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Action : The Bottom Scratchers

November 13, 1986|GORDON SMITH

SAN DIEGO — When the Bottom Scratchers were young, they found a profusion of life in the coastal waters of Southern California such as would never exist again.

The members of the oldest and most exclusive skin-diving club in the world saw lobsters, abalone and sea bass in numbers almost too great to count. Before air tanks and wet suits were even conceived, they speared sharks and floated through kelp forests.

But time has changed all that, and it has changed the Scratchers, too. Club president Wally Potts--the man whose club nickname is One Long Dive, the one who bagged a then world-record 401.5-pound sea bass off the Coronado Islands in 1954 without using air tanks--recently vowed never to go skin diving again.

It is no average vow. Along with his fellow Bottom Scratchers, Potts helped introduce the sport of skin diving to the world. The club's members are also renowned for inventing and improving diving equipment.

Charter member Jack Prodanovich made the first set of diving goggles, the first face mask and the first underwater camera. He and Potts were among the first to build their own spear guns and later sold their designs to major manufacturers. When rubber swim fins came on the market around 1940, the Bottom Scratchers were quick to use and popularize them.

Now, Potts claims he is hanging up his swim fins for good. "I still look OK and get around OK," said Potts, a massive, barrel-chested man of 68, "but I'm pretty well stiffened up." Climbing out of the water onto a bobbing boat has become difficult for him, and 1981 was the last year he attempted diving at Sunset Cliffs, near his Point Loma home.

"It wasn't so much a problem getting into the water (at the base of the cliffs), but getting out was definitely a problem," he said. "With the swells down there, I was getting kind of beat up on the rocks."

As for other potential diving locations along San Diego County's coast, Potts just shakes his head. Sewage spills, overfishing and crowds have led the Bottom Scratchers to forgo most of them for years.

Potts' vow to end his diving career comes at a time when the club is starting to show signs of age. Only 19 men were ever admitted; only nine are alive today, and only five remain in San Diego: Potts, Prodanovich, Bill Johnston, Jim Stewart and Ben Stone.

Prodanovich, Stewart and Johnston still dive regularly, and as recently as last year, club members met every month at Potts' house, swapping stories over beer and cioppino or smoked fish. But then members Bob Rood and Lamar Boren died, and Beau Smith moved to a small town near Port Angeles, Wash. Stewart rarely made it to the meetings because of his work schedule as diving officer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Johnston, who owns a pair of diving charter boats, found it almost impossible to attend during certain months when his business was booming.

"It got kind of discouraging," said Potts, "so we stopped the meetings. We still get together roughly every month or so, though. We do it over lunch. It's more convenient."

When the Bottom Scratchers are gone, skin diving will continue, but it won't be the same.

Jack (The Walrus) Prodanovich

Prodanovich moved to San Diego with his family in 1916, when he was 3 years old. He graduated from Point Loma High School and was 20 years old when he, Ben Stone and Glenn Orr founded the Bottom Scratchers in 1933. "We were getting together at each others' houses all the time for seafood dinners, so we decided we should just start a club," Prodanovich recalled.

The three men liked to wear the horn of a horn shark tied to the key pocket of their swimsuits, and when they dove, the horn would sometimes leave a scratch mark on the sandy ocean bottom. From that the club's name was aptly coined.

Prodanovich was an innovator and a tinkerer from the start. In 1933, he crafted the first pair of diving goggles by removing two mirrors from womens' compacts, scraping the paint off the backs of them, and fitting them into short lengths of automobile radiator hose. Soon after that he improved on the concept by making a metal face mask--also the world's first.

As the club members increased their diving skills, Prodanovich kept trying to expand and improve their equipment. In 1938, he built the first underwater camera, an old Brownie box camera encased in sheet copper. He had to surface and unscrew a tire valve cap to advance the film after each shot, and the pictures weren't exactly crystal clear; but the camera worked.

Prodanovich also built and patented a power head (a pole spear with a .38-caliber cartridge firing mechanism) that allowed divers to go after truly giant fish for the first time in the mid-1940s. Potts used the power head to kill a 401.5-pound black sea bass off the Coronado Islands in 1954, the largest fish ever caught by a skin diver at that time.

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