Breath Savers: Relative of Bottom Scratchers founder recounts legendary La Jolla dive club
■ Founded: 1933
■ Last meeting: 2005
■ Duration: 72 years
■ Maximum club size: 20
■ Founding members: Glenn Orr, Jack Prodanovich, Ben Stone
■ Innovators: Invented many techniques and gear used in diving today.
■ Conservationists: Advocated for the removal of gill nets from California coastal waters (today illegal), limits on fishing abalone and broomtail grouper, and for limited spearfishing competition.
■ Info: bit.ly/BottomScratchers
–Compiled by Justin Schlaefli of the San Diego Freedivers
By Pat Sherman
Long before La Jolla Children’s Pool became ground zero for the prickly dispute between marine mammal activists and beach-access proponents, it was the site of communal seafood feasts courtesy of La Jolla’s legendary free-diving club, the Bottom Scratchers. From the 1930s to the late 1990s, the now defunct club fished the bounty of La Jolla’s coast, once teaming with lobster, white sea bass, crab and abalone.
During a presentation at the San Diego Freedivers Nov. 25 meeting, Sally Orr-Hawkins, granddaughter of Bottom Scratchers co-founder Glenn Orr, offered a well-researched presentation on her grandfather and the Bottom Scratchers, believed by many to be the first sport dive club in the world. The club consisted of freedivers (those who hold their breath to dive as opposed to using tanks or modern scuba equipment) and spearfishers.
Shortly after forming, club members were successful in lobbying the state legislature to legalize spearfishing.
The presentation was organized by San Diego Freedivers President Justin Schlaefli, incoming club president Ryan Sweeney and member Volker Hoehne.
“This is literally the birthplace of modern diving as we know it,” Sweeney said of La Jolla and San Diego, introducing Orr-Hawkins. “Her grandfather and the rest of the Bottom Scratchers were the original pioneers. … These guys were exploring our shorelines before anyone (else) went below the waves.”
Orr-Hawkins showed several slides of the Bottom Scratchers feeding crowds at Children’s Pool and La Jolla Cove, from large pots filled with Cioppino, an Italian-American seafood stew.
“That’s where they put everything that they didn’t want to waste,” Orr-Hawkins recalled. “Look how big the pot is. They didn’t just feed themselves and their families. Everybody got fed.”
Orr-Hawkins, who worked on the coastal white sea bass restocking program for Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and most recently as a marine ecological consultant, said her favorite thing about the Bottom Scratchers is that they believed in conservation.
“It was constantly impressed upon us that you never hunted for sport — you hunted to eat,” she said. “I remember my grandfather saying you have to eat everything you catch — and oh my, I got so sick of lobster! We were begging for hamburgers!”
A precursor to today’s much larger San Diego Freedivers club, The Bottom Scratchers were founded in 1933 out of necessity — to provide food for the founders’ families during the Great Depression.
“La Jolla Shores and La Jolla Cove were so full of game, so that’s where they went to hunt,” Orr-Hawkins said.
While the San Diego Freedivers have about 125 members, the Bottom Scratchers were exclusive by design. The club never had more than 20 members during its 72-year lifespan. The near superhuman feats aspiring members were required to perform left many would-be Bottom Scratchers ashore — blue in the face and green with envy.
Orr-Hawkins recounted the grueling tests, conducted at a point about a half-mile off the La Jolla coast that the Scratchers referred to as the “proving grounds.”
The near-impossibility of the tests kept membership small.
“A candidate must descend to a depth of 35 feet and bring an abalone in each hand to the surface — sometimes three,” she said, reading from an old San Diego Union-Tribune feature. “You were allowed to take a knife and that’s it.”
Other Bottom Scratchers initiations, she said, were “even more ridiculous.”
“You had to dive down into the depths, grasp the dorsal fin of a (horn) shark, overpower him and bring him to shore without the aid of a weapon … and if you didn’t do it, you weren’t in the club.
“All this had to be accomplished without swim fins, diving helmet or any other paraphernalia,” she said.
Club credos the Bottom Scratchers were required to uphold included maintaining peak physical conditioning, being good sportsmen and helping others appreciate the wonders of the sea, Orr-Hawkins said.
The club created nicknames for members, including: Dr. Grouper, Barnacle Bill, Professor Gray Whale and Grand Exalted Walrus (Glenn Orr’s title).
“They even checked people’s character out in order to get into the club. I don’t know how my grandpa got in,” Orr-Hawkins joked, noting that Glenn Orr originally came to San Diego in the 1920s as a rum-runner (though his first official job was as a caretaker of Presidio Park).
Glenn Orr would go on to operate cranes and other heavy equipment at the harbor, and assisted with the construction of Shelter and Harbor islands.
He started diving three years before founding the Bottom Scratchers, becoming chief port diver for what is today the Port of San Diego.
Orr-Hawkins said her grandfather recovered 11 bodies during his career, and salvaged 205 boats and five cars, some with assistance from fellow Bottom Scratchers Podanovich, Potts and Ben Stone.
“My grandmother said he loved his job so much that the only day she saw him sad was when he had to bring up two children from a car,” Orr-Hawkins said, displaying a commendation her grandfather received from the San Diego Harbor Commission.
“There was nobody to retrieve bodies back in the 1930s,” she said. “In my memorabilia I have letters from families thanking him for what he did.
“He never was a braggart though,” Orr-Hawkins added. “I never knew all this stuff about him. I just thought he was a cool grandpa, and had a weird job, throwing fins and stuff in his trunk to go to work.”
Glenn Orr would go on to teach firemen to dive in the same Pacific Beach pool where his granddaughter, Sally, would later learn to dive, and where Prodanovich lost an eye testing a spearfishing gun.
The club’s second worst injury happened while Glenn Orr was prying abalone off a coastal ledge and a bull seal sunk its teeth in his back, shaking him vigorously and removing a chunk of flesh.
“My grandpa knew he’d been bit, but he continued to do his thing and then found out later he had ligaments hanging out and had to go to the hospital,” Orr-Hawkins said.
Despite these near fatal brushes, several of the Bottom Scratchers lived well into their 90s, including the club’s last surviving member, retired Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher/diver James Stewart (who joined in 1951) and today resides in Orange County.
Glenn Orr died of a brain aneurysm in 1971 at age 63, when his granddaughter was just 13 — the same year the club stopped accepting new members. It is believed he died pushing the limits of then established dive tables (numerical tables used by scuba divers to determine the amount of time a person can safely dive, according to their depth).
Though Orr-Hawkins said that, like her grandfather, her family members tend to be thrill seekers (she just returned from zip-lining in Costa Rica), her father desdained fish and the sea, becoming a hang gliding instructor at Torrey Pines Gliderport.
“My dad started flying when he got older,” she said. “He didn’t go down. He went up.”
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