There is no doubt that a talented, public-spirited hawker of wholesome recreation could have pushed the sport of diving along faster, even in the busted Depression years. The Bottom Scratchers were not that sort. When anyone wanted to know why, or how, they dived and speared fish, the Scratchers willingly passed on all they had learned, but they were not out to promote their club or the sport. Since its official start with four members in 1933 the club has taken in only 14 new members. (The admission rate is about one member every four years, but in 1943 the club lost its head, letting in three new members in one swoop.) Before being admitted, each member must prove his worth in a number of ways, notably by bringing up three abalone from a depth of 30 feet on a single dive without flippers, and by catching a horned shark bare-handed (a feat more difficult than dangerous). Since abalone are scarcer these days and horned sharks are always reluctant to be caught, the size of the club is not apt to get out of hand. Like the whooping cranes at Great Slave Lake, the Bottom Scratchers of San Diego will probably remain a small, well-knit group, with a membership nicely stabilized just this side of extinction. Quite beyond the specific tests that prove his worth, each prospective Scratcher is scrutinized for a year, and often for three years or more, to be sure he is the creditable sort who is likely to stay interested in the sport for a lifetime. Such selectivity, of course, did not help the sport grow in the early years, but it kept it decent, which is why the charter members banded together in the first place.
The livelihood of a number of the Scratchers depends in part or wholly on the sea. Glenn Orr, the original Scratcher, works as a heavy-equipment operator for the San Diego Port Authority and doubles as a diver when the piers, pilings and submarine plumbing of the port need a once-over. As a sideline, Jack Pro-danovich, a high school custodian, and Wally Potts, a project foreman at Solar Aircraft, manufacture quality spear guns that are to underwater hunters what the Purdy gun is to the upland-game crowd. Since admission to the club in 1943, Lamar Boren has earned the better part of his living photographing famous undersea creatures for Hollywood and TV—Jane Russell, Lloyd Bridges, the Aquanauts, the sharks of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Flipper, the dolphin, being the ones most people will remember. Among the younger Scratchers—the kids who have been in the club less than 20 years—two are fairly well known in their fields: Dr. Carl Hubbs, the eminent ichthyologist of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Diving Chief Jim Stewart of Scripps, who is a full voting member though still a mere child of 38 years.
Although they often use surface-supplied air or scuba tanks when diving for business, for sport the Scratchers use only lung power. In the past 34 years 58-year-old Orr, the original Scratcher, has spent about 800 hours underwater simply holding his breath. In physiological tests recently conducted by the Scripps Institution, Orr's lungs and heart proved to be working better than those of professional athletes and pearl divers of the Torres Strait, although Orr maintains he is not half so fit as he used to be. Perhaps the Scripps data bears this out. When Scripps scientists tested him Orr was able to do light work underwater for only three minutes and 42 seconds on a single breath, and it was fully 10 seconds before the ticking of his ancient heart started returning to normal. Obviously the man is wasting away, ravaged by time.
The sport of diving might have spread faster if some of the first reports on the Bottom Scratchers had not been so misleading. From the outset the Scratchers simply enjoyed diving and hunting in the beautiful realm of drowned out-croppings and vertical jungles of kelp that make up the Pacific's steep shelf. But the press in the early days too often portrayed them as thrill-seekers. There was, for example, the specific case of the sea lion versus Glenn Orr. As it really happened, a sea lion ran slam-bang into Orr and, playfully or in anger, sank six teeth in his back. A doctor snipped off bits of ligament that protruded from the teeth wounds and advised Orr to stay out of the water for a few days (which he did not do, since he had not yet taken his limit of abalone). Before it had run its course in public print, the sea lion encounter had become a death struggle of the sort whales sometimes have with giant squid. In the lurid accounts that appeared in syndicated columns and short feature stories at the time it bit Orr, the sea lion was defending its young and charged Orr in rage, tearing a large chunk of muscle out of his back. Then, in a welter of bubbles and blood, as the sea lion came in for a second mouthful, Orr stabbed it to death. Though gripping, such blown-up accounts did not persuade many ordinary Americans to try the sport.
As the doings of the Bottom Scratchers spread, accurately and otherwise, the club members began getting mail from around the world, much of it, to their surprise, from foreigners who were already enjoying the same sport in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the South Atlantic and the western reaches of the Pacific. In pioneering the sport in this country Orr and the early Scratchers had been groping along a trail that others had traveled earlier. Long before the Scratchers went below, a French Navy commander, Yves le Prieur, had been diving professionally and often for the fun of it. At least two years before Glenn Orr fell into the new world, Guy Gilpatric, an expatriate American author, was diving on the C�te d'Azur (in 1938 Gilpatric published a book on underwater hunting, wisely explaining at the outset that goggle-fishing did not mean to fish for goggles, but rather with goggles). Crude goggles were in use centuries ago and have been used often here and there throughout the warm waters of the world. Indeed, the whole art of diving is such a haphazard product of so much coincidental invention of so many different people and so many distant waters that some of the threads of its history are still as badly tangled as a plate of linguine.
While reasonably proud of having played a small part in the tangle, the Bottom Scratchers are today more concerned with the present and the future. The human population now crowds their part of the land, fouling the waters with waste. There is no longer the abundance of abalone, lobster and fish; the filth of the earth clouds the water; the red tide plagues it increasingly and there is little chance that the damage can ever be undone.
"I see a diver now looking for abalone in the cove at La Jolla," Bottom Scratcher Lamar Boren observed recently. "He is wearing a depth gauge, a compass, a mask, flippers and snorkel, plus tank, pressure gauge, weight belt, knife, abalone iron and safety vest—a floating hock shop. All dressed up for very slim pickings. When I see him I cannot help thinking that the really sad part of it is he's come along about 20 years too late."