Rainbow flecks danced in 34 abalone shells, each cradling a candle and encircling a black air tank emblazoned with a heart-shaped dive flag. Karen Harris picked up one of the silver Sharpies provided and scrawled a message across the cylinder to divers she had never met, but still felt she knew.
“A lot of us have been on the Conception,” said Harris, a local Monterey diver. “If it could happen to them, it could have happened to any of us.”
More than 100 people gathered at San Carlos Beach Park Thursday, Sept. 5, to honor the 34 divers who died in the Conception dive boat fire in the Channel Islands Labor Day.
Patrick Webster, a social media associate at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, spearheaded the affair by creating a Facebook event to bring his dive community together near Breakwater, a well-known local introductory dive site.
“This is not the definitive memorial tribute to the people that are lost,” Webster said. “I think I needed to get the community together somewhere to process and be together. I figured we might as well do it at the San Carlos Beach Park that started so many dive careers that ultimately went onto the Channel Islands aboard those boats.”
Because of his prominence in the dive community and his social media connections, the message spread up and down the Bay Area, attracting divers who commuted from hours away to be a part of the event.
Local dive shop Aquarius supplied pizzas for everyone, as well as bubbles that were blown in unison after a minute of silence. People took turns signing cards to be sent to Truth Aquatics and families of victims.
Though most present at the memorial did not know the victims personally, many divers have taken trips on Truth Aquatics vessels.
“My first trip to Channel Islands was on the Conception,” Webster said. “I met a really good friend of mine [Umihiko Hoshijima] on that trip. He passed away recently and the only photo I really have of him is on those Truth [Aquatic] boats.”
Three friends who work at Bamboo Reef, a well-known dive shop in Monterey, were on the Conception’s sister boat, the Vision, when the fire occurred. Jose Salazar, Nicholas Ta and Emily Palmer had planned the five-day trip to spend time together before Palmer moved to Florida.
After three days of “incredible” diving, Palmer woke up on Monday morning and felt an immediate change onboard.
“We’re headed to Cortes Bank and the captain turned the boat around,” Palmer said. “When he told us what happened, we were just completely shocked. You could tell that something went wrong, but I expected it to be that someone might have had a heart attack or dive accident. You never expect to hear a whole boat went down with everyone on it.”
Salazar, who graduated from California State University, Monterey Bay in 2017, barely remembered the onboard announcement, but recalled being overwhelmed by the news.
“Once the captain told us what happened, I was having a bit of a hard time taking it in just because that could have easily been us. It could have been any one of their ships that had caught on fire,” Salazar said.
Many divers had similar realizations when they heard the news and dealt with feelings of uneasiness and grief the best way they knew how – getting in the water.
“Diving is where I get my peace, where I have my freedom,” said Palmer, who dived with Salazar that morning to collect abalone shells for the vigil. “I go there to kind of escape what’s up here.”
Webster noted all divers share that connection to the water, but believes California divers have a special bond that unites them and draws the community even closer.
“California kelp forests are one of the most biologically interesting places to dive. They are cathedrals of algae that you get to fly through like you’re an owl in the redwoods. It takes a certain human to want to go there, to go through the training and then to keep doing it. And so then when you know those people and you meet them, you don’t have to make any introductions. You know that you agree with those people on 90 percent of everything that matters. And that’s your family, that’s your tribe, those are the people that you’re connected to,” Webster said.
“I feel like I lost brothers and sisters that I didn’t know yet, because I know that if I was on that boat, I would be getting along with every single one of them. And I’d be on that boat tomorrow if it was still here.”