California boat fire: A Labor Day weekend diving adventure. Then disaster struck

The Conception caught fire early Monday off Santa Cruz Island.
The Conception caught fire early Monday off Santa Cruz Island near the Ventura County coast.
(Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

The operators of the Conception described the Labor Day diving charter as the perfect time to experience the marine life of the Channel Islands.

“The beginning of September is the best time to be at San Miguel [Island], which see strong winds and swell during much of the year. This rarely visited island is loaded with color: anemones, crabs, nudibranchs covering every inch of wall with a rainbow,” Truth Aquatics, which owns the Conception, said on its website. “Great for macro-photography. Nutrient rich waters bathing this island bring BIG fish: halibut, bugs, rockfish, wolfeels, lingcod.”

The Conception departed Saturday with dozens aboard and was set to return to the harbor Monday at 5 p.m.


Authorities now say the Conception caught fire Monday morning. Coast Guard officials said four bodies had been recovered and up to 30 people were believed to be missing. Five crew members managed to get off the boat, which was largely destroyed.

Conception, the boat that caught fire off the Channel Islands.
(Truth Aquatics)

It appeared those missing were sleeping below deck when the fire broke out and might not have gotten out. Authorities said they got word of the fire from a mayday call around 3:30 a.m. The Coast Guard and some private vessels responded.

“The vessel currently has a portion of the bow sticking out of the water,” the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Family members of those who took the charter are now desperate for word about their loved ones, some gathering at Ventura Harbor.

A commercial diving boat caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., early Monday. Many aboard the boat were believed to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours.

Sept. 11, 2019

At Santa Barbara Harbor, Truth Aquatics employees declined to comment, saying they were waiting to hear from the Coast Guard. Employees were hugging each other as tourists and people going fishing were boarding the Truth boat.


The Conception is a 75-foot vessel. The tour advertises gourmet meals, extensive diving opportunities and discussions about the marine ecosystem from a naturalist on board.

The website for the Labor Day tour spoke about the experience of the crew. “Their commitment to service shows through the smiles of crewmembers that love their jobs and undergo special safety training,” it said.

Truth Aquatics is a respected name in the diving world, running several boats off the Channel Islands. Owner Glen Fritzler won the California Scuba Service Award earlier this year for his pioneering work in the industry.

According to California Diving News, Fritzler built the Conception in 1981 and it was a major part of his life and business.

“Conception was California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats. It’s also where Glen met the love of his life, Dana. On the couple’s first dive together they encountered a 17-foot great white shark, truly a memorable first dive-date experience,” Diving News reported.


Fritzler told the paper his firm’s boats had hosted more than 450,000 divers and over 1 million California dives.

In 2005, the Conception made headlines when a man described by authorities as a homeless drifter stole the vessel. According to the Lompoc Record, the boat was stolen from Santa Barbara Harbor and sustained damage when the suspect hit several other boats.