Diver recounts ‘underwater tornado’

If not for their experience, a group of a half dozen seasoned divers might not have lived to tell the tale of an “underwater tornado” they encountered July 1 in the waters off La Jolla Shores that nearly swept them into deep water and almost prevented them from surfacing.

“Neptune had an attitude this morning,” said Virginia Hatter, one of the six divers who were doing underwater photography along a canyon wall when they were gripped by a phenomenon they’ll never forget.

“It was a beautiful descent, crystal clear, gorgeous,” she said. “Then about 20 minutes into it, the current pushed me into one of the other divers. I looked up and saw something I’d never seen before: It looked like an underwater tornado with sand and water swirling and coming toward us.”

Hatter said visibility worsened immediately and a westerly current threatened to shoot them seaward.

“I thought, ‘No way I’m staying down here,’ ” she said. “I’m no longer comfortable in my element, so I’m going to return home. It got my attention. I was scared.”

A certified scuba instructor, Hatter had never experienced anything like this effect in 511 previous dives.

“It came on so suddenly, that was so bizarre about it,” she added. “I was thinking earthquake. Is this receding for a tsunami? It was that unusual. It was really strange.”

Maurice Luque, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman, said divers told officials the underwater effect occurred between 75 and 80 feet down and lasted about 11 minutes. He said it caused group members to become separated, forcing a couple of them to have to “claw their way” back up and out of the canyon, and depositing a couple of others far away near the Shores boat launch.

“Everybody was safe,” he said. “If they had been less experienced, the outcome could have been different - and more tragic.”

Richard Seymour, Scripps oceanographer, attributed the unusually strong current to “a strong flow coming into an area where there is no alongshore current, so the current flowed out to sea because it didn’t have anywhere else to go.” Plus, there was an upwelling of colder water. “Everything has to be just right for this phenomenon to occur,” he said.

Afterward, lifeguards were warning scuba divers to take extra precautions in the waters off La Jolla Shores.