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San Diego's freedivers have the freedom to die

You have to eat the heart of the first bluefin you catch – while it's beating

Lew Cox (left) became interested in freediving when he spotted Volker Hoehne (right) exiting the water on a bright sunny morning in La Jolla with a massive Yellowtail slung over his shoulder. To Cox, it seemed like a moment out of a movie.
Lew Cox (left) became interested in freediving when he spotted Volker Hoehne (right) exiting the water on a bright sunny morning in La Jolla with a massive Yellowtail slung over his shoulder. To Cox, it seemed like a moment out of a movie.

The history of freediving is so rich in La Jolla that diving in its cove is akin to a Catholic visiting Rome: maybe it didn’t all start there, but that’s where it really hit big. The biggest innovations in the sport were created by local divers, sea cowboys who went by the classy moniker of the Bottom Scratchers. The Scratchers formed a freediving club in 1933, before the existence of diving aids. Back then, it wasn’t even called freediving. It was known as skin diving. Their friendships and underwater antics led to the invention of the first swim googles used for sport diving, swim fins, the two-piece trigger mechanism for spear guns, and the first underwater cameras.

The Bottom Scratchers were an exclusive crew of thrill-seekers. The only way to gain membership in their club, which never counted more than 20 souls among its members, was by capturing a horn shark with your bare hands and removing its horns, bringing up three abalone in a single dive, and capturing a lobster measuring over three feet long. During its first 15 years, the group had only nine members, because no one else could meet all three challenges. Every one of its 19 members is now deceased; two of them died doing what they loved, diving. One perished in an underwater cave in France, and another’s body was found in the water at Torrey Pines.

The San Diego Freedivers Club is sometimes considered the heir to The Bottom Scratchers’ spirit. Certainly, former president and current member Volker Hoehne continues their tradition of pushing the envelope while diving. “My guardian angels are working overtime,” he says with a chuckle. “I came up from a dive once and the whole world turned into a pinhole” — his bodily functions were shutting down from lack of oxygen. “I was on the surface, but I couldn’t see anything. Then the pin hole slowly started opening again. I thought, ‘Well, I did not die that time!’” Noting the horror in my face, Volker adds, “It was fine! I went diving the next day! I have known a few people that have died [freediving]. There are depressing aspects to the sport, but overall, it’s worth it. The mortality of it makes it more real. HR hasn’t gotten ahold of it to make it sanitary.”

Why is it worth it? In La Jolla, the kelp reach 30-80 feet in length, creating an underwater forest filled with Garibaldi, dolphins, and sea lions. The kelp sway along with the current, and when the sun peeks through their stalks, it’s magical. According to Volker, “It is a place where I can get away from everything and just imagine. We live in a big city with all kinds of rules. But below the water, there are no rules. You are a split second away from death. Here in my office, there is nothing scary here, but underwater, all sorts of stuff can happen.”

The original Bottom Scratchers—1939 La Jolla Caves area: Glen Orr, Jack Corbaly, Ben Stone, Bill Batzloff, Jack Prodanovich.

Volker is clean cut; he wears round spectacles and has graying blond hair. Despite his 56 years, he has a distinctly boyish and goofball quality in his demeanor and tone. A financial analyst by trade, he has been a freediver since childhood. “I have always had a fixation with nature,” he recounts. “When I was little, I thought Native Americans were the coolest people on the planet. I was this white kid who came from Germany to the States when I was three. We lived in Solana Beach. I got into [fishing] through a childhood friend. But one day, I was in front of the Chart House watching a Corbina swim around. I thought, ‘I’m just waiting around for a fish to be in the mood to die! I want to go shoot that little S.O.B.’”

With that inclination in mind, Volker headed home to borrow his dad’s mask and fins and walked back to the beach. He swam out, looked around at all the fish, and had one thought: “I want to shoot them!” On the way home, he stopped into a diving store and saw a spear gun hanging on the wall. The clerk told Volker that he would not sell it to him.

Frustrated, Volker went home and convinced his mom to go to the shop with him. “My mom is a pacifist. She grew up under the Nazis and saw all the atrocities of war. I was not allowed to have toy guns or to watch war movies. But somehow, I talked her into it by saying, ‘Look, it’s not really a gun. It’s for food.’” He returned to the store, mother in tow — or rather, in front. “I stood behind her. She said, ‘I’ll have that spear up there.’ The guy looked at her, and then at me, and said, ‘This isn’t for him, is it?’ With a smile, she responded, ‘No, it’s for me.’ He sold it to her!” Volker was eight years old. He spent that summer swimming from Solana Beach’s restaurant row to Tabletop Reef, blasting everything in his path.

“Life-changing” is a term you hear a lot when you talk to freedivers. Volker Hoehne has dozens of tales: everything from a seven gill on his shoulder, to Gray Whale sightings, to multiple Great White encounters, to submarine sightings.

“I was determined,” he recalls. “I had a strong desire to eat off the land. I shot everything — bat rays, Warren sharks, and Corbina. If it did not taste good, I did not shoot it again. But one time, I was walking back from the beach, and there was an old guy camped out in an RV. We were talking, and I said, ‘I don’t get it. I haven’t been able to catch many fish lately,’ The old guy explained that I had made an impact on the ocean. I was only two years into spearfishing, and I realized I had blasted everything. As a little kid, you think you are insignificant. But I realized, Holy smokes, every fish I take isn’t in the ocean anymore. That conversation changed my life. I started being very selective.”

Now, Volker mentors new divers, and tries to instill the lesson he learned as a kid. “I always say, ‘Every fish you take has an impact.’ They usually stare at me blankly; they’re thinking, ‘All I want to do is shoot a big fish.’ I tell them, ‘We dive in one spot a lot. Pick a notable fish. Don’t shoot any fish that looks like that. Take notice anytime you see it. You’ll realize you see it quite a bit. At the end of the season, if you feel like it, shoot him. Then keep diving that spot, and you’ll feel it’s absence.’ It helps them understand. You can’t learn that in a book. It works.”


Seven years ago, Lew Cox became of those newbies after spotting Volker exiting the water on a bright sunny morning in La Jolla with a massive Yellowtail slung over his shoulder. To Cox, it seemed like a moment out of a movie. “I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. I asked Volker what he was doing. He said he was a freediver. That’s what got me into the sport.”

Now, Cox is accomplished: on a static dive, he can hold his breath for 4½-5 minutes. On a dynamic dive, he can pull off 2 minutes. “It has taken me 7 years to build up to that. Anyone who can calm themselves down can do it. But it’s hard to get your heart rate to 40. It’s hard to do that just sitting on the couch, let alone in the ocean with predators.” When a diver is at depth, every 30 feet is an atmosphere. On the surface, we are under one atmosphere of pressure. At 30 feet, two. At 60, three, and at 90, four atmospheres of pressure. By the time a diver gets to the fifth atmosphere, the capacity of air in their lungs is one-fifth the size it is on the surface. “At that point,” Cox explains, “it is very tough. You start violently contracting. Your body is trying to force you to breathe. Your brain is saying, ‘Take a breath!’ But you have to ignore that sensation. Turn it off! That is the hardest thing to do. It’s a wild sport!”

Volker mentors new divers, and tries to instill the lesson he learned as a kid. “I always say, ‘Every fish you take has an impact.’”

A former maritime enforcement specialist in the Coast Guard, Cox is athletic: tall and lean, with a swimmer’s shoulders. His hair is buzzed short, and his rectangular glasses give him a bookish look. He can still recall his first spearfishing outing off the Coronado Islands with a group of other new divers. “I think everyone is a mess when they first start freediving. You step off the boat, and you’re in the ocean, on your own, with no tanks. It is shocking! I shot my first fish on that trip; I have been addicted ever since. I spend 50% of my weekends diving. I travel to a lot of countries. I have been to Panama, Costa Rica, Central and South America, and I spend a lot of time lobster diving in San Diego as well.”

It occurs to me that after you shoot a fish, there is the matter of hauling its bleeding body around in the water. Cox shrugs at the thought. “I am not that concerned about getting eaten,” he says. “Sharks come. We call it taxes when they take our fish. One time, I was swimming through the kelp in La Jolla with a 15-pound yellowtail attached to my waist. A sevengill shark swam right up when I wasn’t looking and pulled me backwards. I turned around and there was a massive shark trying to get the yellowtail off my waist. It absolutely freaked me out. But you just tap them and say, ‘Hey! Let it go!’ Normally, they’ll swim away. You have fight for your fish. Never give the sharks the fish, because then they think you’re a food source. There are very few of us divers, and we have a responsibility to train these animals that we are not food.”

Unfortunately, says Cox, that familiarity with sharks extends to Great Whites. “There are so many in Del Mar that it would blow your mind!” he says with a laugh, “I usually get out when I see a White. I have only seen the 10-12-foot juveniles. They can mistake you for food. They will give you a test bite. A test bite can cost you a limb.”

Lew Cox can still recall his first spearfishing outing off the Coronado Islands with a group of other new divers. “I think everyone is a mess when they first start freediving. You step off the boat, and you’re in the ocean, on your own, with no tanks. It is shocking!”

But according to him, sharks aren’t the real problem. Sea lions are. “I’ve gotten bitten by sea lions. The cove is a protected area for them, and their populations are way out of control. NOAA did a study recently that showed the sea lion population is about 20 percent over sustainable. It is devasting the local fish population, and they are harassing divers. It’s a real problem.”

Like Volker, Cox has mentored many new divers since joining the San Diego Freedivers Club. Addrianna Reitenbach, founder of the SoCal Dive Babes, is one of them. When I meet Reitenbach at a local brewery in Carlsbad, she is wearing a shiny ‘70s-inspired satin jacket with a whimsical sunset embroidered on the back, royal blue velvet pants, and pink high heels. Her hair is meticulously curled, her teeth Colgate-commercial white, and her make-up, expert. Her 200-member, all-women dive club’s slogan is: “Have fun, shoot fish, look cute.”

Reitenbach started freediving in 2020. “At the time, I had no idea about the strong history of the sport, or that it was mostly male dominated,” she says, pushing a curl behind her ear and taking a bite of a buffalo wing. “When I first moved to Southern California, I had this vegan roommate. She went on a vacation to Florida and saw girls pole fishing. She came back from that trip and was like, ‘I think I want to spearfish.’ She had been a vegetarian her whole life, but figured if she actually killed a fish, she would be okay with eating it.” Together, the roommates binged spearfishing tutorials on YouTube. Reitenbach stayed up most of the night watching adrenaline-spiking videos of freediving adventures. A flip switched in her brain. “I woke up the next day and thought, ‘This is it! This is my next thing! I am going to learn how to freedive!’ I even went out and bought all new gear.” Her vegan roommate never did get into it, and the fish Reitenbach killed and brought home to gut in their shared kitchen became such a point of contention that she had to move out.

Coming from a scuba diving background, Addrianna Reitenbach says, “It was engrained in me that freediving was dangerous and unhealthy. But I wanted it, and I am an all-in type of person. It took me five hours to pass my freediving class in the ocean. It took me forever! But I did it! I passed!”

Coming from a scuba diving background, she says, “It was engrained in me that freediving was dangerous and unhealthy. But I wanted it, and I am an all-in type of person. It took me five hours to pass my freediving class in the ocean. It took me forever! But I did it! I passed!” Afterward, she began searching for area spearfishers who could take her along on dives. She scrolled through Instagram, searching for local divers, and DM’d dozens of them. “I would say, ‘Hey, I’m new. I just got certified. Will you take me out?’ It didn’t work,” she says with an embarrassed laugh, “No one said yes. Most people didn’t even respond. I get it. It’s super dangerous to take new people out. For most of them, this is the only outlet they have. They have kids and a job. The last thing they want to do is spend their one Sunday in the water with some new person.”

And then there was her status as a woman to consider. “I think women are seen as a commodity in this sport,” laments Reitenbach. “Clubs want to say they have the most women to get better sponsorships and donation dollars. Its bullshit. I think most women that go to the clubs and their meetings are immediately turned off. It’s very rare that they stick around. It’s just men wanting to hit on you and not really teach you anything. It was a crash course to figure out the culture of the sport. I experienced sexism all the time, and I still do. It’s bad.” Instead, she learned the basics via a boat captain she met at a scuba shop. She paid him charter prices, and he took her out two or three times a week. When she made mistakes in the water, he guided her through them.

Reitenbach caught this Wahoo while on a two day trip with Spearfishing Baja: “Not gonna lie, my ego goes nutso when I land a big fish or a new species!”

Then both beach access and boat ramps were shut down due to covid. But Reitenbach was not deterred. “I had a dive buddy who took me out even after the beaches closed. We got chased by lifeguards. One time, the lifeguard truck was screeching down the beach after us. We ran in the water and dove for five hours. When we got out, that lifeguard truck was still there, waiting for us. We had to scale a cliff to get out. I was overloaded in gear in a 7 mil wetsuit with 20-pound weights. We had to walk two miles to the car. It was a nightmare. There were a lot of moments like that during covid.”

It wasn’t just covid; in those first days, everything was a struggle. She had a hard time diving past 30 feet. She could barely handle her gun, and she felt that every fish she got was just a lucky shot. Starting the SoCal Dive Babes helped build confidence. The comaraderie she shared with the other women pushed her to learn how to handle her gun, how to brain a fish under water, how to prepare the fish she caught, and how to be a more efficient hunter and diver. “I began targeting one species at a time. I told myself not to just shoot whatever I saw. I focused on one fish and shot placement. I started with calicos, because they are very hard to shoot. Once I started to stone them repetitively, I moved on to other fish. I went species by species, learning how to hunt them before graduating on to the next.”

Then, in July of 2021, Reitenbach had a life-changing experience during a bluefin tuna hunting trip. “I will always remember my first bluefin. I spent two days trying to catch one. I tried everything, but it just wasn’t lining up for me. I gave up on shooting one. Instead, I got in the moment. I dove down and held my position. There was a school of bluefin tornadoing around me. One fish broke out of the school and moved towards me. I was looking right at it. They say never to make eye contact because you’ll look like a predator and the fish will swim away. But we made eye contact, and I felt a connection. It felt like this fish chose me. Time slowed down. It was almost like an Avatar moment, of merging consciousness. I felt that the fish was giving me permission to take its life. I shot it, and it changed me forever.”

She swam the bluefin back to the boat, and there was a big celebration over her catch. The captain started gutting the fish. Then he handed her its heart. “He said, ‘If you want to be taken seriously as a freediver, you have to eat the heart of the first bluefin you catch.’ You eat it raw while it’s still beating. Everyone was crowded around, and I remember thinking that I wanted to be alone with the fish. While holding its heart, I knelt and touched it and said my own little thank you. Then I ate the heart. It changed my idea of spearfishing. I started seeing it as connecting as opposed to hunting.”


“Life-changing” is a term you hear a lot when you talk to freedivers. Volker Hoehne has dozens of tales: everything from a sevengill on his shoulder, to Gray Whale sightings, to multiple Great White encounters, to submarine sightings. But two years ago, something happened that changed the way he dives. On a perfect 70-degree sunny San Diego day, Volker headed to Solana Beach to catch a fish for dinner. The conditions were clear. The water was tranquil. Volker was zenned out underwater. He took note that were not a lot of fish in sight. The water was eerily still. Finally, he spotted a sheep head and shot it. “My mind was so relaxed,” he recalls. “Normally, I would make sure the fish was on the stringer before taking him off the shaft, but this time, I didn’t. He was bleeding, and a thought came into my head: there is a lot of blood. Why was I so concerned about the blood? I never cared about the blood. The fish struggled, and it got out of my hands. I lost it.”

A little frustrated, Volker floated to the surface before heading back down. The he saw something from the corner of his eye: a large dark object approaching from above him and to the right. When it got closer, he realized that he was in the company of a Great White. It swam past. Volker wondered, “Is that it? Is he leaving? Am I safe now?” But the shark came back around. This time, it was underneath him. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve rehearsed this.’ But my brain was blank. The only thing that mattered was being alive. The shark came back by me again and I thought, ‘If he comes back a third time, it will be a bump or bite moment.’”

Convinced that his life or at least his limbs were on the line, Volker decided that he would stab the shark with the tip of his spear gun if it circled around again. “He comes back again, this time within two feet. I have 15 feet visibility and it’s right under me. I cannot see its tail. It is a big shark! I see its giant eyeball and suddenly, I feel nothing. No fear! I stab it! It takes off. I think, ‘Maybe I can stay out and continue spearfishing?’ My next thought is, ‘That is a really bad idea. Go in!’”

Volker swam past the nearby line-up of the surfers and told them that he had just stabbed a Great White. “A third of them kept surfing. The rest caught the next wave in.” Once on shore, Volker broke down. The fear hit hard; it took him two hours to compose himself enough to walk to his car and drive home. Guardian angel or no guardian angel, “it took me a long time to get out there again. I haven’t been the same since. I bought a shark shield. It’s an electronic thing to keep the sharks away. I have not been out in North County since. You don’t want to see a Great White in the water. Everyone says, ‘Oh what a special moment you had. You are so blessed.’ No! I was diving by myself, and my happy place tried to eat me!”

Lew Cox sees the ocean itself, with its fierce currents and tides, as more of an obstacle than the wildlife it contains. But while he has never had to stab a Great White with his spear gun, he knows whereof Volker speaks. “I have had a couple of near-death experiences out there, one in particular with a Great White shark. We use the phrase ‘poop your wetsuit’ — that was one of those moments, for sure! We were offshore Del Mar at the 9-mile bank. The water was crystal clear. I jumped in a kelp paddy and there was a 12-13-foot Great White sitting underneath it. I was like, ‘Oh!’ I started to turn away and swim backwards. He thought that I was a fish. It was an invitation to come check me out. He swam right up and bumped my leg and swam off. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I got back on the boat. I said, ‘Guys we should go somewhere else! Let’s find another spot!’”

For her part, Reitenbach has not had any close encounters with Great Whites; however, she did witness something just as dangerous: a shallow-water blackout akin to Volker’s pinpoint-vision experience. It happened in Louisiana while diving among the oil rigs. Her companion was a local who agreed to take her out. The water was murky; it resembled frothy Chocolate milk. The first fifteen feet of water had almost zero visibility. “It’s called the murk layer. The rig has intersecting pipes underwater, making it extremely dangerous for divers, due to the possibility of running into one your way back up to the surface. The legs of the rig are covered in barnacles and mollusks that feel like glass when rubbed against. They tear up wet suits and skin, and break lines.” Most spearfishers use cables for the lines when diving the area, because they won’t tear.

“When we got in the water, he started being a little micro-managey and mansplainey. I thought, ‘What is this guy’s problem?’ I think he was worried about things going wrong. But when I stoned a fish, he finally backed off a little. After a while, he said, ‘I am not feeling well. I am going to swim my gun back to the boat.’ I am thinking, ‘Well, I am not done. I just flew all the way out here for the weekend.’ I asked if he would mind just staying with me and watching from the surface while I dove. He agreed to do that for another hour.”

After dropping off his gun, her companion decided he would keep diving after all. Alarm bells went off in Reitenbach’s mind, but she pushed them aside. She wanted to explore more. The man asked to borrow her gun, dove down, and shot a three-pound snapper. “The fish took off and the reel got wrapped around the rig underwater. I was really frustrated. He wanted to cut the line. I did not. We argued about it.” Finally, he said that if she let him cut the line, he would buy her a new gun. She agreed.

The man swam done to cut the line. After a while, Reitenbach realized he had been down for a long time — it was his longest dive of the day. When 56 seconds had passed, she got nervous. Then she felt the line go slack and figured he must be on his way back up. “Because the water was so murky, I didn’t see him black out. By the time I made him out, I saw the top of his head and shoulders. He was shaking. I couldn’t understand what was happening. The water was really volatile, and I was in this little pie slice between the pipes in the rig.” She dove down and lifted him out by the armpits, then hoisted him up over her shoulders like she was burping a baby. He had blacked out.

“On the surface, I ripped his mask off. I was just kicking, kicking, kicking, and all the while thinking, ‘I don’t know how to get him on the jet ski! I don’t know how to drive a jet ski! I don’t know what to do with a dead body! I don’t even know where I am. I don’t have a compass or one of those call thingies!’”

He came to while she was still clutching him. She somehow managed to swim him back to the jet ski. “His lips were not purple or blue, they were black, and his skin was so white! It was traumatizing! It turned out he had covid. That explains why he blacked out.” It’s just one of the reasons she never dives alone. “I have had people tell me that to get better, I should. I will never do that. You never know when you will need someone.”

Volker might disagree, or at least demur. “People get caught up in the whole ‘dive with someone else’ idea, but here is the thing: If I am in the water and my buddy is in the water, maybe I’ll check on him every ten minutes. If he blacks out, he’s dead. I can’t do a thing about it. I won’t be close enough to save him. Besides, if I wait for a buddy, I’m not going to get to dive a whole lot.”

Part of the freedom of freediving is the freedom to die while freediving. Lew Cox admits this is a thought with which his wife struggles. “It is tough for her. Especially when I go on a trip. I am leaving next week to go to Mag Bay. and I will have no cell service for five days. After I say goodbye to her, she has no idea if I’ll return, when I’ll return, or whether or not I’ll be injured. It happens. We lose freedivers every year. But we are all very cautious about how we do this. We never dive alone. We pick good buddies, and we train for safety.” When Cox dives, there is always a first aid kit with bandages, gauze, and a tourniquet on the boat, in case someone gets bitten by a shark or hit by a boat in the water.

But again, it’s the water that poses the greatest danger. “Shallow water blackout is the scariest thing we can experience as freedivers. It happens all the time. Last year, it took two divers in California. These were very good and talented divers who could dive 120 feet. But it happens. You finish your dive and you’re pumping too hard, or you’re too excited about a fish that you shot that is pulled up in a cave. By the time you hit the surface to grab that breath, you run out of oxygen and black out. If no one is around you immediately when that happens, that is the end of it.”

Even so, Cox does not get hung up on the fear. “You can only control what you can control. Nothing is hundred percent safe. You can get killed on the highway. Certain hobbies are fulfilling on another level. My identity is a spearfisherman and freediver. The risks associated with it are what make it fun.” It’s evident that he has had this conversation countless times. He leans in, taking a sip of his coffee before continuing, “If there was a way for me to do this more safely, I would. I do everything I can. But if I get to the end of my life and I have any regrets, it will be that I did not take this further. That I did not go more places. That I did not see more reef, and try more fish, and meet more people.”

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Lew Cox (left) became interested in freediving when he spotted Volker Hoehne (right) exiting the water on a bright sunny morning in La Jolla with a massive Yellowtail slung over his shoulder. To Cox, it seemed like a moment out of a movie.
Lew Cox (left) became interested in freediving when he spotted Volker Hoehne (right) exiting the water on a bright sunny morning in La Jolla with a massive Yellowtail slung over his shoulder. To Cox, it seemed like a moment out of a movie.

The history of freediving is so rich in La Jolla that diving in its cove is akin to a Catholic visiting Rome: maybe it didn’t all start there, but that’s where it really hit big. The biggest innovations in the sport were created by local divers, sea cowboys who went by the classy moniker of the Bottom Scratchers. The Scratchers formed a freediving club in 1933, before the existence of diving aids. Back then, it wasn’t even called freediving. It was known as skin diving. Their friendships and underwater antics led to the invention of the first swim googles used for sport diving, swim fins, the two-piece trigger mechanism for spear guns, and the first underwater cameras.

The Bottom Scratchers were an exclusive crew of thrill-seekers. The only way to gain membership in their club, which never counted more than 20 souls among its members, was by capturing a horn shark with your bare hands and removing its horns, bringing up three abalone in a single dive, and capturing a lobster measuring over three feet long. During its first 15 years, the group had only nine members, because no one else could meet all three challenges. Every one of its 19 members is now deceased; two of them died doing what they loved, diving. One perished in an underwater cave in France, and another’s body was found in the water at Torrey Pines.

The San Diego Freedivers Club is sometimes considered the heir to The Bottom Scratchers’ spirit. Certainly, former president and current member Volker Hoehne continues their tradition of pushing the envelope while diving. “My guardian angels are working overtime,” he says with a chuckle. “I came up from a dive once and the whole world turned into a pinhole” — his bodily functions were shutting down from lack of oxygen. “I was on the surface, but I couldn’t see anything. Then the pin hole slowly started opening again. I thought, ‘Well, I did not die that time!’” Noting the horror in my face, Volker adds, “It was fine! I went diving the next day! I have known a few people that have died [freediving]. There are depressing aspects to the sport, but overall, it’s worth it. The mortality of it makes it more real. HR hasn’t gotten ahold of it to make it sanitary.”

Why is it worth it? In La Jolla, the kelp reach 30-80 feet in length, creating an underwater forest filled with Garibaldi, dolphins, and sea lions. The kelp sway along with the current, and when the sun peeks through their stalks, it’s magical. According to Volker, “It is a place where I can get away from everything and just imagine. We live in a big city with all kinds of rules. But below the water, there are no rules. You are a split second away from death. Here in my office, there is nothing scary here, but underwater, all sorts of stuff can happen.”

The original Bottom Scratchers—1939 La Jolla Caves area: Glen Orr, Jack Corbaly, Ben Stone, Bill Batzloff, Jack Prodanovich.

Volker is clean cut; he wears round spectacles and has graying blond hair. Despite his 56 years, he has a distinctly boyish and goofball quality in his demeanor and tone. A financial analyst by trade, he has been a freediver since childhood. “I have always had a fixation with nature,” he recounts. “When I was little, I thought Native Americans were the coolest people on the planet. I was this white kid who came from Germany to the States when I was three. We lived in Solana Beach. I got into [fishing] through a childhood friend. But one day, I was in front of the Chart House watching a Corbina swim around. I thought, ‘I’m just waiting around for a fish to be in the mood to die! I want to go shoot that little S.O.B.’”

With that inclination in mind, Volker headed home to borrow his dad’s mask and fins and walked back to the beach. He swam out, looked around at all the fish, and had one thought: “I want to shoot them!” On the way home, he stopped into a diving store and saw a spear gun hanging on the wall. The clerk told Volker that he would not sell it to him.

Frustrated, Volker went home and convinced his mom to go to the shop with him. “My mom is a pacifist. She grew up under the Nazis and saw all the atrocities of war. I was not allowed to have toy guns or to watch war movies. But somehow, I talked her into it by saying, ‘Look, it’s not really a gun. It’s for food.’” He returned to the store, mother in tow — or rather, in front. “I stood behind her. She said, ‘I’ll have that spear up there.’ The guy looked at her, and then at me, and said, ‘This isn’t for him, is it?’ With a smile, she responded, ‘No, it’s for me.’ He sold it to her!” Volker was eight years old. He spent that summer swimming from Solana Beach’s restaurant row to Tabletop Reef, blasting everything in his path.

“Life-changing” is a term you hear a lot when you talk to freedivers. Volker Hoehne has dozens of tales: everything from a seven gill on his shoulder, to Gray Whale sightings, to multiple Great White encounters, to submarine sightings.

“I was determined,” he recalls. “I had a strong desire to eat off the land. I shot everything — bat rays, Warren sharks, and Corbina. If it did not taste good, I did not shoot it again. But one time, I was walking back from the beach, and there was an old guy camped out in an RV. We were talking, and I said, ‘I don’t get it. I haven’t been able to catch many fish lately,’ The old guy explained that I had made an impact on the ocean. I was only two years into spearfishing, and I realized I had blasted everything. As a little kid, you think you are insignificant. But I realized, Holy smokes, every fish I take isn’t in the ocean anymore. That conversation changed my life. I started being very selective.”

Now, Volker mentors new divers, and tries to instill the lesson he learned as a kid. “I always say, ‘Every fish you take has an impact.’ They usually stare at me blankly; they’re thinking, ‘All I want to do is shoot a big fish.’ I tell them, ‘We dive in one spot a lot. Pick a notable fish. Don’t shoot any fish that looks like that. Take notice anytime you see it. You’ll realize you see it quite a bit. At the end of the season, if you feel like it, shoot him. Then keep diving that spot, and you’ll feel it’s absence.’ It helps them understand. You can’t learn that in a book. It works.”


Seven years ago, Lew Cox became of those newbies after spotting Volker exiting the water on a bright sunny morning in La Jolla with a massive Yellowtail slung over his shoulder. To Cox, it seemed like a moment out of a movie. “I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. I asked Volker what he was doing. He said he was a freediver. That’s what got me into the sport.”

Now, Cox is accomplished: on a static dive, he can hold his breath for 4½-5 minutes. On a dynamic dive, he can pull off 2 minutes. “It has taken me 7 years to build up to that. Anyone who can calm themselves down can do it. But it’s hard to get your heart rate to 40. It’s hard to do that just sitting on the couch, let alone in the ocean with predators.” When a diver is at depth, every 30 feet is an atmosphere. On the surface, we are under one atmosphere of pressure. At 30 feet, two. At 60, three, and at 90, four atmospheres of pressure. By the time a diver gets to the fifth atmosphere, the capacity of air in their lungs is one-fifth the size it is on the surface. “At that point,” Cox explains, “it is very tough. You start violently contracting. Your body is trying to force you to breathe. Your brain is saying, ‘Take a breath!’ But you have to ignore that sensation. Turn it off! That is the hardest thing to do. It’s a wild sport!”

Volker mentors new divers, and tries to instill the lesson he learned as a kid. “I always say, ‘Every fish you take has an impact.’”

A former maritime enforcement specialist in the Coast Guard, Cox is athletic: tall and lean, with a swimmer’s shoulders. His hair is buzzed short, and his rectangular glasses give him a bookish look. He can still recall his first spearfishing outing off the Coronado Islands with a group of other new divers. “I think everyone is a mess when they first start freediving. You step off the boat, and you’re in the ocean, on your own, with no tanks. It is shocking! I shot my first fish on that trip; I have been addicted ever since. I spend 50% of my weekends diving. I travel to a lot of countries. I have been to Panama, Costa Rica, Central and South America, and I spend a lot of time lobster diving in San Diego as well.”

It occurs to me that after you shoot a fish, there is the matter of hauling its bleeding body around in the water. Cox shrugs at the thought. “I am not that concerned about getting eaten,” he says. “Sharks come. We call it taxes when they take our fish. One time, I was swimming through the kelp in La Jolla with a 15-pound yellowtail attached to my waist. A sevengill shark swam right up when I wasn’t looking and pulled me backwards. I turned around and there was a massive shark trying to get the yellowtail off my waist. It absolutely freaked me out. But you just tap them and say, ‘Hey! Let it go!’ Normally, they’ll swim away. You have fight for your fish. Never give the sharks the fish, because then they think you’re a food source. There are very few of us divers, and we have a responsibility to train these animals that we are not food.”

Unfortunately, says Cox, that familiarity with sharks extends to Great Whites. “There are so many in Del Mar that it would blow your mind!” he says with a laugh, “I usually get out when I see a White. I have only seen the 10-12-foot juveniles. They can mistake you for food. They will give you a test bite. A test bite can cost you a limb.”

Lew Cox can still recall his first spearfishing outing off the Coronado Islands with a group of other new divers. “I think everyone is a mess when they first start freediving. You step off the boat, and you’re in the ocean, on your own, with no tanks. It is shocking!”

But according to him, sharks aren’t the real problem. Sea lions are. “I’ve gotten bitten by sea lions. The cove is a protected area for them, and their populations are way out of control. NOAA did a study recently that showed the sea lion population is about 20 percent over sustainable. It is devasting the local fish population, and they are harassing divers. It’s a real problem.”

Like Volker, Cox has mentored many new divers since joining the San Diego Freedivers Club. Addrianna Reitenbach, founder of the SoCal Dive Babes, is one of them. When I meet Reitenbach at a local brewery in Carlsbad, she is wearing a shiny ‘70s-inspired satin jacket with a whimsical sunset embroidered on the back, royal blue velvet pants, and pink high heels. Her hair is meticulously curled, her teeth Colgate-commercial white, and her make-up, expert. Her 200-member, all-women dive club’s slogan is: “Have fun, shoot fish, look cute.”

Reitenbach started freediving in 2020. “At the time, I had no idea about the strong history of the sport, or that it was mostly male dominated,” she says, pushing a curl behind her ear and taking a bite of a buffalo wing. “When I first moved to Southern California, I had this vegan roommate. She went on a vacation to Florida and saw girls pole fishing. She came back from that trip and was like, ‘I think I want to spearfish.’ She had been a vegetarian her whole life, but figured if she actually killed a fish, she would be okay with eating it.” Together, the roommates binged spearfishing tutorials on YouTube. Reitenbach stayed up most of the night watching adrenaline-spiking videos of freediving adventures. A flip switched in her brain. “I woke up the next day and thought, ‘This is it! This is my next thing! I am going to learn how to freedive!’ I even went out and bought all new gear.” Her vegan roommate never did get into it, and the fish Reitenbach killed and brought home to gut in their shared kitchen became such a point of contention that she had to move out.

Coming from a scuba diving background, Addrianna Reitenbach says, “It was engrained in me that freediving was dangerous and unhealthy. But I wanted it, and I am an all-in type of person. It took me five hours to pass my freediving class in the ocean. It took me forever! But I did it! I passed!”

Coming from a scuba diving background, she says, “It was engrained in me that freediving was dangerous and unhealthy. But I wanted it, and I am an all-in type of person. It took me five hours to pass my freediving class in the ocean. It took me forever! But I did it! I passed!” Afterward, she began searching for area spearfishers who could take her along on dives. She scrolled through Instagram, searching for local divers, and DM’d dozens of them. “I would say, ‘Hey, I’m new. I just got certified. Will you take me out?’ It didn’t work,” she says with an embarrassed laugh, “No one said yes. Most people didn’t even respond. I get it. It’s super dangerous to take new people out. For most of them, this is the only outlet they have. They have kids and a job. The last thing they want to do is spend their one Sunday in the water with some new person.”

And then there was her status as a woman to consider. “I think women are seen as a commodity in this sport,” laments Reitenbach. “Clubs want to say they have the most women to get better sponsorships and donation dollars. Its bullshit. I think most women that go to the clubs and their meetings are immediately turned off. It’s very rare that they stick around. It’s just men wanting to hit on you and not really teach you anything. It was a crash course to figure out the culture of the sport. I experienced sexism all the time, and I still do. It’s bad.” Instead, she learned the basics via a boat captain she met at a scuba shop. She paid him charter prices, and he took her out two or three times a week. When she made mistakes in the water, he guided her through them.

Reitenbach caught this Wahoo while on a two day trip with Spearfishing Baja: “Not gonna lie, my ego goes nutso when I land a big fish or a new species!”

Then both beach access and boat ramps were shut down due to covid. But Reitenbach was not deterred. “I had a dive buddy who took me out even after the beaches closed. We got chased by lifeguards. One time, the lifeguard truck was screeching down the beach after us. We ran in the water and dove for five hours. When we got out, that lifeguard truck was still there, waiting for us. We had to scale a cliff to get out. I was overloaded in gear in a 7 mil wetsuit with 20-pound weights. We had to walk two miles to the car. It was a nightmare. There were a lot of moments like that during covid.”

It wasn’t just covid; in those first days, everything was a struggle. She had a hard time diving past 30 feet. She could barely handle her gun, and she felt that every fish she got was just a lucky shot. Starting the SoCal Dive Babes helped build confidence. The comaraderie she shared with the other women pushed her to learn how to handle her gun, how to brain a fish under water, how to prepare the fish she caught, and how to be a more efficient hunter and diver. “I began targeting one species at a time. I told myself not to just shoot whatever I saw. I focused on one fish and shot placement. I started with calicos, because they are very hard to shoot. Once I started to stone them repetitively, I moved on to other fish. I went species by species, learning how to hunt them before graduating on to the next.”

Then, in July of 2021, Reitenbach had a life-changing experience during a bluefin tuna hunting trip. “I will always remember my first bluefin. I spent two days trying to catch one. I tried everything, but it just wasn’t lining up for me. I gave up on shooting one. Instead, I got in the moment. I dove down and held my position. There was a school of bluefin tornadoing around me. One fish broke out of the school and moved towards me. I was looking right at it. They say never to make eye contact because you’ll look like a predator and the fish will swim away. But we made eye contact, and I felt a connection. It felt like this fish chose me. Time slowed down. It was almost like an Avatar moment, of merging consciousness. I felt that the fish was giving me permission to take its life. I shot it, and it changed me forever.”

She swam the bluefin back to the boat, and there was a big celebration over her catch. The captain started gutting the fish. Then he handed her its heart. “He said, ‘If you want to be taken seriously as a freediver, you have to eat the heart of the first bluefin you catch.’ You eat it raw while it’s still beating. Everyone was crowded around, and I remember thinking that I wanted to be alone with the fish. While holding its heart, I knelt and touched it and said my own little thank you. Then I ate the heart. It changed my idea of spearfishing. I started seeing it as connecting as opposed to hunting.”


“Life-changing” is a term you hear a lot when you talk to freedivers. Volker Hoehne has dozens of tales: everything from a sevengill on his shoulder, to Gray Whale sightings, to multiple Great White encounters, to submarine sightings. But two years ago, something happened that changed the way he dives. On a perfect 70-degree sunny San Diego day, Volker headed to Solana Beach to catch a fish for dinner. The conditions were clear. The water was tranquil. Volker was zenned out underwater. He took note that were not a lot of fish in sight. The water was eerily still. Finally, he spotted a sheep head and shot it. “My mind was so relaxed,” he recalls. “Normally, I would make sure the fish was on the stringer before taking him off the shaft, but this time, I didn’t. He was bleeding, and a thought came into my head: there is a lot of blood. Why was I so concerned about the blood? I never cared about the blood. The fish struggled, and it got out of my hands. I lost it.”

A little frustrated, Volker floated to the surface before heading back down. The he saw something from the corner of his eye: a large dark object approaching from above him and to the right. When it got closer, he realized that he was in the company of a Great White. It swam past. Volker wondered, “Is that it? Is he leaving? Am I safe now?” But the shark came back around. This time, it was underneath him. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve rehearsed this.’ But my brain was blank. The only thing that mattered was being alive. The shark came back by me again and I thought, ‘If he comes back a third time, it will be a bump or bite moment.’”

Convinced that his life or at least his limbs were on the line, Volker decided that he would stab the shark with the tip of his spear gun if it circled around again. “He comes back again, this time within two feet. I have 15 feet visibility and it’s right under me. I cannot see its tail. It is a big shark! I see its giant eyeball and suddenly, I feel nothing. No fear! I stab it! It takes off. I think, ‘Maybe I can stay out and continue spearfishing?’ My next thought is, ‘That is a really bad idea. Go in!’”

Volker swam past the nearby line-up of the surfers and told them that he had just stabbed a Great White. “A third of them kept surfing. The rest caught the next wave in.” Once on shore, Volker broke down. The fear hit hard; it took him two hours to compose himself enough to walk to his car and drive home. Guardian angel or no guardian angel, “it took me a long time to get out there again. I haven’t been the same since. I bought a shark shield. It’s an electronic thing to keep the sharks away. I have not been out in North County since. You don’t want to see a Great White in the water. Everyone says, ‘Oh what a special moment you had. You are so blessed.’ No! I was diving by myself, and my happy place tried to eat me!”

Lew Cox sees the ocean itself, with its fierce currents and tides, as more of an obstacle than the wildlife it contains. But while he has never had to stab a Great White with his spear gun, he knows whereof Volker speaks. “I have had a couple of near-death experiences out there, one in particular with a Great White shark. We use the phrase ‘poop your wetsuit’ — that was one of those moments, for sure! We were offshore Del Mar at the 9-mile bank. The water was crystal clear. I jumped in a kelp paddy and there was a 12-13-foot Great White sitting underneath it. I was like, ‘Oh!’ I started to turn away and swim backwards. He thought that I was a fish. It was an invitation to come check me out. He swam right up and bumped my leg and swam off. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I got back on the boat. I said, ‘Guys we should go somewhere else! Let’s find another spot!’”

For her part, Reitenbach has not had any close encounters with Great Whites; however, she did witness something just as dangerous: a shallow-water blackout akin to Volker’s pinpoint-vision experience. It happened in Louisiana while diving among the oil rigs. Her companion was a local who agreed to take her out. The water was murky; it resembled frothy Chocolate milk. The first fifteen feet of water had almost zero visibility. “It’s called the murk layer. The rig has intersecting pipes underwater, making it extremely dangerous for divers, due to the possibility of running into one your way back up to the surface. The legs of the rig are covered in barnacles and mollusks that feel like glass when rubbed against. They tear up wet suits and skin, and break lines.” Most spearfishers use cables for the lines when diving the area, because they won’t tear.

“When we got in the water, he started being a little micro-managey and mansplainey. I thought, ‘What is this guy’s problem?’ I think he was worried about things going wrong. But when I stoned a fish, he finally backed off a little. After a while, he said, ‘I am not feeling well. I am going to swim my gun back to the boat.’ I am thinking, ‘Well, I am not done. I just flew all the way out here for the weekend.’ I asked if he would mind just staying with me and watching from the surface while I dove. He agreed to do that for another hour.”

After dropping off his gun, her companion decided he would keep diving after all. Alarm bells went off in Reitenbach’s mind, but she pushed them aside. She wanted to explore more. The man asked to borrow her gun, dove down, and shot a three-pound snapper. “The fish took off and the reel got wrapped around the rig underwater. I was really frustrated. He wanted to cut the line. I did not. We argued about it.” Finally, he said that if she let him cut the line, he would buy her a new gun. She agreed.

The man swam done to cut the line. After a while, Reitenbach realized he had been down for a long time — it was his longest dive of the day. When 56 seconds had passed, she got nervous. Then she felt the line go slack and figured he must be on his way back up. “Because the water was so murky, I didn’t see him black out. By the time I made him out, I saw the top of his head and shoulders. He was shaking. I couldn’t understand what was happening. The water was really volatile, and I was in this little pie slice between the pipes in the rig.” She dove down and lifted him out by the armpits, then hoisted him up over her shoulders like she was burping a baby. He had blacked out.

“On the surface, I ripped his mask off. I was just kicking, kicking, kicking, and all the while thinking, ‘I don’t know how to get him on the jet ski! I don’t know how to drive a jet ski! I don’t know what to do with a dead body! I don’t even know where I am. I don’t have a compass or one of those call thingies!’”

He came to while she was still clutching him. She somehow managed to swim him back to the jet ski. “His lips were not purple or blue, they were black, and his skin was so white! It was traumatizing! It turned out he had covid. That explains why he blacked out.” It’s just one of the reasons she never dives alone. “I have had people tell me that to get better, I should. I will never do that. You never know when you will need someone.”

Volker might disagree, or at least demur. “People get caught up in the whole ‘dive with someone else’ idea, but here is the thing: If I am in the water and my buddy is in the water, maybe I’ll check on him every ten minutes. If he blacks out, he’s dead. I can’t do a thing about it. I won’t be close enough to save him. Besides, if I wait for a buddy, I’m not going to get to dive a whole lot.”

Part of the freedom of freediving is the freedom to die while freediving. Lew Cox admits this is a thought with which his wife struggles. “It is tough for her. Especially when I go on a trip. I am leaving next week to go to Mag Bay. and I will have no cell service for five days. After I say goodbye to her, she has no idea if I’ll return, when I’ll return, or whether or not I’ll be injured. It happens. We lose freedivers every year. But we are all very cautious about how we do this. We never dive alone. We pick good buddies, and we train for safety.” When Cox dives, there is always a first aid kit with bandages, gauze, and a tourniquet on the boat, in case someone gets bitten by a shark or hit by a boat in the water.

But again, it’s the water that poses the greatest danger. “Shallow water blackout is the scariest thing we can experience as freedivers. It happens all the time. Last year, it took two divers in California. These were very good and talented divers who could dive 120 feet. But it happens. You finish your dive and you’re pumping too hard, or you’re too excited about a fish that you shot that is pulled up in a cave. By the time you hit the surface to grab that breath, you run out of oxygen and black out. If no one is around you immediately when that happens, that is the end of it.”

Even so, Cox does not get hung up on the fear. “You can only control what you can control. Nothing is hundred percent safe. You can get killed on the highway. Certain hobbies are fulfilling on another level. My identity is a spearfisherman and freediver. The risks associated with it are what make it fun.” It’s evident that he has had this conversation countless times. He leans in, taking a sip of his coffee before continuing, “If there was a way for me to do this more safely, I would. I do everything I can. But if I get to the end of my life and I have any regrets, it will be that I did not take this further. That I did not go more places. That I did not see more reef, and try more fish, and meet more people.”

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2

Brandon Zeek, unfortunately it sucks that you feel that way. The reality of the situation is you murder innocent animals for sport, which makes you a brute. How fitting it is that you feel the writers of this piece are brutes. They, you see, are not harming innocent animals in the process. You decided to kill them for fun, now people are having a little fun with the idiocracy of your little 'sport.' Maybe you should consider going vegan or watching Seaspiracy. You underwater cave troll!

Feb. 4, 2022

I enjoy and spend considerable time in the ocean. However, I believe the oceans are horribly polluted and the animal and plant life are toxic to consume. I also believe humans are raping and abusing the ocean of everything. I hope I'm wrong. Maybe instead of this cowardly killing of ocean creatures we can set you all loose on taking out violent human criminals. More productive all the way around.

Feb. 5, 2022

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