Uncovering the names in La Jolla’s underwater cemetery — and its caretaker
by JILL DIAMOND
Published - 09/20/19 - 12:00 PM | 3646 views | 0 0 comments | 41 41 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A diver checking out the tombstone. Photo courtesy of Volker Hoehne.
A diver checking out the tombstone. Photo courtesy of Volker Hoehne.
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It’s hard to believe but the first organized dive club in the world started in La Jolla — and they were called the San Diego Bottom Scratchers.  

While the pioneering members — 19 of them — are now gone, there is still an underground cemetery of tombstones bearing some of their names. It’s located a few hundred yards northwest of Boomers Beach/Point in La Jolla, next door to the preserve at the cove and at the bottom of the ocean.  

Many members of the club lived in Old Town, Point Loma, El Cajon, and other suburbs of a then-early 20th-century San Diego. However, La Jolla's unique environmental characteristics certainly established it as the focal point of most early sport diving, said one expert.  

The San Diego Bottom Scratchers are widely recognized as the first organized dive club in the world, and as the first individuals in San Diego to be considered sport divers,” according to Ashleigh Palinkas, scientific diving technician and marine biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 

She said having been watermen all their lives, the Bottom Scratchers lived up to their name by scratching around the bottom of the ocean for food to feed their families and friends during the Great Depression in the 1930s.  

It is also said that their name came from the scratching of horn shark horns dangling from their swim trunks, a trophy collected during one of their several formidable club initiation rituals,” she said. 

After a year of diving together and sharing their catch, the club was officially founded in 1933 by divers Jack Prodanovich, Ben Stone, and Glenn Orr. 

Palinkas said throughout their lifetimes, members of the Bottom Scratchers were widely accredited for inventing goggles and subsequent facemasks, underwater camera housings, paddleboards, and speargunsamong other miscellaneous tools for exploration beneath the surface.  



Jack Prodanovich and Wally Potts were the innovators of the equipment and as an example, Jack made the first goggles out of a woman’s compact mirror and set those in a cut radiator hose,” said the daughter of Potts, Lyndee Logan.  

From her home in Paris, Logan, a retired real estate agent, added the club was indeed very special and not an easy one in which to become a member. 

In order to be initiated, they had to do various tasks that were rigorous — like one was to pick up three abalone in a depth of 30 feet in one breath,” she said. “It was a very exclusive club, that’s why there were only 19 members in total.” 

 

FAMOUS FOLK 

Word of the San Diego Bottom Scratchers continued to spread and in 1949, they were featured in the May issue of National Geographic Magazine. At that time, the article estimated there to be 8,000 skin divers in Southern California, Palinkas said. 

But if you think you can join today, you’ll be disappointed.  

The club ended around 1983, Logan recalled, and its last remaining member, Jim Stewart, longtime diving safety officer of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, passed in 2017, Palinkas said.  

There was no specific reason why it ended. My personal belief is that sport diving has gained such exposure and popularity over the years that it simply isn't as concentrated into one club as it was in the '30s, '40s and even '50s,” Palinkas said.  

Logan said she believed the club ended because they “didn’t want to take new members.”  

I think it just died a natural death and they chose not to perpetuate it; it wouldn’t have been representative of the heart and soul of the club had it gone on in name only,” Logan said. 

 

SOMETHING TO SEE 

Capt. Ryan Sweeney, owner/operator of Brink Expeditions and an experienced free diver, knows of the tombstone site firsthand having visited.  

It would be near impossible to find on your own, except for a few of the tombstones that are pretty large and noticeable I suppose,” he said. “Some are small and deteriorated over time.”  

And while his business doesn’t offer excursions to the site, he has been to see the tombstones up close and personal.  

It’s neat to see how they evolve over time, a shift in the currents and age as the growth takes them over. Sometimes, I’ll scrub them a bit to keep them clean,” he said. 

 

THE CARETAKER 

According to scuba and free diver Volker Hoehne, who is a full-time business analyst, the care for the tombstones’ well-being has been left to him. 

Hoehne said he inherited the task from Potts, who was the sixth member to join the Bottom Scratchers way back. He didn’t recall the tradition of the underwater tombstones, and that “it just passed on through time.” 

Wally said to me once, ‘When I go, please put a marker down there for me,’” Hoehne recalled.   

So, Hoehne has been taking care of the markers ever since and said he will continue to do so until someone else takes the scrub brush. 

As the caretaker of the tombstones, I go down to clean them about every six months,” said Hoehne, 54, who has been diving for as long as he can remember. “There are about 24-36; some are pebbles and rocks piled together, others are actual tombstones or markers.” 

Hoehne, born in Solana Beach and president of the Watermen’s Alliance, a statewide spearfishing advocacy group, said while it is a task to clean them, he gets rid of algae growth and other types of ocean build-up so they look better. 

He also stressed he doesn’t place any markers or tombstones; he just keeps them tidy. 

All the markers have names, Jack Prodanovich has a bronze one — a founding member of Bottom Scratchers and father of the modern-day speargun, he died in 2008,” Hoehne added.  

They [tombstones or markers] weigh a ton on land between 50 and 200 pounds and in the water even more,” Hoehne continued. “The markers aren’t added that often for that reason and also because you’ve got to be a pretty special person to get one down there.” 

In the end, La Jolla, in its early days, was indeed the place to be for the Bottom Scratchers who also explored all of San Diego County's coastlines and Mexican waters up to Los Angeles areas, even out on the Channel Islands, Palinkas said. 

But the best diving was always found in La Jolla. This is why members of the Bottom Scratchers were dedicated to responsible preservation and conservation of the La Jolla area and were supportive of the establishment of the La Jolla Ecological Reserve and Marine Life Refuge in 1970.   

Today, this is known as La Jolla Cove and is a site visited by people from all over the world as a successful, untouched display of nearshore marine biodiversity,” Palinkas said. 

Bottom Scratchers Dive Club — Years Joined 

  • 1933 - Founders Glenn Orr, Jack Prodanovich, and Ben Stone 
  • 1933 - Jack Corbeley 
  • 1938 - Bill Batzloff 
  • 1939- Wally Potts 
  • 1943 - Lamar Boren 
  • 1943 - Tucker Miller 
  • 1943 - Rob Rood 
  • 1950- Don Clark 
  • 1951 - Jim Stewart 
  • 1953 - Conrad Limbaugh 
  • 1954 - Beau Smith 
  • 1955 - Carl Hubbs 
  • 1955 - Earl Murray 
  • 1960 - Emil Haabecker 
  • 1964 - Bill Johnston 
  • 1969 - Harold Riley 
  • 1969 - Jack Taylor 
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