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Divers Make Unusual Finds During Harbor Cleanup

Divers find a toilet, bicycles, chairs and piles of other junk hidden in the deeps of the Dana Point Harbor during clean up

Kyle Campbell pulled the black LG cell phone from the muck, surrounded by darkness. The 18-year-old diver could see only inches from his face, so he tucked the phone away for later and groped for more lost treasure on the Harbor’s squishy bottom.

“It’s fun to see what’s down there,” said Campbell, breathing hard after his father helped pull him from the Harbor waters up onto the dock. He unstrapped his weight belt and corrected himself. “It was more like feeling what’s down there.”

Thirty divers participated in the first annual Dana Point Harbor Underwater Cleanup event on May 2, a rare opportunity for submerged explorers to investigate the depths of waters normally off-limits. The divers piled heaps of trash onto the docks as they discovered debris hidden in the mud, including a toilet, two bicycles, chairs, tools, bait buckets and at least six cell phones.

While the divers had their fun, Harbor officials stood on dry-land and spoke to how the event is the latest effort to keep the Harbor environment clean. “This event is part of our ever developing water improvements we’re implementing in the Harbor,” said Brad Gross, Harbor Director at the OC Dana Point Harbor. “Our main goal in this is water quality.”

Earlier this year, the county finished a spot dredging project that included sand replenishment at Baby Beach. Officials hope that removing the old sand and replacing it with fresh sand will ultimately improve water quality. Later this year the county and city will partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in two studies looking at water circulation and the condition of the Harbor’s breakwaters, paid for by $828,000 of federal stimulus money signed by President Barack Obama in March.

Gross said the cleanup is another tool to keep the waters clean. “It was safe, it was fun and it cleaned up a section of the Harbor,” said Gross. “We’ll do it again with the same goals in mind.”

Divers called the event an unusual adventure that fulfilled curiosity while improving technique working in a dark environment.

“This was a whole new experience,” said Ruth Harris, who dove with her husband Larry. “It was strictly a feel your way around experience. It was pitch black.”

The Harris team discovered a set of tools and a dog leash with, luckily, “no dog attached to it.” Ruth also said she touched something “alive” and was relieved when it didn’t come back.

Many divers found something they didn’t expect. Laurel Silver-Walker, a school teacher from King City, found a dust buster, knives, tools and a chair. Victor Chu of Tustin Ranch found a pile of rebar, a spool of wire and a chair overrun with barnacles. He still sat it in for photos. Jeff Griffin, one of two Dana Point divers at the cleanup, found a skateboard, a fan and batteries.

One by one the divers emerged from the water, piling the foul smelling trash on the docks and in a nearby parking lot. South Orange County Dive Club president Konrad Fry traveled the docks, camcorder in hand, documenting his colleagues finds.

“You never would be able to dive in a Harbor unless you did an event like this,” he said. “It’s a dive adventure. Anything out of the regular dives is fantastic.”

According to Sgt. John Whitman of the Dana Point Harbor Patrol divers are normally only allowed to enter the waters with a business permit from the county and must stay out of the channels. “They can’t impede boating traffic,” he said. “We ask them to stay out of the channel.”

The Harbor Patrol aided the cleanup by patrolling the channel outside docks A, B, C and D, and the local United State Coast Guard Auxiliary sent four Maritime Domain Awareness Inspectors out to keep any boaters from accidently injuring the volunteer divers. Tony Dallendorfer led the Inspectors and shared in laughs with the divers as trash was pulled from the deeps. “You’re going to have one heck of a garage sale,” he joked.

While nothing found was deemed valuable, Whitman said that had anything of value been found—a diamond wedding ring for example—the diver would have been required to turn it in. Whitman also said any potential evidence, like a handgun, would also need to be turned in so investigators could link the discarded firearm to earlier crimes.

The rusting tools and waterlogged cell phones, however, were free game to the divers who found them. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s garbage,” he said. “If you want to keep it, knock yourself out.”

Whitman also spoke to the penalties of dumping in the Harbor and said that his deputies rarely catch someone in the act.

“It’s rare,” said Whitman. “First off, it’s very hard to catch someone dumping, especially something like toilets or bikes, which go under and leave no reside behind. Unless we actually see someone doing it, or have an informant who saw them doing it, it would be really tough for us to do something about it.”

If caught, boaters would pay a fine or worse if the material was deemed hazardous.

While some boaters may dump unwanted trash into the dark waters, the Harbor staff believes most of the items found during the cleanup were likely lost by accident. “I mean, who wants to lose their bike?” asked Harbor operations manager Paul Lawrence. “I can’t think that someone would intentionally throw their bike into the water.”

“We found batteries with the cap still on it,” said Gross. “There’s a good chance that somehow that made it into the water without anyone knowing. Boaters might walk away from the dock and come back to find their chair missing and assume someone just walked away with it.”

Lawrence guesses that the piles of trash found during the cleanup was more a result of decades of accidents than frequent dumping. “This is the first time we’re aware of that there has ever been an underwater cleanup here,” he said. “Given that, I’m not surprised we’re finding a variety of items.”

However the items got there, the divers were more than happy to remove them. Ruth Harris lauded the Harbor department and the staff of the Dana Point Marina Company for hosting the event and promised to return if and when more cleanups are held.

“The hospitality of these people is just overwhelming,” she said. “These guys are great. They’ve made us feel more than welcome and needed. We’ll be back.”

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