Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

021: Wreck of the Valiant

Being a marine biologist, wreck diving isn't a high priority for me. In fact the worst dive of my life was with my Dutch dive buddy Dieke on the King Cruiser wreck at 90 feet in the waters of southern Thailand. Dieke had misread the tide tables and it turned out there was a very strong current. After a brief penetration of the wreck, we were "blown" off the large vessel and had trouble relocating it due to very poor visibility. When we came to the surface, I told Dieke it had been the worst dive of my life. She said she agreed but knew that I'd come up smiling anyway.

Over Thanksgiving weekend my buddies Bud and Chris came over and we decided to dive one of our local wrecks, the Valiant, which we had last done a year ago. Conditions hadn't been very good the day before, but things looked favorable on Saturday. As we were suiting up, I noticed a waterspout forming out in the channel! I ran to get my video camera and shot several minutes of the waterspout as it formed and touched down on the ocean surface (see photo elsewhere). Good thing it stayed in the channel or we might have had a quick "lift" to the Valiant dive site instead of the long surface swim.

The Valiant is one wreck that does interest me due to its status as part of Catalina's history. This vessel, considered one of the most luxurious private yachts on the West Coast in its day, belonged to a Charles Howard of San Francisco. Our Museum reports it was about 147 feet long and was built in 1926 at a cost of $750,000. On December 13, 1930, the Valiant was moored in Descanso Bay after a 7,500 mile cruise in the Pacific, stopping at 36 other ports before arriving here. Mr. Howard was entertaining dinner guests when the lights flickered. One of the 22 crewmen on board went below to fill the fuel tank for the yacht's generator. Apparently he forgot to turn off the fuel valve, allowing gasoline to overflow the tank and explode due to a spark from the generator. The guests and crew were evacuated before a second, very powerful explosion occurred.

The Valiant burned for more than three days due to the 8,000+ gallons of diesel fuel on board. Avalon's fire department tried to put the fire out from the Hotel St. Catherine pier, but the yacht was too far from shore. Twice the harbormaster tried to tow the burning vessel out to deeper water. On the second attempt it took on too much water and sank stern first to its current resting place in the waters of Descanso Bay.

The wreck is now a favorite site for visiting divers. It is easy to locate using the outer moorings in Descanso Bay. Saturday morning Bud and I had an easy surface swim to the moorings thanks to a slight current. From the mooring can we dropped down along the chain and swam to the stern in about 80 feet of water. We were guided by a bright yellow goody bag that a lobster hunter had lost next to the wreck a few days before. My goal was to videotape the wreck itself to gather new footage of the wreck to add to video I shot a year ago. Visibility was decent so this was fairly easy. For the first time in ages I spent a dive videotaping something other than biological organisms since I want to put together a video on the wrecks in Avalon waters for my Catalina Cable TV show this winter.

After checking out the stern we worked our way along the yacht's hull towards the bow. I noted the beautiful gorgonians and the deeper water kelps growing on deck. Bud and I looked into some of the holes in the hull near the bottom and found groups of lobster, as expected. Having stopped "hunting" in 1975, I took only video. There were large numbers of schooling blacksmith around the wreck, feeding on plankton and other matter in the water. At least two of their garibaldi relatives were patrolling the wreck. On this dive I did notice that there were a lot of solitary cup corals on the hull as well.

Going to depths like this allows a diver relatively little bottom time. Although I routinely dive to such depths, I generally stay down for only 5-10 minutes to videotape specific marine life at that depth. On this dive we kept going deeper as we moved towards the yacht's bow. After filming the upper bow area, I checked my dive computer to see how much bottom time remained... two minutes. I decided it was enough time to go to the bottom at the base of the bow and film the ship head-on. I dropped down to a maximum depth of 99 feet and panned the bow from the base towards the surface. When I looked at my computer again, I had just exceeded my no decompression limits making this the first "deco dive" I've done in 41 years of SCUBA diving.

Bud and I rose to shallower waters and kicked over to the mooring chain. We did a brief stop there before heading back to the Casino Dive Park at depths of 40-60 feet. On the way Bud pointed towards the bottom, about 15 feet below. There was the largest bat ray I've seen, nearly five feet across. Next to it was a small shovelnose guitarfish. I videotaped them from my safe position, not wanting to drop down deeper. When we returned to the dive park, Bud and I did a safety and decompression stop. Bud was low on air and signalled he was going up. Thanks to my high pressure steel 120 cu. ft. tank, I remained underwater videotaping marine life in the shallows for a total of 90 minutes. The end of another awesome dive combining the Valiant and the Dive Park. Footage to air on Catalina Cable sometime in the future! Sorry, Dieke... the Valiant dive was much better than the King Cruiser!

© 2003 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.

Image caption: The luxury yacht Valiant sinking off Descanso Beach in 1930 (photo courtesy
of the Catalina Island Museum); shot of the vessel's stern in about 80 feet of water;
gorgonians growing in one of the holes blown in the hull by the explosions;
dive buddy Bud next to the hull near the bow

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia