Continued from Part I: We arrived at the first wreck, South Jack, about an hour after departure from the dock in Cortez. It was a relief to hear the loud engines cut out. Pam tossed the anchor in and dove in after it to place the anchor and a guideline over the wreck. South Jack is an 1890’s era steam ship which was about 100 feet long when she was intact. Now, she is broken apart in several large pieces in sand at about 85 feet. Capt. Bob gave us the dive briefing and we suited up with his help at the transom. I suppose because there is no other structure or coral reef growth in a largely sand bottom, the fish congregate around these wrecks all of which are only several miles apart. We performed a giant stride in two’s off the aft swim step and surface swam to the anchor line where we descended at will to join DM Pam. We had the pleasure of swimming with a small school of great barracuda, blennies, cleaner shrimp, grey angel fish, schools of grunt, several large spotted eagle rays, and HUGE goliath grouper the size of a small car! The hard and soft coral growth on the wrecks was quite nice and colorful. Terry and I surfaced together after about 50 minutes and found we were the last two back on the boat. Our day took a turn for the darker when we overheard VHF radio traffic from a close by dive boat about a missing diver. We hauled our ground tackle aboard and headed to our next dive site.
We arrived at the site about 15 minutes later. This was also the site where the missing diver was reported. We found that the missing diver’s boat and crew were still on scene looking for their buddy. The group of four divers were spearfishing on the wreck when the diver’s buddy lost track of the diver. Their diver was now an hour overdue. They stated that they had done a cursory check of the area below around the wreck and they had also penetrated the wreck with no luck or sign of him. We could see the tension in the faces of the divers on their boat and I started to feel the shock and seriousness of the moment. A US Coast Guard HH-60 arrived in the area a short time later and dropped a bouy to measure the strength and direction of the current. Not long after they dropped the bouy, they called our Captain over to a nearby location where they were in a stationary hover and directed us to an object in the water below them. We pulled alongside a floating tank and attached BCD and hauled it aboard. The BCD was partially inflated and the console gauge indicated 0 PSI in the tank. The BCD appeared to have been removed by the wearer because no part of the BCD, tank, or octopus appeared to have failed. The missing diver’s boat approached us and based upon the circumstances we deduced that we were in possession of the missing diver’s BCD. The missing diver’s buddies indicated that the diver was wearing a weight belt. More than likely he was still wearing it.
We motored around the area for approximately two hours searching the surface for the missing diver. In this time a small USCG patrol boat and a cutter joined in the search. At one point a TV news chopper flew over our location. We returned (to GPS coordinates) where we had retrieved the ghost BCD and Pam dropped below trailing a surface bouy to search the bottom for any other signs of the diver. Just as Pam was about to enter the water, a 20 foot whale shark swam just below the surface past our boat! Pam said that in ten years, she had not heard of anyone above or below the surface seeing a whale shark in these waters! She returned from her bottom search empty handed.
I was somewhat surprised, but not disappointed, to return to the wreck where the diver went missing. We dove the wreck as we planned, not without a little bit of a strange feeling that just hours ago, a diver may have drowned at this very site. Our dive was uneventful other than having the pleasure of seeing the before mentioned species and this time we swam with up to 5 goliath grouper. I also got to witness a small school of yellow fin tuna feeding on a school of herring. This was very cool to watch because I could anticipate seeing the tuna by watching the sardine react in waves. I had not experienced this before, but apparently when goliath grouper are startled, they "bark", making a kind of loud drum noise. Wow! This was an interesting day. Pam found a speargun lying on the top side of the wreck, cocked and ready to fire. After it was brought to the surface, the missing diver’s answered our radio call and came over to confirme that it belonged to their buddy. We motored over to our third and final wreck and had an equally nice dive. It was a long(er) day for all of us and we were happy to pull up to the dock. Over all I highly recommend diving with DM Pam and Capt. Bob on the Quest. Some of our divers’ friends and family had come out to the dock to receive them because they had seen the TV news about the still missing diver. Locals on the dock speculated that the missing diver would probably be found inside the wreck he was diving on. It is possible that the diver removed his BCD to enter a part of the wreck with his speargun to reach a trophy fish or to find a good place from which to stalk his prey.
This trip was a sobering reminder to dive within one’s abilities and to stay within eyesight of one’s buddy. Wreck penetration requires specialized planning, training, and equipment. Dirty Harry’s sage advice applies, "A man’s got to know his limitations." The link below takes you to an on-line article about that day and the fate of the missing diver. http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20090705/ARTICLE/907049970/2055/NEWS?Title=Missing-diver-s-body-is-found