Little Known Catalina

Diving into history

The sun was still high in the California sky as the Grumman Goose Flying Boat revved up for take-off. Onboard were four men, three passengers and the pilot, heading back to the mainland from Avalon, Catalina Island, on September 17, 1979. Conditions were calm, but as the old workhorse reached take-off speed, something gave way and they lost all power. The plane quickly turned upside down and plunged heavily back into the cold Pacific. The Goose nearly broke in two, yet amazingly, no one died from the impact. In a matter of seconds, Larry Gilman, a 27-year-old construction worker, pulled his 52-year-old father, O. T. Gilman, from the tangled wreckage. Larry then went back in to yank out the unconscious pilot, Vern McGee, 54, from what was left of the cockpit. Larry went in a third time to locate the last man in the snarled passenger compartment but was unsuccessful. Both he and his father administered first aid to the badly injured McGee on the amphibian's wing. It was obvious the mangled Flying Boat was going down to the bottom quite soon. A private motor yacht sped to the scene and the three badly shaken men transferred over just as the plane was swallowed by the sea. The pilot was airlifted to the mainland, while the father and son, refusing medical help, retired to a bar in Avalon. A sheriff's deputy finally found them hours later and "convinced" them to go to the Avalon hospital for a checkup. Only a couple of hours after the crash, divers made the 225-foot plunge to the Goose's remains but did not find the 33-year-old passenger. He was never found. Soon after this tragedy, the second fatal crash in less than a year, Catalina Airlines closed up shop and the era of the Grumman Goose Flying Boat to Catalina Island came to an end.

Literally thousands of underwater enthusiasts sail right by the doomed flying boat into Avalon Harbor without any idea of its existence. Like many places around the world, there are often other stories just out of sight. Catalina Island is home to more than one of these surprises; while most of these sites qualify as beyond recreational limits, they can be well worth the effort to visit.
The Island's Early History
The collision of several geologic plates, and the corresponding volcanic activity created the 75-plus-square mile "mountain ranges that are in the sea" as the Gabrielino Native Americans called Catalina. With Mount Orizaba and Black Jack both soaring over 2,000 feet high, it is easy to see why the early inhabitants named the island in this manner. The island is rugged with literally thousands of coves and cliffs plunging into the sea along its coastline. Igneous and metamorphic formations dominate the geology with much of the rock made up of soapstone, a valuable commodity to the early locals.

Native peoples had inhabited Catalina for more than 7,000 years before the Spanish arrived. With bountiful sea life and a mild climate, their culture was able to flourish. What they couldn't grow or obtain themselves, they traded with mainland tribes for goods. They regularly paddled in small plank canoes across the unpredictable channel to keep these trade routes open. Known as Pimungans (they called their island Pimu), these people were the first to greet Juan Cabrillo in October 1542, when his galleon dropped anchor in the lee of the island, which he promptly named San Salvador. He then continued north on his voyage. Further contact with Europeans was virtually non-existent until the early 1600s when another Spanish explorer by the name of Sebastian Viscaino came ashore and renamed it Catalina after Saint Catherine. The usual demise of native cultures after contact with Europeans didn't seriously affect the Pimungans until the late 1760s, when the first series of missions were built along the California coast. Spain needed lots of laborers to build their outposts and most of it was "supplied" by the native inhabitants, whether they wanted to or not. By the beginning of the 19th century, with the arrival of the mostly lawless seal and otter hunters, the fate of this peaceful people had been sealed.

The rest of the 1800s saw many different squatters come and go along with smugglers, fishermen, miners and a few small ranchers. By 1867, James Lick had "ownership" of most of the island, and those that agreed to lease their land could stay. Catalina became a little-known landfall off the rapidly growing state of California. In 1887, George Shatto purchased Catalina from the Lick estate for $200,000 with the idea to turn it into a tourist destination. He soon ran into financial problems partly due to the lack of infrastructure on both the island and the mainland. The Banning family took control, and for nearly 30 years they promoted and built the village of Avalon into the main town on the island. A devastating fire burned much of Avalon down in 1915, and eventually the family had to sell. In 1919 William Wrigley Jr., of the chewing gum dynasty, purchased the island and built the famous Casino in Avalon. He and his wife became very fond of the island and pursued a number of projects to support a small full-time population without devastating the island's beauty. The Catalina Pottery plant that operated in the 1920s and 30s is one such example. The now-rare glazed tiles from this endeavor pepper many of the island's early construction, and the handmade tiles fetch a commanding price with collectors. In 1975, the Wrigley family continued with the preservation emphasis by donating the majority of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy. The for-profit Santa Catalina Island Company owns 11 percent with the final 1 percent privately held.
Beneath the Surface
Most visitors from the mainland arrive in Avalon harbor after a quick one-hour ferry ride from the Los Angeles/Long Beach area. Most of the sport diving from shore is done at The Casino, which has become a veritable diver's Mecca with walk-in stairs and air fills on the spot. In addition, scores of charter boats from the mainland drop divers off all over the island as well to about 80 commonly visited sites. Of course, we're also interested in the not so common.

The Grumman Goose Flying Boat qualifies as one of these. She rests in 225 feet of water, so technical skills rule here. However, water conditions are almost always favorable. While the visibility is usually quite good on the bottom, it can also be dark because of plankton in the upper layers that acts like a shade. Currents can be a problem, as well as a fair amount of boat traffic, so getting blown off course and having to do a freewheeling deco isn't the best idea in these parts. Nevertheless, very good diving conditions are the rule.

When the Goose materializes out of the blue-green murk, it doesn't seem like anyone could have survived the crash. The passenger compartment is completely folded over back on itself. It looks like an angry child grabbed a model fore and aft and broke it in two. Even with helium, it takes some time before you can mentally straighten out the tortured aircraft. Though separated from the fuselage, the wing is somewhat intact with the propellers unbent - proof they weren't spinning on impact. Many of the surfaces still sport red and blue paint. The tires are still recognizable, as are some of the stabilizer control surfaces. Airplane parts are scattered to and fro, and there's a small section of fuselage off the main wreckage that could've been part of the cockpit. While on a sandy bottom, the few rocks and plane components now provide substrate for kelps, especially Laminaria. These large-bladed algae can partially obscure the radial engines depending on bottom currents. Other detritus builds up periodically against other sections as well. Marine life is prolific around the tiny artificial reef, making it look like one of those toys you put in an aquarium for fish to hang out in. It generally takes at least two dives to fully explore the old Goose.

Another wreck toward the west end of the island is called the Tuna Clipper. She lays in about 165 of water. So again, technical training is required. This wreck appears to be an old wood tuna clipper fishing boat. Little is known about it or why it's sunk near shore. It's covered in fishing nets, including newer nets from illegal fishing operations. The boat is broken up, but there is considerable relief from the flat sands surrounding it to provide homes for many fishes and invertebrate life. Like the Goose, the clipper is resting in somewhat protected water and allows for relatively easy exploration. Though this old vessel is basically a wood pile, there are numerous points of interest. The bow section sits somewhat upright and is covered in colorful strawberry anemones. It's always fun to sweep the anemone congregations with your light and watch the scene explode in bright reds and pinks. Ling cod, bocaccio and olive rockfish have found refuge in the mass of timber. Bat rays patrol the sand and large schools of blacksmith congregate around the hulk. Since there are several distinct sections, multiple dives are required to fully investigate this site. There is also a lot of "stuff" that went down with the boat, so there's no shortage of bric-a-brac to check out. One must be careful, however, when nosing around the Tuna Clipper's remains because of all the fishing line and nets that drape over almost all of it. Entanglement is very possible and at these depths, it pays to be extra careful.

To be sure, Catalina Island offers some fantastic West Coast diving. And you don't have to go beyond recreational diving limits to visit some awesome spots; Catalina has much to offer everyone beyond the commonly known. You could spend years not only exploring the quaint island above water, but also delving into some of the history and natural treasures laying on the bottom below.

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