Three abalone divers die in Caspar Cove
Three abalone divers died Sunday afternoon in Mendocino County’s Caspar Cove after a group of five friends set out in search of the prized mollusks and met instead with tragedy, emergency officials said.
Two other men from the party ran into trouble, as well, but were rescued from the rocks at the base of the hundred-foot cliffs that form Caspar Headlands State Beach and Caspar Headlands Natural State Reserve on the central Mendocino Coast, emergency personnel said.
They were unfortunate witnesses to rescue workers’ unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate two of their companions who were plucked lifeless from the water and brought ashore, Mendocino Fire Capt. Sally Swan said.
A third man who had been seen struggling in rough waves at the time the others were reported in distress disappeared and was found about 3½ hours later in a rocky inlet near the open water, Swan said.
The three dead men are the first casualties of this year’s 12-day-old abalone season - a period marked each year by numerous rescues and several fatalities as sometimes overly enthusiastic or unfit divers confront the physical challenges and risks inherent in the sport.
“It is upon us, unfortunately,” Mendocino County Sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney, head of search and rescue, said in reaction to Sunday’s incident.
It was not clear when, if ever, three people from the same diving party have perished on the North Coast, and emergency officials said they hope this is the last.
On Saturday, Sonoma Coast State Park lifeguards made two rescues involving multiple individuals, including one in which two Half Moon Bay men diving north of Stump Beach offshore of Salt Point State Park got sucked out toward sea by a rip current and faced being tossed into the rocks by heavy waves, Supervising Park Ranger Jeremy Stinson said.
Two lifeguards happened to see them and swam out to get them, bringing them safely into shore, Stinson said.
Later Saturday, a lifeguard saw three divers clinging to a swamped kayak about 500 yards off Ocean Cove, south of Salt Point park, Stinson said. It was unclear how they got into trouble, but they had been diving together when they got into distress and were brought ashore on a personal watercraft, he said.
The five Caspar Cove divers, at least some of whom reportedly were from the East Coast, were among 10 friends who had just arrived in the area and were renting a vacation home at the south end of Caspar Beach, Swan said.
They may have been in the water mere minutes before they found themselves in trouble, apparently having entered off a rocky portion of coast where “there is a lot of churn,” instead of from the soft beach, where the water tends to be calmer, she said.
An off-duty firefighter fishing in the area observed at least one diver in distress and called for help at 2:42 p.m., Swan and others said.
Multiple agencies responded to the crisis, including the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department, whose rescue boat recovered the two uninjured men from the rocks and brought one of the dead ashore.
The second fatality was hoisted from the water by the crew aboard the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office helicopter, Henry 1, which was among several aircraft to respond, including a Coast Guard helicopter from Humboldt County and a REACH air ambulance, officials said.
The third victim was missing for several hours after the others were recovered and was the subject of a prolonged search that continued into the evening involving a Coast Guard helicopter crew out of Station Humboldt Bay and a 47-foot motor lifeboat out of Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg, said Lt. John Briggs.
The missing man’s body was finally spotted at the base of the bluffs at about 7:10 p.m., requiring Mendocino Fire rescue personnel in wet suits to descend down the cliff face and package his body in a rescue apparatus so it could be hoisted back to the bluff top by a truck outfitted with a winch, Swan said.
There was speculation that at least some of the divers may have been inexperienced.
Barbara Johnson, who works the Caspar Beach RV Park & Campground store, said she believes some of those involved were among four out-of-state residents who purchased abalone tags from the shop Sunday morning, based on inquiries from friends or family members who came in that afternoon seeking directions.
“I’m pretty sure it’s them,” Johnson said. “It’s a terrible way to start the season.”
Swan said it’s critical for divers to spend time watching the ocean and studying conditions before they get in the water.
“Know your skills, and know your limitations,” she said. And when the water is inhospitable, “know that tomorrow’s another day.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat
I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment.