Risks Always Present on Urchin Divers’ Job


On the morning of Dec. 15, the day of his death, Timothy McFadden and his partner, Chris Michalik, were working hard, gathering in what they hoped would bring big profits from a two-day urchin diving trip near San Clemente Island.

While scuba diving from McFadden’s 23-foot boat, Sea Worthy, they came upon a mother lode of the burgundy-colored urchins at a depth of about 100 feet.

Michalik was about to surface when he noticed something was wrong. He swam over to where McFadden was working, only to find him unconscious and drifting, his mouthpiece floating free.

Michalik pulled his partner to the surface, called the Coast Guard, then tried to revive him using cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Angie Prewett said. The Coast Guard airlifted McFadden, of Ventura, to the Santa Catalina Island hyperbaric chamber, where he was pronounced dead.


Despite an autopsy, Los Angeles County coroner’s officials are not sure what killed him. McFadden’s sister, Chris Chappell, of Ventura, believes that he pushed himself to the limit, lured by a thick field of the spiny urchins, which fetch a high price as delicacies in Japan. He went too deep, she speculated, and stayed down too long.

“Tim wasn’t married and he didn’t have any children. He was a Viking. He just lived on the edge a bit,” she said.

That’s almost a prerequisite in his business.

California is home to about 500 urchin divers, most of them in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, according to Patty Zielinski, a fisheries technician with the state Department of Fish and Game in Long Beach.


They are a confident group with a high threshold of fear. They talk proudly of safety records and strict obedience to weather and sea conditions.

They almost make you believe this is a safe job.

But there is no doubt that people who make their living underwater face life-threatening risks with every jump.

Studies show that fatalities for marine harvesters--the government’s term for people who dive for such sea creatures as urchins and abalone--are far higher than for recreational divers.

Despite long hours underwater and potentially lethal threats of equipment failure, shark attack, the bends (embolisms caused by surfacing too fast), and other factors, the industry has little or no safety regulation.

That’s the way most divers like it.

“We have a pretty darn good safety record. I think the system is pretty foolproof,” said 47-year-old Terrell Cryer of Ventura, a commercial diver since 1981.

“Most of the people getting hurt are staying down too long, getting too greedy,” Cryer said.


His typical dive day begins about 5 a.m. at Channel Islands Harbor.

It’s a three-hour trip aboard his boat, Kathryn Ann, to the kelp beds where urchins feed. Then he’s in the water, and the only thing connecting him to the surface is an air hose attached to a diesel generator, referred to as a hookah setup.

“I usually do about four hours underwater. Depending on your depth, you can stay down for different times,” Cryer said. Urchins are typically found in 45 to 60 feet of water.

Harvesting involves a series of dives, some lasting close to an hour. If the conditions are right--clear water, bright streaks of sunshine--a kelp bed teeming with urchins is a thing of beauty.

After about four hours of dives, Cryer heads back to the harbor. “A lot of guys work from sunrise to dark. It just depends on how hard they want to work themselves,” he said.

Overwork can be fatal in the diving business, in which more than 100 Americans met their deaths from 1970 to 1992, the last year such numbers were compiled.

Before McFadden, it had been two years since the last death of a California urchin diver in local waters.

In 1995, Santa Barbara resident James Robinson, 42, was killed by a shark, very likely a great white shark, that struck as he was treading water 70 miles from Ventura, in an area known as “Shark Park,” off San Miguel Island.


After making a routine dive to scout for urchins, Robinson floated at the surface as he put his equipment on board his boat, Florentia Marie. Then the shark attacked, nearly severing his right leg.

Crew members aboard the boat tried to revive Robinson, but he did not regain consciousness. A Coast Guard helicopter rushed him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Divers say they are always on the lookout for sharks. Most attacks occur near the surface, so the key is a quick descent.

This is the height of urchin season. But winter storms have frequently kept divers on land, so when the sun breaks through, some will do whatever it takes to get as many urchins as they can on every dive.

Chappell is almost certain the prospect of $500 to $1,000 per day played a role in her brother’s death.

“Tim hated diving deep and 100 feet was far deeper than he liked to go,” Chappell said. “But it was just good pickings. He saw C-notes.”

McFadden wasn’t one to worry about fatigue.

“Most urchin divers try to be pretty independent. And most don’t follow the mainstream. We’ve got a poor reputation over the years. Some of our antics have gotten us into trouble,” said Cryer. “If you were an urchin diver, people just figured you were one of the wild bunch.”


He recalled divers getting drunk and then running their boats fast through the harbor, yelling and making a racket. And some pay little heed to poor conditions.

“When you can make $500 or more a day, some people take unnecessary chances,” said John J. McAniff, director of the National Underwater Accident Data Center at the University of Rhode Island.

McAniff said there are 6,000 to 10,000 marine harvesters in the country, and “the fatality rate is increasing in this category.” The primary reason for the deaths, he said, is lack of training.

Maine is the only state that requires divers to pass a marine harvesting course before they are allowed to take urchins and other marine life, said McAniff. That move was prompted by the deaths of five divers in 1994 and 1995.

“Urchin diving blossomed in Maine. All of a sudden it became a profitable thing to do, and a lot of the sport divers jumped in without a lot of knowledge,” McAniff said.

To harvest urchins elsewhere in the country, you need little more than a certificate from a dive center, and what amounts to a fishing permit.

In California, the state Department of Fish & Game issues permits for $300, and the urchins are easy to catch.

“You only need to be able to go down and find the bed of sea urchins, put them in some kind of a basket and bring them back up,” said McAniff, who has been a diver for 45 years.

McAniff conducted a study of diving deaths in a five-year period that showed about one death for every 1,000 marine harvesters.

The same study found recreational scuba diving to be no more risky than swimming, with three deaths for every 100,000 participants.

Lisa Lazar, 32, co-owner of Pacific Scuba in Channel Islands Harbor, said divers get into trouble when they forget the basics--using common sense, making sure their equipment is in working order and constantly checking their pressure gauge.

“As long as you do those few things the risks are few and far between,” she said.

The basic certificate costs about $300 for the instruction and boat trips and $200 more for equipment, Lazar said.


For commercial divers in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, urchins are the biggest cash crop, Ed Lusk said.

The 49-year-old Ventura resident started diving for abalone in the mid-1960s, but switched to sea urchins in the 1970s. The Santa Barbara Channel is a perfect breeding ground for the creatures, he said, because the water temperature is ideal and their natural food--kelp--is abundant.

Where once processors paid just 4 cents per pound for the local catch, the price is now as much as $2 per pound. And as the Japanese import more and more of the gold-yellow roe--the urchin’s sexual organ--for sushi, divers are jumping in the water like never before.

“You’re your own boss out there,” said Lusk. “You call your own shots of where you’re going to work and how you’re going to work.

“Every day is different. You don’t know what you’re going to find.”

Lusk and his partner, Dave Magee, work from the dive boat Santa Rosa out of Channel Islands Harbor.

It’s a seven-day-a-week operation in the winter season--November through March, weather permitting. In the off-season, harvesting is allowed only four days per week.

The urchin was once considered nothing more than a nuisance.

“Back in the 1970s, the state of California was spending taxpayer dollars dumping lime on them to eradicate them because they ate kelp beds. They would go around to dive clubs enlisting members to mash the urchins up with hammers. The Japanese came over and said, ‘Hey, there’s a market for these things,’ ” Lusk said.

“We took something that was considered a pest by the state and turned it into an industry.”