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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Experts Puzzled by Veteran Diver's Death

Inquiry: Man violated several basic rules after becoming entangled in kelp, authorities say.

October 17, 2000|CATHERINE BLAKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PORT HUENEME — Enrique Vasquez went scuba diving to catch a lobster for dinner Sunday. Instead he got tangled in kelp, couldn't get free and drowned.

Authorities called the circumstances surrounding the death of the 24-year-old Vasquez unusual, as he had 10 years of diving experience and a full tank of air. Most divers caught in that situation, they said, manage to wiggle out of their gear or cut away the confining seaweed.

After spending about 30 minutes in the kelp-choked water near Silver Strand Beach, the Ventura electrician began thrashing around, bobbing up long enough to call for help. The friend who had accompanied him tried to throw Vasquez a rope, and a bystander entered the water to help.

But the bystander was unsuccessful, and Vasquez died less than an hour after he entered the water.

Vasquez, authorities said, was about 50 feet from shore near the La Janelle shipwreck and in about 30 feet of water. He drowned 6 feet from the surface.

"I don't understand what happened at all," said Ryan Hauber, an instructor for Channel Islands Scuba in Ventura, the shop that rented Vasquez his tank and regulator a few hours before the accident. "The tank is like a backpack. . . . He could just take it off."

Vasquez died at the beginning of lobster season. Hundreds of people will spend the next six months diving for lobster in local waters. Starting in early October, divers haul out their gear and scout out prime locations along the coast. As they dive, their gloved hands reach for--and often miss--their prickly prey.

Lobsters often live in rocky areas that anchor kelp beds. That means lobster hunters often must navigate through the seaweed vines.

"We are aware that we will have more recreational divers, which creates the potential for more activity as far as rescue work goes," said Tom Law, the incident commander for the Ventura County Fire Department. "We are more vigilant, knowing the season is here."

Vasquez, authorities said, did one of the worst things any diver could do: He panicked.

"In general you should stop, catch your breath and work your way free," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Bobby Rudder. "When you struggle, you get yourself in worse trouble because it seems to surround you."

Certified as a diver since he was 14, Vasquez broke another diving rule, authorities and instructors said, by going alone.

"If he were diving with a buddy that person could have helped him untangle himself," said Sheila Jacob, open water scuba instructor for Pacific Scuba in Oxnard. "It's so sad, especially because he was so close to the surface."

The tank and regulator are being evaluated to make sure they were working properly.

Although no agency keeps records on the number of lobster fishers locally, the state Department of Fish and Game said they issued about 283,000 ocean enhancement stamps for Southern California in 1999. The stamps are required before divers can go after the crustaceans.

Vasquez's family could not be reached on Monday, but the coroner's office said he had one sister. Funeral arrangements are being handled by the Joseph Reardon Funeral Home in Ventura.

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