TOMBSTONES UNTURNED: Diving into La Jolla's offshore 'graveyard'

In 2001, Carlsbad resident Volker Hoehne says he was approached by “an old guy in a wheelchair” who asked him to place a tombstone underwater for himself. Hoehne had no idea what Wally Potts was talking about, but he was the adventurous type, so he agreed. After all, they were both attending a meeting of the San Diego Freedivers in Clairemont Mesa.

Free-diving is a sport in which participants — mostly spearfishermen and photographers — hold their breath to get closer to sea life than they can trailed by noisy clouds of scuba bubbles.

“Our food is becoming increasingly disconnected from us and also synthetic,” said Hoehne, a financial analyst by trade, who is currently president of the San Diego Freedivers. “Spearfishing is a very personal, one-on-one relationship with what it means to be alive. You look the fish in the eyes, you picked this fish out of a million fish. You kill it and you eat its flesh and share it with your loved ones, then you bury the bones respectfully in your yard.”

Although Hoehne didn’t have a stone to place yet, curiosity drove him to follow the directions Potts gave him: a couple hundred yards off Boomer Beach, under about 35 feet of water. Here, Hoehne saw a collection of about 40 stones with names etched onto them. Some were so nice, they appeared to be marble slabs, others just rocks. No bodies are buried at the memorial, called “Tombstones,” only markers for free-divers and other popular ocean legends who have passed on — either from accidents or other causes.

“I was shocked,” Hoehne said. “You normally think about the land above the water as our realm and the realm below the water as this mysterious place. These guys lived partially in the ocean, so it was their way keep a little toe in that realm that was so important to them.”

The Bottom Scratchers

The first markers honored the deceased members of the Bottom Scratchers, an exclusive club founded in 1933 by Old Town residents Glenn Orr, Jack Prodanovich and Ben Stone. (Potts, an aircraft manufacturing engineer, joined the Bottom Scratchers in 1939 as its sixth member.) Thought to have brought the sport to the U.S. after witnessing free-diving in Polynesia or Japan, the Bottom Scratchers topped out at 19 members.

“San Diego wouldn’t have been such a hub for the development of diving internationally if it weren’t for the Bottom Scratchers,” said Ashleigh Palinkas, scientific diving technician at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We’re able to go into any sporting goods store and buy a mask and goggles today easily because these guys did it the hard way.”

Much of today’s underwater gear is based on designs developed by the Bottom Scratchers while diving off La Jolla. For example, Orr, Prodanovich and Stone were the first to modify Japanese swim goggles for sport diving at depth. Potts’ two-piece trigger mechanism for spear guns is still a defining standard for the spearfishing industry. And Prodanovich and cinematographer Lamar Boren, a later Bottom Scratchers addition, developed the first underwater cameras.

“The cool thing about the Bottom Scratchers is that each member brought their own expertise to the club, and they were experts in a lot of different realms,” Palinkas said.

The club’s proximity to the Scripps campus and the limited number of proficient divers at the time created the perfect opportunity for collaboration. Club members participated in breathholding and diving physiology studies for Scripps researchers, and a several members actually went on influence underwater science by becoming a part of the Scripps staff. They include biology professor Carl Hubbs, for whom the first Tombstones marker is believed to have been laid following his 1979 death, on a site chosen because it was a favorite Bottom Scratcher diving spot.

“They were a tight-knit group — a brotherhood sort of thing,” said Lyndee Logan, Potts’ daughter, “a small consortium of brave pioneers sharing their love for the ocean. And, for the families of people who are there, Tombstones is a marker of their success.”

By approaching Hoehne in 2001, when he knew he was dying of diabetes, Potts successfully passed the mantle for maintaining Tombstones to the future. “No one knows why Wally selected Volker to pass on the secret,” Logan said. “But I think, through the years, it has proven to be a wise choice.”

About once a month, Hoehne dives down to clean algae off the markers with a scrub brush and a tremendous sense of pride. “From the ocean’s perspective, they’re just rocks — places for things to grow,” Hoehne said. “But I think it’s important to remember those who came before us and honor them.”

The final Bottom Scratcher memorialized at Tombstones was its last surviving member: former Scripps chief diving officer Jim Stewart, who died in June at age 89. “The marble was set in cement and placed off La Jolla last month,” Hoehne said. “I made the marker, someone else placed the marker.”

Sometime after placing Potts’ marker in 2002, Hoehne discovered that the practice of placing stones is prohibited by environmental regulations. “The cool thing is that, every once in a while, I’ll find a new one down there,” Hoehne said, “and I have no idea who put it there.”

Yeah, um ... we don’t either.

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