Ralph Davis; Pioneer in Sport Spearfishing


Ralph Davis, a West Coast skin-diving pioneer who founded the International Underwater Spearfishing Assn. half a century ago, has died. He was 83.

Davis, a longtime Laguna Beach resident, died of heart failure June 13.

“He dedicated his entire life to organizing the sport of spearfishing, not only in the United States but worldwide,” said Skip Hellen, president of the IUSA, which registers world free-dive (without breathing apparatus) spearfishing records.

“Ralph is the person that put competitive spearfishing on the map and kept it there,” said Locky Brown of Ventura, a former competitive spearfisherman. “He’s the one that had the vision and the determination to stick with it and make it the sport it is today.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1917, Davis was the son of future Los Angeles Police Chief James Davis, who taught him to skin dive for abalone in 1926 off Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.


After studying science and music at the University of Mexico in the late 1930s, Davis joined the Los Angeles Fire Department, where he worked as a firefighter for 43 years and helped found the department’s Neptune Club, one of the first dive clubs in California. While serving in the Navy during World War II, he participated in the Normandy invasion and served as an instructor for underwater rescues.

In the late 1940s, Davis helped standardize the rules for spearfishing world records. In 1950, he founded the IUSA, which held the first National Underwater Spearfishing Championships in Laguna Beach the same year. An office was made available to him at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, where he recorded the weights of the world’s largest fish ever caught.

Two years later, with the cooperation of the Helms Athletic Foundation, Davis established the United States National Underwater Spearfishing Athlete of the Year award, which is still given annually. In 1952, he also helped establish the Inter-America Underwater Spearfishing Championships in Mexico, and he established underwater spearfishing championships in Algeria, New Caledonia and Ceylon.

“Ralph’s vision from the beginning was to get the sport of underwater spearfishing into the Olympics,” said Hellen. “That really drove all his efforts his entire life.”

Although he never achieved that goal, Davis never stopped promoting spearfishing.

Over the years, he taught skin diving and founded numerous junior skin-diving clubs in the United States and Mexico. He was a familiar face at local, national and international competitions.

An accomplished violinist and linguist who spoke five languages, Davis was an adventurer in his early years. As a teenager he hiked through South America, earning his food and drink by playing the violin. He also skin-dived in such places as American Somoa, Japan and the West Indies in the late 1930s, a time when a skin diver’s only equipment consisted of two-lensed swimming goggles that gave divers distorted vision unless they closed one eye.

“Most of our early divers were really men’s men,” said Hellen. “They were the kind of people that would take the risk that most people wouldn’t take.”

Davis was that kind of guy, Hellen said.

“He had a pure lust for adventure. He climbed mountains, crossed deserts, went through the jungles. He did stuff that would curl my hair.”

Davis is survived by his wife, Dorothy; a stepdaughter, Judie Manto of Laguna Beach; two grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and two brothers, Dr. Edgar Davis of Indian Wells and Charles Davis of Los Angeles.

His ashes were scattered at sea Monday off Abalone Point in Laguna Beach, his favorite diving spot. A memorial will be held July 1 at 1 p.m. at Carmelos Restaurant, 3520 Pacific Coast Highway, Corona del Mar.