Neuman is a hook-and-line fisherman; he also snorkels for abalone in the chilly waters up north. “The time before last, [when] we were up there free diving for abalone, three people along the Northern California coast died that weekend. I don’t know where they were diving or to what depth, but I do know that three of them went into the water alive and came out dead.”
We meet at a Starbucks in Del Mar on a gray Tuesday morning, and before our time is over, Dr. Neuman will have taught me to hold my breath for two minutes. He impresses on me that breath-holding is a bit of a mind-over-matter game. I ask him to explain why blacking out happens most often in shallow water, at the end of a dive cycle, when a diver is nearing or even at the surface.
“Down at 33 feet, the pressure of the air in your lungs is twice as high as the pressure at the surface,” Neuman says. “As you come back up to the surface, the atmosphere pressure drops, and the partial pressure of oxygen in your lungs drops, too, not only because of the oxygen you’ve consumed, but because of the change in barometric pressure that’s around you. As you get closer and closer to the surface, the faster and faster it falls. The oxygen level in your blood plummets as well because of the change in barometric pressure. And all of a sudden your brain’s not getting enough oxygen. The central processor says there’s not enough juice to run it, and it shuts off. And what happens when you pass out under water? You drown. The game is now over.”
One qualification for becoming a Bottom Scratcher was that a prospect had to catch a shark by hand. “They’re talking about a horn shark,” says Volker Hoehne, a local free diver. “They’re not particularly hard to catch, horn sharks. But you want to grab them near mid-body. If you grab their tail, they’ll whip around and bite you. And sometimes it’s in an inappropriate place.” He laughs. Horn sharks eat shellfish. “Their jaws are very powerful.”
Hoehne goes on to say that it’s bad form to grab any shark by the tail, be it a mako, a seven gill, or otherwise, because of a built-in bite reflex. I tell him I can’t imagine grabbing a mako shark by the tail for any reason in this lifetime.
“I’ve done it,” Hoehne says. Has he ever speared a shark? The answer to that question is also yes. “Sharks don’t like to die. You shoot one, he’s gonna figure it out and come around and eat you.”
Hoehne is 48. He was born in Germany, but his family moved to Southern California when he was 3. “I grew up in Solana Beach.” Solid of build, his features are sun-bleached, his eyes a shade of blue. Hoehne has been a financial analyst for Fortune 500 companies but at present works for an organization called the Watermen’s Alliance.
“I look at regulatory issues, like, is the law being implemented in accordance with what the voters approved?” Hoehne admits to having a vested interest. “What we do relates to spearfishing. We represent interests from the Oregon border to the Baja California border. When some agency wants to restrict our ability to spearfish, we step in and try to regulate.”
Hoehne began to fish when he was in the fourth grade, at about ten years of age. “Every day, I was surf fishing in front of the Chart House in Solana Beach. Then, later, instead of waiting for the fish to decide to die” — as he describes hook-and-line fishing — “I thought, I’m gonna shoot these things.” He appropriated his dad’s dive mask and fins and got his parents to spring for a speargun. “I swam every day” in the cold Pacific with no wetsuit. “I thought it was normal to be shaking so bad by the end of the day that I couldn’t aim.”
As for free diving and fish, Hoehne says that sound is important underwater. “Even more important than that is what you’re thinking. White sea bass, for example. When I stop looking for them, I see them. The trick is to move slowly, at the same speed as drifting kelp. If you get excited, the fish can sense it. They live in a different world than we do. When you move your hand underwater, you create a pressure wave, and they feel it. Every fish knows I’m there. But they don’t know what I’m doing.”
The talk shifts to close calls. “Death taps you on the shoulder and reminds you of your mortality and tells you it’s not your time to go,” Hoehne says. Events of a life-threatening nature are not so much frightening as an experience that brings clarity. “Only one thing becomes important: you want to live.” For example, Hoehne once got stuck in an underwater cave. He says he thought, “If I don’t get out, I’m dead. At times like that, you don’t care where your car is parked or about your taxes or anything.”
“Do you get seasick?” Ryan Sweeny asks before we head out in his boat. No, I say, seasickness has never been a problem for me. I’ve spent countless hours in pleasure boats of every description, I say. “Well, I get seasick,” he admits. “I take scopolamine.” He wants to know if I’ll be going in the water today. “I brought an extra mask and fins and a snorkel,” he says, “but no wetsuit.”
“What’s the water temperature?” I ask.
Free diving methods and equipment
Michael Timm from Dive America explains basic the methods and equipment used in free diving.
“Around 60 degrees.”
Sweeny’s fishing boat is a white 20-foot fiberglass Chaparral with a Yamaha 150 outboard motor. He is stowing gear and wiping dirty footprints off the deck when I pull up alongside the craft, still at rest on its trailer in the parking lot of the marina across from SeaWorld. Sweeny’s friend Suzanne, a biochemist from Bay Park, is going out with us today. She is 36, German, athletic-slender, with a thatch of deep-burgundy-colored hair. Volker Hoehne is along for the trip, as well. Hoehne and Suzanne are the second and third German free divers I’ve met in the course of researching this story.