The Southern California—and worldwide—dive community was rocked Monday morning when news of a fire aboard the Truth Aquatics liveaboard M/V Conception broke. Five crew members survived the fire, but there is no sign of additional survivors among the 34 others aboard Conception.
Allison Vitsky Sallmon is an award-winning underwater photographer, founder of the non-profit Dive Into the Pink and frequent contributor to Scuba Diving and Sport Diver. She has been diving off of the Conception since moving to Southern California in 2007, and took the time to offer her thoughts about the local dive community in the wake of the Conception tragedy.
I can’t separate myself from personal sadness as I write this, but this isn’t about me.
It wasn’t about me when my phone started ringing with texts and calls very early Monday morning, family and friends checking in on my safety (many divers throughout California experienced the same deluge). It wasn’t about me when stories began to emerge in the media (some of them, quite frankly, ridiculous). It wasn’t about me when people began touching base with each other on Facebook (“Who was offshore this weekend? Where is everyone?”).
And it definitely wasn’t about me when names began to trickle out, names of people I knew, names of people I didn’t know, names released piecemeal during the workday and then texted to me by a friend, finally adding up to so many texts that I had to abruptly leave a work meeting in tears.
It’s about divers, and it’s about California divers in particular. It’s about being helplessly, hopelessly addicted to the Pacific, which taunts us cruelly at times with marginal visibility, uncomfortable swell, or both, only to abruptly turn around and grant us a blessed flash of calm, blue clarity—just enough to feed our obsession and pull us back again and again, even when those good conditions slip back into hiding and stay for months.
It’s about a group of friends on the water for a long weekend holiday, about fathers and daughters, about families sharing their love of the ocean, about a well-known, well-admired trip leader. It’s about an off-duty crew member getting a comfortable and well-deserved rest in a bunk, and it’s about a few individual scuba fanatics who just wanted to spend some time diving.
It’s about unparalleled marine life, being surrounded by a huge pod of dolphins one minute, dozens of sea lion pups the next, and a swarm of pulsing jellyfish the next. It’s about towering kelp and glowing anemones and nudibranchs of every conceivable shape and size.
It’s about being aboard one of California’s amazing liveaboard dive boats (for the unfamiliar, perhaps a bit more like glamping than a tropical luxury experience), happy divers jostling in the seats around you as you excitedly discuss your last dive, your next dive, and your planned dates for another trip out to the Channel Islands.
It’s about arguing drysuit versus wetsuit depending upon season. It’s about noting where the gummy bears are hidden in the salon (and sneaking over to grab a few extra red ones when no one’s looking). It’s about knowing the captain and crew by name because you see the same men and women on every single trip for years and years, and you’ve witnessed firsthand how hard they work and how very much they care about their boat and every single diver on it.
Days have passed, and we are still glued to news outlets and to social media, encompassed by this local hurricane that has effectively blocked out the outside world. How could this happen here, in our own waters, with our own people, on a boat we have known and loved well, with a captain and crew we trust implicitly?
We watch in disbelief as the investigation continues, pulling in Coast Guard, law enforcement, rescue and safety people from all over the state, and all kinds of others—and we can see from their faces that they are exhausted, that the situation is terrible beyond comprehension.
We draw diagrams for our non-diving friends and try patiently, calmly, to explain that yes, we have been on board, and that oh yes, we have felt very safe. We read extensive debates, some points arising from people who don’t dive, who haven’t ever been on a boat, who maybe just don’t get it.
We see cruel comments. We do our very best to hold our tongues, although it is hard, so very hard. We dream of the Pacific and think to ourselves, “My God, what I would give to be doing a giant stride off of that entry platform right now?” We pray hard for a miracle, for some comfort for the families, for peace for the crew and captain, for everyone involved to feel our love and our sorrow and support (sometimes sobbing in the bathroom as we do).
We reach out for each other, comforting people we know only by name, hugging random acquaintances, and making sure to tell our closest dive buddies how very much we love them.
We take time, every single day, to do anything we can to help each other ease a pain that seems so private, so draining, so unimaginable.
And most of all, we make plans to get back into the ocean, to honor a loss that deserves to be honored in the best way we know how, in the best way we can. Because in the end, it’s about divers, and it’s about California divers in particular.