USC Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber Day 2019 + Bottom Scratcher Boat Dives

  • Updated: May 01, 2019
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

May 1st, 2019

Each year the USC Hyperbaric Chamber on Catalina holds a fundraiser day that involves tours of the facility and an opportunity to get a few dives in. It happens to be on a Wednesday when theoretically us gainfully employed types should be working but that's why vacation days were invented.

At least for those of us who aren't schoolteachers.  Jen was unable to get away from school and in the end it ended up being just Jack Kieffer and I driving out to San Pedro before dawn.

The hyperbaric chamber is used for treatment of decompression illness (aka the bends) which are a risk involved in diving due to the amount of nitrogen which is dissolved in your blood while breathing compressed air at depth. So this is both a great way to get to see the chamber without a potentially serious medical complication and also serves as a fundraiser which helps keep the place operational.

To get over to Catalina you select a dive boat when you buy your ticket. We'd originally picked the Cee Ray which is a dive boat I've been on a few times and was going to be staffed by friends. However at the last minute we got word we were being transferred to the Bottom Scratcher due to an unspecified issue with the Coast Guard.

Which meant not only was I going to get to skip work *and* dive but I was also going to get to knock off another dive boat I'd been wanting to try. Win win!

The Bottom Scratcher has a full gally meaning we had a warm place to sit and enjoy breakfast and copious amounts of coffee on the two hour ride over to Catalina.

Note the logo on the mug. Aside from anything else I'd say the Bottom Scratcher wins the best logo competition of the boats I've been on.

Depending on the boat you either do the tour first then dive or dive first then do the tour. We pulled the tour then dive schedule so we went straight to the chamber at a cove near Two Harbors.

The tour is optional (some people just come to donate money and get in some dives) but both Jack and I were here for the first time and ready to see what we could see.

You don't just see the chamber either. After being greeted off the boat by the guy who runs the facility we were handed off to a tour guide who ran us through a number of stations where we heard presentations from different types of rescue personnel.

After filtering our way through a few different boats hearing presentations on drones, rescue divers, rebreathers, and watercraft we were led up the hill to where a helicopter was parked which is where I had one of those small world events.

A little under two months before my WTC group had been through a rough day on Mount Waterman (to be recounted on this site at some later date)  The short version is that one of my staff had a fall and badly broke his leg in a rather out of the way location on the mountain requiring several hours and a bit of a minor ordeal before we were able to get him pulled out via helicopter.

As I was listening to the helicopter crews presentation is struck me that the paint job looked rather familiar. So I pulled out my phone and dug up one of the shots I'd taken during the evac.

Sure enough same paint job but different tail number. After they were done I went up to talk to the two guys.

This was a different helicopter but it turned out that those two had been flying that day on Mount Waterman. It was great to have a chance to thank them for everything and we got to share what had happened on both of our ends that dayt.

After that it was up to see the chamber itself where after a brief presentation you're given the opportunity to go inside the chamber and feel what it's like when they pressurize it.

For the tour they only take you down to a depth of 1 ft which is enough to give you the sensation of needing to clear your ears which is an odd sensation above water. One of the raffle prizes was a full on ride down to 160 ft.

While we were inside there was another presentation covering all the equipment, procedures, and how they deal with various issues.

One of the most interesting tidbits I took away was they had had someone brought to the chamber unconscious. Once they got him under pressure he came awake and started talking. The guy in the chamber with him asked what the last thing he remembered was and his reply was that he'd been under water, his partner had signaled that it was time to ascend, and he filled his BCD with air.

For those who don't dive that's the exact opposite of what you want to do. Air under pressure takes up less volume meaning as you go up whatever air you have in your BCD will expand and cause you to accelerate upward. Hence why you *dump* air when it's time to come up not add. He'd apparently rocketed to the surface and done a passable impression of a dolphin launching out of the water and promptly lost consciousness.

Afterwards we got a tour of the tanks, pump machinery, and controls out back while others from our boat got to take their mini chamber ride.

After that it was back to the boat and time to get our fins wet!

The boat ended up heading over to a nearby site called Rock Quarry which has become one of my favorite Catalina dives.

One of the advantages of spending a lot of time shore diving off Laguna Beach is that I'm always amazed by the blue water and visibility every single time I dive off Catalina. And this time was no exception.

Also I managed to catch a look at the Scarps Butterfly which can be found here. These fish are tropical and aren't supposed to be here but the story goes they were carried over by currents during an El Nino year back in 1983.

And of course we saw plenty of other critters

We initially dropped down to 60 ft and then worked our way back along the shallow section enjoying the kelp and ample life. By the time our tanks were running low we were back at the boat which after a brief surface interval relocated over to Ismuth Cove.

I'm always overjoyed to dive but this location wasn't my favorite.

Unlike Rock Quarry there was no kelp just endless amount of an invasive week called Sargassum. Most of the dive was over ground covered in a good 5 ft of the crap making it harder to dive into the rocks looking for critters.

But hey, a dive is a dive!

I did find one new thing which was a black sea hare that was well over a foot long. I've seen plenty of smaller ones before but nothing like that. Initially I mistook it for some sort of a rock.

Sadly you only get two dives as the boat has to get back early enough for people to attend the Chamber Eve event in Long Beach aka Scuba Prom. I elected to skip the evening event since it was basically the price of a dive boat and didn't involve any diving.

Instead Jack and I headed home...and then met at Laguna before dawn the next morning where we pulled on still set neoprene and strolled down the 70 some steps to the beach.

Nothing like a quick dive at Laguna to reset expectations on visibility.

Jack and I both had a great time and I fully intend to take part in Chamber Day 2020 if at all possible.

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