An Icky Treasure : Divers on Catalina Stage Garbage Fete

Times Staff Writer

The biggest draw for tourists on Santa Catalina Island on Saturday was a garbage truck that smelled like dead fish.

"This is something to remember," said Samuel Santiago, a Paramount auto parts salesman who was snapping photographs of the garbage lathered with ooze and encrusted with barnacles.

Others took home movies. And even more pawed through the truck, holding up shredded beer cans, corroded boat batteries and deformed lumps of oxidized metal, which inevitably triggered onlookers to shout, "That's disgusting!"

Disgusting, but Fun

Disgusting, but fun. Saturday, after all, was the island's eighth annual underwater cleanup.

Two hundred scuba divers, some from as far away as Utah and Arizona, descended on the island to clean up the harbor that too many people treat like a trash can. The divers, swimming past startled horn sharks, sea bass and lobster, picked up 3,000 pounds of trash during the six-hour sea hunt.

"We're like underwater garbage men; that's what we are," said Don Mueller, an engineer who was proudly displaying his find: a skillet with a bad case of iron warts.

Two divers, Norm Deatherage and Jon Hardy, dreamed up the idea for the "celebration in garbage," in 1981 as a way of thanking the island residents for their hospitality. The pair also hoped to show that most divers aren't wild, beer-drinking teen-agers, but rather environmentalists of sorts.

"Most divers are really into ecology. They like to go in and clean it up and put something back into the community," said Bud Davis, a Catalina diving instructor who helped spearhead the cleanup this year.

Over the years, trash day has grown more popular with divers who are provided an extra incentive to make the trip. They get to explore Lovers Cove, a pristine marine preserve which is off limits to them the rest of the year. The cove's kelp beds are a magnet for halibut, sheepshead and other fish and invertebrates that don't scurry away from the divers because, in their protected environment, they are not fearful.

Some of the trash hauled away Saturday was a danger to horn sharks and other marine life, which get tangled in Styrofoam cups and beer tabs.

But the divers were told not to disturb any junk that the marine life has adopted on the rocky and silty bottoms. Octopuses, for instance, love to squeeze into soda bottles.

In the past, divers have unearthed some of the island's history by retrieving machine gun shells.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Catalina and other islands off the West Coast were sealed off and troops came in to protect them. On Catalina, anti-aircraft gun crews practiced by shooting thousands of rounds of ammunition into the ocean.

Proverbial Tire

By mid afternoon, the judges had selected the best junk of the day. Winners were honored at a garbage dinner dance at the island's Casino.

The Golden Flipper award (a fin spray-painted gold) was given to Dennis Turgeon and Tonia Elliot, who spent two hours trying to pull a 250-pound truck tire and rim from the bottom.

The "most worthless" award went to the person who found a telephone calling card that came without its secret code. Last year's most worthless award was given to a scavenger who found a Johnny Mathis tape.

And yes, someone did find the kitchen sink Saturday.

The judges who make up some of the awards as they go along, gave the finder the "kitchen sink" award.

An $8,000 diamond ring and a wallet with $1,500, however, remained missing at sea.

Last summer, the box containing the diamond ring popped out of a man's pocket while he was wading into the water to propose to his girlfriend.

Professional divers placed a pebble the weight of the ring in a similar black box in an attempt to discover where it might have floated to.

When the pros failed, a $1,000 reward drew divers to the scene like shark bait, but no ring was found.

A few things were reunited with their owners. Bonnie Woodard-Ponne spotted her green-tinted sunglasses on the garbage pile.

She had lost then while sailing last August on a windy day.

"Yahoo! I wonder if they will find my visor," she said.

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