THE OLD MEN OF THE SEA

San Diego's Glenn Orr and some briny pals pioneered sport diving in America, opening the sea to today's flippered hordes. Aging but toughly agile, they can still outplunge nearly everyone else
August 22, 1965

Forty feet down in the Pacific Ocean off Point Loma, Calif. there is a submarine ledge called Hope Rock. A few lobsters live there, a few kelp bass and a number of lesser fish. Large fish occasionally stop there to grab a bite, and harbor seals scout the place now and again but, all in all, Hope Rock is a run-of-the-mill ledge, worth notice only because it was the birthplace of sport diving in the U.S. It was there at Hope Rock, 34 years ago, that a San Diego man named Glenn L. Orr made his first chaotic descent into the sea and, after nearly dying, concluded that diving could be fun.

Obviously Orr was correct, for in recent years sport diving has spread to all the waters of the land. In Greater San Diego, where Glenn Orr began, there are now more than 8,000 divers, and in this vast, flippered throng one of the most competent is still 58-year-old Glenn Orr. A lot of water has passed through Orr's sinuses in the past 34 years, but he has not tired of the sea.

Shortly after Orr started diving, he won over a few close friends to the sport and organized a club called the Bottom Scratchers. Orr and the other Bottom Scratchers were, at the start, dismissed lightly as a pack of demented lemmings, who often flirted with death in the gloom half a mile or more at sea. As they developed skill, the Bottom Scratchers began bringing in better fish than topside anglers could take in a week. From the deep they brought back their limit of abalone, often eating them on the shore, where ordinary people scrounged around for an abalone or two between the tide lines.

In time the ridicule turned to envy and respect. Whenever a pair of spectacles or set of false teeth, an automobile, a boat or the body of a child was lost in the sea, a Bottom Scratcher—usually Orr—was asked to find it. Orr is today well known around San Diego as a hunter and retriever (his present score is 207 boats, 15 bodies, 12 automobiles), but so many of his exploits date from so long ago that some of the young divers believe he is dead. Every now and again divers are surprised to find that the small man putting on flippers near them is Glenn Orr. It is as if Abner Doubleday suddenly showed up at spring training.

Although Orr can honestly be called the father of sport diving in the U.S., he neither wants nor expects a standing ovation on that count. He has always maintained it was a case of unplanned parenthood, and a slightly illicit one, at that. On the day that Orr made his first descent onto Hope Rock and discovered a new world for sport, he had not intended even going into the water. In the late '20s he earned his living as a rumrunner and as a distiller of a quality corn whiskey that was guaranteed to drown all sorrows but leave stomach linings intact. To throw the feds off the track, he also worked for token pay as tender for a professional diver and steady drinker named Jack Sullivan, who occasionally tore himself away from the bottle to dive for a valuable marine alga called agar weed.

On the day that Orr first dived Sullivan had planned to harvest agar weed at Hope Rock, but he started nipping at a bottle. By the time Orr got him into his full diving suit and helmet, Sullivan had passed out. When he came to, Orr easily persuaded him that he was not fit to dive. Then, with Sullivan's fumbling help, Orr got into the suit, on the optimistic theory that the sun had cooked enough alcohol out of Sullivan to allow him at least to serve as tender on deck. Orr's theory was wrong: Sullivan passed out again just as he started lowering Orr slowly to the bottom. Since Orr was properly weighted with 25-pound shoes and a 90-pound belt, he dropped like an anchor. By the time he struck the top of Hope Rock, 40 feet down, he was already valving air into his suit to keep from being crushed by pressure. He valved in entirely too much and soared upward. He quickly depressed the escape button to bleed off the burgeoning air supply, but being an utter novice at it, he let out too much. He again plummeted, this time bouncing off Hope Rock and settling 20 feet deeper in a spiny nest of sea urchins. Once again he valved in too much air and soared all the way to the surface, where he floated helplessly, his suit so full of air that he could not move an arm or leg. Sullivan, meanwhile, had revived. He hauled Orr's bloated form alongside and coolly inserted a finger in the cuff of the suit to vent off air. He let out too much, and Orr hit Hope Rock for the third time. Orr is not a man who makes rash judgments, but at that point he began to lose confidence in Sullivan. He tugged on his lifeline, indicating that he wished to be raised, but Sullivan had passed out again. After pulling 150 feet of slack line down onto Hope Rock, Orr managed to climb back to the deck and get the boat to port, where the Coast Guard arrested Sullivan for operating while drunk.

The dangerous way that Orr bounced up and down on Hope Rock should have killed his interest in diving. In fact, it should have killed Orr. Somehow it did neither. The fish, the abundance of abalone, the lush patches of agar weed stirring in the frittered shafts of sunlight, everything that Orr saw while bouncing, convinced him that he had found a new kingdom of plenty, a new land of liberty. "I am pushing 60," Orr says, remembering the past 34 years, "but somehow I never got rid of the boy in me. Underwater there always seems to be another side of another mountain, a new place."

Shortly after his traumatic discovery of the new world, Orr also found—again by accident—a simple and cheap way to enjoy it. In a small fishing store in Los Angeles he came across a pair of goggles, and for the better part of a year Orr and three close friends—the charter members of the Bottom Scratchers—shared the goggles, taking turns diving for abalone. The store-bought goggles were barely adequate. For one thing, because the panes of glass did not lie in the same plane, Orr and his buddies always saw double—two abalones where there was really one. (Orr had mistakenly bought goggles designed, not for diving, but for protecting the eyes of long-distance swimmers.)

One of the original Bottom Scratchers was a habitual tinkerer named Jack Prodanovich, a deft and muscular little man who today, at 53, still looks as if he could tear a safe apart with his hands. Prodanovich made goggles for the club by inserting round glass from cheap compacts into sections of radiator hose that he cut to fit snugly in the eye sockets. By trial and error, with little outside inspiration, in their first 10 years the Bottom Scratchers had developed most of the equipment that free-diving hunters and snorkelers use today. Prodanovich, who has always been the prime tinkerer of the group, had even provided himself with prescription lenses to correct his natural nearsightedness underwater and had built a waterproof box camera. Flippers were the only important item that the Bottom Scratchers did not make for themselves before they were available in stores. In the '30s they became so adept at propelling themselves down 30, 40 and 50 feet with their arms and their stumpy, God-given feet that the idea of flippers simply eluded them.

It was a good 15 years after the Bottom Scratchers started that the sport began to spread around the country. And it was another 10 years before masks, flippers and spear guns became standard items in the pile of sporting goods that are crammed into the average American closet. If diving is such a dandy sport, why was it so long in catching on? There are a number of reasons. For one, the sport was born in the right town but at the wrong time. San Diego today is crowded with fun-loving waterbugs, but at the start of the '30s the chief users of its waters were commercial fishermen, the U.S. Navy and, to a lesser extent, the Army Air Corps, whose pilots had no particular love of the sea although they frequently fell into it. In those days there were always sailors loose and restless around town, but few of them cared to chase fish while in port.

There is no doubt that a talented, public-spirited hawker of wholesome recreation could have pushed the sport of diving along faster, even in the busted Depression years. The Bottom Scratchers were not that sort. When anyone wanted to know why, or how, they dived and speared fish, the Scratchers willingly passed on all they had learned, but they were not out to promote their club or the sport. Since its official start with four members in 1933 the club has taken in only 14 new members. (The admission rate is about one member every four years, but in 1943 the club lost its head, letting in three new members in one swoop.) Before being admitted, each member must prove his worth in a number of ways, notably by bringing up three abalone from a depth of 30 feet on a single dive without flippers, and by catching a horned shark bare-handed (a feat more difficult than dangerous). Since abalone are scarcer these days and horned sharks are always reluctant to be caught, the size of the club is not apt to get out of hand. Like the whooping cranes at Great Slave Lake, the Bottom Scratchers of San Diego will probably remain a small, well-knit group, with a membership nicely stabilized just this side of extinction. Quite beyond the specific tests that prove his worth, each prospective Scratcher is scrutinized for a year, and often for three years or more, to be sure he is the creditable sort who is likely to stay interested in the sport for a lifetime. Such selectivity, of course, did not help the sport grow in the early years, but it kept it decent, which is why the charter members banded together in the first place.

The livelihood of a number of the Scratchers depends in part or wholly on the sea. Glenn Orr, the original Scratcher, works as a heavy-equipment operator for the San Diego Port Authority and doubles as a diver when the piers, pilings and submarine plumbing of the port need a once-over. As a sideline, Jack Pro-danovich, a high school custodian, and Wally Potts, a project foreman at Solar Aircraft, manufacture quality spear guns that are to underwater hunters what the Purdy gun is to the upland-game crowd. Since admission to the club in 1943, Lamar Boren has earned the better part of his living photographing famous undersea creatures for Hollywood and TV—Jane Russell, Lloyd Bridges, the Aquanauts, the sharks of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Flipper, the dolphin, being the ones most people will remember. Among the younger Scratchers—the kids who have been in the club less than 20 years—two are fairly well known in their fields: Dr. Carl Hubbs, the eminent ichthyologist of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Diving Chief Jim Stewart of Scripps, who is a full voting member though still a mere child of 38 years.

Although they often use surface-supplied air or scuba tanks when diving for business, for sport the Scratchers use only lung power. In the past 34 years 58-year-old Orr, the original Scratcher, has spent about 800 hours underwater simply holding his breath. In physiological tests recently conducted by the Scripps Institution, Orr's lungs and heart proved to be working better than those of professional athletes and pearl divers of the Torres Strait, although Orr maintains he is not half so fit as he used to be. Perhaps the Scripps data bears this out. When Scripps scientists tested him Orr was able to do light work underwater for only three minutes and 42 seconds on a single breath, and it was fully 10 seconds before the ticking of his ancient heart started returning to normal. Obviously the man is wasting away, ravaged by time.

The sport of diving might have spread faster if some of the first reports on the Bottom Scratchers had not been so misleading. From the outset the Scratchers simply enjoyed diving and hunting in the beautiful realm of drowned out-croppings and vertical jungles of kelp that make up the Pacific's steep shelf. But the press in the early days too often portrayed them as thrill-seekers. There was, for example, the specific case of the sea lion versus Glenn Orr. As it really happened, a sea lion ran slam-bang into Orr and, playfully or in anger, sank six teeth in his back. A doctor snipped off bits of ligament that protruded from the teeth wounds and advised Orr to stay out of the water for a few days (which he did not do, since he had not yet taken his limit of abalone). Before it had run its course in public print, the sea lion encounter had become a death struggle of the sort whales sometimes have with giant squid. In the lurid accounts that appeared in syndicated columns and short feature stories at the time it bit Orr, the sea lion was defending its young and charged Orr in rage, tearing a large chunk of muscle out of his back. Then, in a welter of bubbles and blood, as the sea lion came in for a second mouthful, Orr stabbed it to death. Though gripping, such blown-up accounts did not persuade many ordinary Americans to try the sport.

As the doings of the Bottom Scratchers spread, accurately and otherwise, the club members began getting mail from around the world, much of it, to their surprise, from foreigners who were already enjoying the same sport in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the South Atlantic and the western reaches of the Pacific. In pioneering the sport in this country Orr and the early Scratchers had been groping along a trail that others had traveled earlier. Long before the Scratchers went below, a French Navy commander, Yves le Prieur, had been diving professionally and often for the fun of it. At least two years before Glenn Orr fell into the new world, Guy Gilpatric, an expatriate American author, was diving on the Côte d'Azur (in 1938 Gilpatric published a book on underwater hunting, wisely explaining at the outset that goggle-fishing did not mean to fish for goggles, but rather with goggles). Crude goggles were in use centuries ago and have been used often here and there throughout the warm waters of the world. Indeed, the whole art of diving is such a haphazard product of so much coincidental invention of so many different people and so many distant waters that some of the threads of its history are still as badly tangled as a plate of linguine.

While reasonably proud of having played a small part in the tangle, the Bottom Scratchers are today more concerned with the present and the future. The human population now crowds their part of the land, fouling the waters with waste. There is no longer the abundance of abalone, lobster and fish; the filth of the earth clouds the water; the red tide plagues it increasingly and there is little chance that the damage can ever be undone.

"I see a diver now looking for abalone in the cove at La Jolla," Bottom Scratcher Lamar Boren observed recently. "He is wearing a depth gauge, a compass, a mask, flippers and snorkel, plus tank, pressure gauge, weight belt, knife, abalone iron and safety vest—a floating hock shop. All dressed up for very slim pickings. When I see him I cannot help thinking that the really sad part of it is he's come along about 20 years too late."

PHOTOGazing out at their marine domain off the California coast are three of the original Bottom Scratchers: Glenn Orr, Wally Potts (top) and Jack Prodanovich. PHOTORoving the kelp jungles in the Coronado Islands, Wally Potts hunts yellowtail and California white sea bass with one of the deluxe spear guns he has designed and produced.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)