Plaque honoring Bottom Scratchers is proposed for Point La Jolla

San Diego Freedivers member Volker Hoehne speaks to the La Jolla Parks & Beaches group.
San Diego Freedivers member Volker Hoehne seeks support from the La Jolla Parks & Beaches group for a proposal to install a plaque commemorating the Bottom Scratchers, a free-diving association formed in San Diego in the 1930s.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

La Jolla Parks & Beaches members vote to support the plan in concept and form a working group to discuss specifics of commemorating the San Diego free-diving association credited with many underwater innovations.


To honor the legacy of an organization known as the Bottom Scratchers, a plan is taking shape to install a plaque at or near Point La Jolla featuring its history and mission.

The La Jolla Parks & Beaches board decided to form a working group to help shepherd the plan during its July 24 meeting at the La Jolla/Riford Library.

The Bottom Scratchers, considered one of the earliest free-diving associations in the United States, formed in San Diego in the 1930s with a focus on catching local seafood to feed the members’ families. They didn’t use snorkels or fins but instead held their breath while reaching new depths in the ocean, often off La Jolla.

Bottom Scratchers members are credited with inventing or improving on diving and spearfishing technology, initiating the creation of the La Jolla ecological reserve, pioneering underwater photography and forming the first San Diego Port District dive team.

Ashleigh Palinkas, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, said the Bottom Scratchers “represented a multiple of different aspects of coastal use in San Diego. Not only were they pioneers of sport diving equipment, but in doing so, they were the first underwater naturalists and the first people to advocate for conservation. … They were the first to notice when a species would decline and advocate for a moratorium [on fishing of certain species] when needed.”

She said they also were influential in helping scientists conduct research dives.

Despite those contributions, the only commemoration of the organization are rocks known as “tombstones” at the bottom of the sea off Point La Jolla. When a Bottom Scratchers member would die, another member or a friend would carve the person’s name into a rock and free-dive to place the stone on the sea floor.

The group had only 19 members, all of whom are deceased. Volunteers now occasionally dive to clean the stones.

“They have given a lot and there is no documentation or references to them out there,” Volker Hoehne, a member of the San Diego Freedivers club, told the LJP&B board. “So I propose putting a bronze plate at Point La Jolla … that lets the public know there is a lot of history here and to honor the ocean.”

Hoehne said the San Diego Parks & Recreation Department wants “a fully baked proposal that is vetted by [LJP&B].” Thus, the board formed a working group to address where the plaque would go and how it would be mounted and review the words proposed to be on it.

A mock-up shows what a plaque honoring the Bottom Scratchers might look like, pending La Jolla and San Diego approval.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The draft language reads: “Beyond this beach access, memorial markers have been placed on the sea floor in name and honor of San Diego’s most heralded underwater pioneers. Members and affiliates of the San Diego Bottom Scratchers dedicated every dive to preventing the waste of sea life and to helping others appreciate the wonders of the sea. All who enter here fall under oath to do the same.”

Palinkas said some of the language came from the Bottom Scratchers’ charter. “I think it’s important to have it in their own words,” she said.

“They have given a lot and there is no documentation or references to them out there.”

— Diver Volker Hoehne

Options for placement of the plaque include on an existing rock or embedded in the sidewalk, on posts similar to city signs or on a new monument. The proposed location, “somewhere around Point La Jolla,” would depend on the type of mounting, Hoehne said.

The plaque would be donated by San Diego Freedivers and installation would be handled by the Parks & Recreation Department.

LJP&B member Phyllis Minick, one of the area’s first certified female scuba divers, said she not only supports the idea but wants to donate to the cause. She said Bottom Scratchers members would take her on dives when no one else would because she is a woman.

Larry Asakawa, who frequents La Jolla waters, said the Bottom Scratchers inspired him to explore oceanography as a career. “I grew up spearfishing and diving, and a lot of my diving was here in La Jolla, thanks to the Bottom Scratchers,” he said.

While some LJP&B members wanted to vote to approve the proposal right away, the board ultimately voted to support it in concept and form the working group to discuss specifics and make a final recommendation at a future meeting. ◆