He began diving in the ocean off La Jolla in the 1930s before scuba tanks, face masks and swim fins and at a time when lobsters, abalone and sea bass were bountiful along Southern California shores.
As a pioneer of modern free diving and a prolific innovator of spearfishing gear, Wally Potts preferred to use only his own lung power to dive deep under the sea.
Potts, who set world records for spearing and landing large game fish, designed mechanisms that are key parts of the modern spear gun and served as a mentor to generations of watermen, died Feb. 5 in La Jolla of complications from diabetes. He was 83.
"He was a true pioneer," said Eric Hanauer, who interviewed Potts for his 1994 book "Diving Pioneers" and included Potts in an exhibit he curated on early divers, now on display at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
"Wally was a world-renowned free diver and spear fisherman at a time when it was politically correct to shoot big fish," Hanauer said.
In 1945, Potts became the first diver to land a fish weighing more than 100 pounds, a 110-pound gulf grouper taken in the waters off La Jolla.
In 1954, he speared a giant black sea bass off the Coronado Islands in Mexico that weighed 4011/2 pounds, a world record that held for the next six years.
A photograph of the barrel-chested Potts landing the giant sea bass appeared in the fifth issue of Sports Illustrated in 1954, the first underwater picture the magazine ran.
"He's one of the legends," said diving historian Jim Cahill, a friend who wrote a profile of Potts for Hawaii Skin Diver magazine two years ago. "It's like if you grow up in Hawaii and you hear about Duke Kahanamoku, the great legendary surfer. That's kind of what Wally was here in San Diego."
An early member of the San Diego Bottom Scratchers--one of the world's first organized dive clubs--Potts worked with his close friend and fellow Bottom Scratcher Jack Prodanovich to produce innovative spearfishing and diving gear.
After face masks were introduced by Japanese producers in the late 1930s, Potts and Prodanovich redesigned the mask using a metal rim, softer rubber and a custom-contoured fit.
After a crude spear gun was introduced in the early '40s from Europe, the two men found it underpowered and inadequate for larger fish, Cahill said. So they improved upon it by changing the hardware and the power of the rubber bands.
Prolific Innovator of Spearfishing Gear
They also devised a smoother, more secure two-part trigger mechanism that is still used in spear guns today. And they created the Potts Reel, an improved plastic reel on the spear that provided better control of a fish during the fight.
Potts and Prodanovich also produced the first underwater camera housing, fashioned of cast aluminum from a handmade mold.
Cameraman Lamar Boren, a Bottom Scratcher who shot underwater scenes for the TV series "Sea Hunt" and "Flipper," as well as several James Bond movies, modeled his first housing on those designed by Potts and Prodanovich, said Cahill.
Prodanovich said he and Potts always worked as a team.
"I'd come up with an idea and Wally would pick it apart, and then he'd come up with an idea and I'd look at it," he said. "We'd pick each other's stuff apart and come up with a real solution for it."
Potts was also a wood craftsman, creating spear guns that were a unique blend of machined stainless steel hardware and heirloom quality hardwood stocks.
The custom spear guns, which Potts made only for friends and local divers out of his Point Loma garage workshop, are now considered collectors' items.
Although they supplied a tight circle of fellow divers with their improved gear, neither Potts nor Prodanovich went commercial.
"If you open a shop, you've got to deal with the public, and that's a poor thing to have to do," Potts told Cahill. "Besides, if you're running a store, you ain't in the water!"
And he added, "Any time there was clear water, we were in it."
Born in Lorborne, Canada, in 1918, Potts moved to San Diego with his family at age 8. Forced to quit school at 16 during the Depression, he worked a variety of jobs--cannery worker, field hand and lumberjack--throughout California and Oregon.
But by the late '30s, Potts was back in San Diego, where he renewed his love of swimming.
He had learned to swim in a tide pool below Sunset Cliffs on Point Loma at age 8 and became known for regularly swimming in deep water out beyond the kelp.
In 1939, Potts was invited to become the sixth member of the elite San Diego Bottom Scratchers dive club, which had been formed six years earlier.
Nicknamed 'One Long Dive'
Potts became known for his ability to endure long dives in cold water, holding his breath for at least three minutes and earning the club nickname "One Long Dive."
Potts shunned not only scuba tanks but also wetsuits, which he called rubber shirts.
"If it wasn't for that stuff, 99% of guys wouldn't be in the water, simply because they didn't believe they could do what we were doing," he said in a 1999 interview.
Cahill said Potts "pushed the limits in terms of depths." One memorable time off La Jolla, he dove so deep and so long while fighting a fish that he passed out and Prodanovich had to revive him.
Potts, a manufacturing engineer, worked for Solar Aircraft Co. in San Diego before and during World War II and was with the company, later named Solar Turbines, for 41 years. He retired in 1978.
As a member of the Bottom Scratchers, Potts became a pioneer in ocean conservation. The club was, for example, instrumental in getting a state law passed in the late '50s that protects the broomtail grouper.
In the early years, Cahill said, "a lot of the guys went in [the ocean] and said, 'What a bounty!' But as the sport changed and they matured, they saw the impact of mechanized forms of fishing and the threat it posed to the health of the fish stocks."
Potts, Cahill said, "worked to try to set limits on the take of the more factory, or mechanized, approaches to fishing. He advocated a small-scale approach, an ethic articulated by some as 'one man, one fish, one day.'"
Like many who spend a lot of time in the water, Potts became hard of hearing. He stopped diving sometime in the 1980s.
But over the years, a constant stream of surfers, lifeguards, fishermen and divers continued to make pilgrimages to Potts' garage to discuss equipment and diving. Cahill was one of them.
Lauded as an 'Old Chief of the Water'
"The image I always got was of the young Hawaiian warriors sort of sitting around the canoe house and talking about the old days," said Cahill. "If watermen are a coastal tribe, I'd say Wally was kind of one of the old chiefs of the water."
Potts is survived by his wife of 62 years, Vi; daughter Lynda Manganelli of La Jolla; son Michael of San Diego; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Funeral services are pending.
Donations may be made to the Wally Potts Memorial Fund, which will benefit a sport diving exhibit at the Hall of Champions in San Diego's Balboa Park and fund research for the history of skin diving in San Diego and marine conservation efforts. For information, call Keir Fitzgerald of the Bank of America at (858) 654-6529.