rounds, although usually just the fired casings, in the dive park but it might be a good idea to let them know.

Of course things are never as simple as you expect. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department heard of the discovery and decided to call the mainland to determine protocol. I'm sure none of the officers involved were aware of the Casino's history as a military and merchant marine training center during WWII, so this may have seemed rather out of the ordinary. I later learned about the attempted car bombing in NY's Times Square and the heightened alert due to that threat, but I'm not sure it played a role as the find in our waters was early in the day even by East Coast time. Sheriff's Deputy Austin was asked to close the dive park and secure it so no divers went into the water for safety reasons. Since I hadn't dived yet and am always thinking about good photo ops for my columns, I suggested it might be "fun" to use some of that yellow "crime scene" tape to add a dramatic flair to the closure. Maybe I just watched too many episodes of CSI back when I had a TV. Deputy Austin called for some tape and, when it arrived, affixed it to the dive park stairs. The dive park was officially closed to diving, most likely for the rest of the day! A higher authority than the legendary "SCUBA police" had deemed it necessary.

Since such ammunition was not a very unusual thing in Avalon waters, I really didn't see what all the fuss was. I had guessed it might be a 50-caliber round from one of the World War II machine guns used for target practice. Now that caliber is certainly much more than the .22 pistols and rifles I used to shoot, but I didn't see it as being highly lethal... especially after soaking in King Neptune's realm for over 65 years! Of course anti-aircraft guns were also mounted on the concrete pads at Casino Point in those days, but my understanding was they used 20 mm or 22 mm shells for practice which may have been dummy rounds. Any weapons experts, military buffs or WWII veterans out there can feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

Deputy Austin handled the situation very well, maintaining a sense of humor while performing her assigned duties to protect us divers. I want to also commend Avalon Harbor Master Brian Bray who was on the scene quickly and saved the day by arranging to have Descanso Bay opened up for all the dive classes and recreational divers who could not complete their dives in the park. In addition, kudos are also due to the Santa Catalina Island Company for allowing hordes of black neoprene suited divers to invade the beach club on a moment's notice! We were glad we weren't mistaken for some strange gang or Ninja warriors because of our solid black "uniforms."

I stayed with Deputy Austin to get a few pictures of the closure, and the quickly evacuated dive park (on a beautiful Saturday, how strange!). I wanted to ensure I had updates on the progress of getting the LAC Sheriff's bomb squad out to handle the ordinance. Yes, I said the bomb squad! I had to wonder if somehow during the transmission of information through the various channels to the mainland, the presumed 50 caliber bullet had been referred to as 50 mm (almost two inches) ordinance which certainly could have ruined someone's day. It just didn't seem necessary to me to send the bomb squad for a 50 caliber round. But then that's why I make the small (if any) bucks, and I readily admit to being no expert on ordinance despite being the Catalina Island School's (Toyon) gun club sponsor... until the club president turned towards me with my semi-automatic pistol aimed at my gut after firing six rounds at the target, forgetting it was a 9-round clip.

When it became obvious that the bomb squad would take some time to get here from "the Big Island" (or mainland if you prefer), I joined many of my friends at Descanso Bay to do the one dive I had planned for the day. I was given reports of two giant sea bass seen at 90 feet off one of the buoys in Descanso, so I headed directly out to that area to see if I could find them. Obviously they heard I was coming, and moved into shallower water where instructor Bryan Cox from Scuba Luv saw them. I wasn't diving with my compass, so I headed back towards the beach... and ended up in a much better place, the rocky reef at the north end of Descanso. There I captured a fair bit of footage of that devil weed in its death throes (whose real name I forbad myself to mention until next fall). The lighting was excellent so I was pleased. On the way back to the kayak launch area, I spooked a nice shovelnose guitarfish in just seven feet of water. It was too quick for me to even raise my camera to film.

After the dive I returned to the park just in time to see the bomb squad members descend at the site where the ordinance was discovered. They made quick work of it, and returned with the round in their goodie bag (fortunately no lobsters accompanied it). A number of people handled the round after it was brought up, so I figured it would be no problem for me to walk over and get a picture of it for this column. Wrong! I was immediately stopped. I asked Deputy Austin if I could get permission and she spoke with the individual from the mainland who apparently was in charge. I could tell from his head shake that permission would not be granted. I must admit, I wondered if he did not want the evidence exposed since it was really a rather small bullet for all the fuss. So much for freedom of the press! However, all our island personnel from the Sheriffs to the Harbor Dept to the Fire Dept, handled the incident well.

Several of my dive friends had words of advice as to what procedure they would follow in the future should they encounter ordinance in the dive park. Essentially it sounded something like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" but regarding a quite different subject. No one wants to see the dive park shut down again unless Al Qaeda decides to plant a car bomb there... or would it be a golf cart or a boat bomb? Hmmm. Of course no one wants to see a disaster here like could have happened in Times Square. But a little knowledge of the history of Casino Point and input from people who have encountered such ordinance here over the years might have resulted in a more measured response from the mainland. At least it was all in the interests of safety.

So this weekend certainly was eventful! I never know what I will encounter when I head down to the dive park. Certainly this was beyond my wildest expectations (and I have a pretty wild imagination... without needing any drugs other than excess nitrogen and caffeine to trigger it). Sunday proved even more exciting but in a much different and more enjoyable way. My son Kevin called early that evening to let me know that my daughter-in-law Mary had just given birth to a 7 lb. 13 oz. baby girl named Allison Rayn. Only 10 more years and we can get one of my instructor friends to certify her as a SCUBA diver! I can hardly wait to have three generations diving together.

© 2010 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Deputy Austin placing the yellow tape to officially close the dive park, the rather evacuated dive park area;
the same location showing machine gun and anti-aircraft emplacements at the Casino during World War II
training exercises for the U.S. Merchant Marines, and a size comparison of a .22 long rifle,
50 calliber machine gun and 20 mm anti-aircraft round.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
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