Divers Face Stern Opposition From Navy on Removing Barrier to Cove

Times Staff Writer

A group of scuba shop operators plan to ask the U. S. Navy to remove a fence that blocks land access to a popular Port Hueneme diving cove despite a diver's death there last week.

They maintain that the cove off La Janelle Park at the south end of Silver Strand Beach is actually one of the safer and more scenic diving spots along the Southern California coast and that it should be open to the public, particularly for scuba diving instruction.

But Naval Construction Battalion Center officials disagree. They said they replaced the vandalized 8-foot-tall chain-link fence along the base's southern boundary in April to prevent incidents such as the Aug. 29 drowning of 18-year-old John Lowry.

"We would not be receptive to the idea," said Kassandra Gale, a base spokeswoman. "I think the fence is a means of protecting the public from a dangerous situation, and the death just underscores that. It's apparently not a safe place to swim."

Clear and Calm

Some divers disagree, saying the cove is extraordinarily clear and calm and contains an abundance of sea life. They say the fence forces those who want to reach the cove to swim 75 yards through choppy waters from the park's public beach.

"We tried to swim around it once, and we almost got beat to death," said Kevin Bergamasco, 27, of Sylmar. "The water pushed us against the rocks."

Divers who favor removing the fence blame Lowry's death on his inexperience. But authorities are divided on the question.

Deputy Coroner Mitch Breese, who investigated the Oxnard teen-ager's drowning, said that while Lowry had never dived before, conditions off La Janelle Park was as big a role in his death as was his inexperience.

"The waters around there are extremely dangerous," he said. "Heavy currents come up and push you around."

But Lt. Steve Giles of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, the diver who located Lowry's body, disagreed. "The area where he was diving was calm," he said. "It's not particularly dangerous."

Man-Made Peninsula

Located at the entrance to the Port of Oxnard, the cove is immediately east of the park, a small man-made peninsula built on the remains of La Janelle, a 467-foot luxury liner that slammed into the beach during a 1970 storm.

After several divers died while exploring the ship's wreckage, authorities covered the ship with rocks and concrete. The resulting jetty hides the hulk and acts as an artificial reef, attracting sea life and protecting the cove. Meanwhile, millions of gallons of water flushing through the port because of tidal changes keep the cove unusually clean for waters so near shore.

"It's probably one of the prettiest places along the coast, and it's very safe," said Perry Ferguson, owner of a Channel Islands Harbor dive shop, Divers R Us, and a leader in the effort to remove the fence.

A 1987 scuba diving guide, "The Diving and Snorkeling Guide to Southern California," called it "Ventura's best dive spot, if not one of the best along the Southern California coast."

Took Students There

Bill Miller, who coordinates Ventura College's scuba program, said he took his students there before opting for the Channel Islands, where visibility is even greater. "It's an excellent place to take beginners," he said.

On a typical Saturday, more than 100 divers converge on the park, either exploring the cove's placid waters or diving in rougher waters off the three sides of the jetty that are exposed to the open sea.

Ferguson said his group has decided to discuss their proposal at a Sept. 14 meeting of the Ventura County Council of Divers. Still, some of the business owners acknowledged that they are fighting an uphill battle.

"The Navy certainly would be justified saying they don't want to open the fence after the death," said Roger McLaren, owner of Aquatics, a Port Hueneme dive shop.

"It may be that the commander of the base doesn't understand how important this is to us," Ferguson said.

The Ventura County Sheriff's Underwater Search and Rescue Team pulled Lowry's body from waters off the park in the late morning of Aug. 30. He was not wearing his mask and his mouth was gouged either before or immediately after his death, Breese said.

Reported Missing

While authorities do not know precisely how or where he drowned, they know where he began his first--and last--dive. Lowry had been reported missing Tuesday evening by two companions who apparently had watched him slip through a hole in the fence and dive into the cove's glassy waters with borrowed equipment, Giles said.

Although Lowry's body was found outside the cove at a depth of about 75 feet, he may have drowned in its shallow waters and drifted into the deeper waters of the port's channel, said Giles, the sheriff's diver.

Or he may have died after working his way into the unprotected waters on the jetty's other sides, where he had watched one of his more experienced companions dive earlier that afternoon, Giles said.

Whatever the circumstances, Gale said, the Navy, concerned about its liability when divers are exposed to danger on its property, plans to keep the fence.

And officials at the Naval Ship Weapons Systems Engineering Station, which operates a weapons research facility on the cove's shore, are concerned about security.

"A lot of our work is classified, and you can't have people drifting in and out," said station spokesman Russ Pyle.

But divers counter that anyone who really wants to reach Navy property has only to swim from the public beach into Navy waters.

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