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San Diego Finds Tourist Treasure in Sunken Ships

Times Staff Writer

The colder water hit at a depth of about 50 feet.

The divers, pulling themselves arm over arm down the buoy line, shivered slightly in adjusting to the change, then continued their slow descent. Sixty, seventy, eighty feet . . . suddenly the rusting hull of the El Rey came dimly into view.

The underwater explorers landed on the deck of the El Rey near the tattered remains of the pilot house. There, penetrated by a school of calico bass, a maze of ladders careened crazily into nothingness.

After a pause they dropped through a large opening into the eerily lit innards of the hold. Inside, the vessel’s rusted skeletal ribs traversed the walls amid the chaos of plumbing and hardware. Only one factor mitigated the divers’ natural fear of being trapped in a sunken ship: Wherever they looked, an exit was in sight.

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“It’s kind of like a park,” Chris Houston, 38, a local auto glazer, said later. “It’s good recreation.”

And that was the whole idea. The exits were there by design. For in the state that gave the world Disneyland, now comes a new recreational twist: man-made shipwrecks. In little more than a year, they have significantly boosted San Diego’s diving-tourist industry and provided a model about to be emulated elsewhere on the coast.

“People like to dive on wrecks because they’re fun,” said Terry Nicklin, president of the San Diego Diving Instructors Assn., which played a key role in sinking the handful of ships now resting on the ocean floor just outside Mission Bay. “I see no reason why this can’t be a major tourist attraction.”

The idea grew out of a conversation three years ago between Nicklin and several others decrying the state’s dearth of shipwrecks easily accessible to sport divers. While there are a number of natural wrecks off the California coast, divers say, most are either too deep or too far out to sea for most divers. Also, because natural wrecks often contain loose debris, they can be dangerous entrapments for divers.

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Nicklin said the group was inspired by reports of artificial shipwreck programs elsewhere, most notably in Florida.

In California, he said, nothing comparable had happened. While state officials say that at least one vessel has been purposely sunk in deep water off Redondo Beach to enhance sportfishing, the San Diego program was the first in the state proposing to sink ships specifically for divers.

The first step in realizing the program, of course, was finding the ship. That problem was solved when Kelco, a local company that harvests giant kelp for use in such products as salad dressing and syrup, decided to donate the El Rey. A 100-foot kelp cutter built in 1946, the ship had been inactive since 1982 and was about to be scrapped.

The next obstacle was locating a site. That was achieved when the California Department of Fish and Game agreed to make the proposed wreck project part of its artificial reef program. Since the late 1950s, the program has attempted to enhance the marine environment by creating reefs, mostly out of quarry rock, in designated areas along the coast.

“Wrecks attract fish,” explained John Grant, the department’s marine habitat development coordinator. While old ships are not as effective as quarry rock in providing spawning grounds, he said, they do enhance fishing and diving, which is also part of the department’s mission. “The wreck reefs are mainly enjoyment reefs,” Grant said. “We like diving, so we’re in favor of it emotionally as well as professionally.”

In preparation for its new role as an underwater tourist attraction, the El Rey was steam-cleaned. In addition, Nicklin said, workers removed its engines, took out all the glass, removed all hatches and doors and got rid of all loose debris. Finally, he said, they cut a series of huge holes in the deck and hull to “open up” the ship and make it safe for divers.

On April 2, 1987, the ship--rigged with explosives--was towed to its final destination and unceremoniously sunk. It all happened quickly, recalled Al Bruton, a local diver who was instrumental in the project and witnessed the sinking. Rocked by the explosion, the El Rey quivered slightly, then slipped straight into the sea, disappearing in 20 seconds.

Within a few months, two other ships had been similarly sunk. One of them, a 65-foot, 30-year-old, steel-hulled sport fisher called Shooters Fantasy, had gone down two years earlier in San Diego Bay. Workers simply raised it with lift bags, towed it to the new site and sank it again. Using the same method, they were also able to relocate the wreckage of a 65-foot by 21-foot barge once used to haul garbage and locomotives. And according to Bruton, a fourth ship--the 165-foot U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Cayne, built in 1934--is currently anchored off the 24th Street pier in National City being stripped in preparation for sinking near the site in about two months.

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The reaction of the diving community has been enthusiastic, Nicklin said.

Located within a quarter-mile radius in an area now known locally as “wreck alley,” the ships were purposely placed within easy reach, a 30-minute boat ride from shore. And at average depths of about 80 feet, he said, they are safely accessible to most sport divers.

On an average summer Saturday or Sunday, according to Bruton, about 100 (and as many as 400) divers from as far away as Arizona and Wyoming drop in to see one or more of the wrecks. And whereas a year ago the city could support only two part-time dive boat charters, Nicklin said, it now boasts eight full-time charter operations that derive the bulk of their incomes from shuttling divers to and from the new wrecks.

Caters to Divers

“The wrecks have enhanced my business considerably,” said Richard Cassens, 43, owner of a six-passenger cruiser. He charges $40 for half a day of diving on the wrecks. “Divers like the variety--it gives them something new to do. I like to call (the El Rey) an adult jungle gym.”

That impression seemed to be shared by several of Cassens’ customers who spent nearly 25 minutes on a recent Sunday exploring the inky interior of the old kelp cutter’s hulk while poking in and out of its many natural and crafted fissures.

Said Eduardo Barreto, 31, a psychiatrist and amateur diver after seeing the vessel for the first time: “I feel like an astronaut (down there). I like the adventure.”

Although such wrecks are not legally protected from pillaging, Bruton said, local divers have an informal agreement to leave them intact. A few months ago that agreement was violated by unknown marauders who, apparently working under cover of night, removed and spirited away the ship’s propellers and rudders. “Those props and rudders were a key highlight for someone diving the wreck,” he said. “I feel like something was taken away from the community; it made us very angry.”

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Enthusiastic Supporter

Nonetheless, Bruton said, the positive response to the sinking of the El Rey and her sister wrecks has in general exceeded his wildest fantasies. “I think San Diego could become the wreck diving capital of the West Coast,” he enthused. “All the right conditions exist.”

The city may have some competition for that title from its larger neighbor to the north, however.

Prodded by the Greater Los Angeles Area Council of Divers, the state Department of Fish and Game recently allocated $40,000 for the procurement and sinking of Los Angeles’ own underwater attraction, probably off Santa Catalina Island. Although the ship has not yet been obtained, Grant said, he is hoping for a retired light Navy cruiser available for sinking next spring.

“One of the purposes of the department is to help people have a good time,” the marine biologist said. “I think this is a gas.”


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