This is such a huge story I will just try to sum it up briefly and post updates as they develop.
Ever since my earliest trips to the island back in 2001-02 I have been developing a friendly working relationship with these local fishermen and divers. As a commercial diver myself I had a sort of kinship with these local divers. I have become very good friends with quite a few of these characters over the years. I have spent many hours communicating with and supporting them in any way I could.
From the very beginning they had told me of the harsh conditions that they were used to working in.
These guys are hardcore divers.
Luis Padrin, Diver and Secretary of the Abulon Cooprativa
Even though they work in one of the sharkiest places on earth and they often observe white sharks during their daily dives, not one of them has ever been bitten or attacked by a white shark. However, all of them have a story about having a close encounter or two with white sharks. They have developed a great respect for the white shark and they also are very aware of how important the white shark is to the ecosystem that they depend on for their livelihood.
More than fearing the sharks, they actually have greater concern about the physiological hazards of the frequent deep diving that they do to harvest abalone.
There are approximately 8 panga crews that consist of a diver, panga operator and a tender that go out each day from mid-January until mid-June. Each panga has a sector or zone around the island that they are assigned to work. The panga crews go and dive to collect abalone from depths as deep as 90 feet. The diver is supported by the topside crew. The tender minds the diver's hose and keeps the compressor running. The panga operator keeps the panga above the diver by following his bubbles. The diver stays down as long as an hour and sends baskets of abalone up to the panga crew. This method of harvesting has been practiced all over the world for many years.
The problem is that the divers are not using any type of dive computer and basically they "feel" their way through the decompression phase of the dive. They try to ascend slowly and they try not to stay down too long. But sometimes they do, and then inevitably suffer from decompression sickness (DCS) or the "Bends". Some serious accidents have occurred leaving some of the divers permanently disabled and unable to provide for their families. When a diver is afflicted with DCS they must treat themselves in water which means the diver must return to the water and dive down to 160 feet and then ascend very slowly. Sometimes this works and sometimes it does not. In any event the in-water treatment scenario is very cold and very dangerous. These DCS events are infrequent, but when they do happen it is devastating to the victim and their families.
I have been working on a solution to this problem for years. The Isla Guadalupe Abulon Cooperativa divers need a Hyperbaric Chamber.
In fact, I did indeed deliver a hyperbaric chamber to the Cooperativa back in August 2006.
I actually purchased a working chamber from Harbor Offshore Inc. in Ventura, CA. I had just completed a huge diving project for Harbor Offshore up in San Francisco Bay. I knew that Harbor Offshore had an old double lock chamber that would work perfectly for the Cooperativa. I had used this particular chamber on the Richmond San Rafael Bridge project and I knew the chamber was back in storage in Ventura. I called my friend John Ventress, the owner of Harbor Offshore, and asked him if I could purchase the chamber for the Cooperativa. He agreed and sold me the chamber for $8,000.00.
That was the easy part. After delivering the chamber which weighs over 4000 lbs. to the Cooperativa in Ensenada the Cooperativa representatives took the chamber to the Mexican Navy base in Ensenada and asked them to transport the chamber to Guadalupe on one of the Navy boats that visits the island once a month. The Navy accepted the chamber and put it in storage awaiting a resupply mission to Guadalupe. Then the Navy claimed that the chamber was too heavy to be transported to the island.
They kept the chamber there in storage on the base for 4 years. WTF!
Last September a special ship was going to Guadalupe to remove some scrap metal from the island.
The Cooperativa was able to recover the chamber from the Navy and put it on this scrap metal ship prior to its departure to the island. This scrap metal ship was actually a type of landing craft equipped with a ramp that could be lowered onto the beach at the shore to deploy a tractor. The ship transported the chamber to Guadalupe and delivered it onto the island.
I was recently granted a permit issued by CONAPP (the authority that governs and maintains the Isla Guadalupe Biosphere Reserve) to visit the island regularly to work with the Cooperativa on getting the chamber up and running and provide training for the divers in Hyperbaric chamber operations and diver training and safety.
This past Tuesday I flew out to Guadalupe to see the chamber and assess its condition. I was also invited to meet with the Cooperativa divers about plans to construct a new Hyperbaric Medical facility to house the chamber and provide training for operating the chamber.
The funny thing was that the flight I was on was actually a "MILK RUN" literally!
Forward cargo compartment filled with 12 gallons of Leche (milk)
25 kilos of Avocados, 25 kilos of tomatoes and another 100 kilos of various other fresh goodies.
The flight was very exciting and the weather was PERFECT!
The trip from the airstrip on top of the island to the Fisherman's camp was grueling but the scenery was simply stunning. The island is absolutely beautiful this time of year and there is actually lots of green vegetation all over the island this time of year.
Offloading supplies at the company store at the Fisherman's Camp.
Surprisingly Isla Guadalupe is home to approximately 150 inhabitants.
The whole town turned up to welcome me and they were incredibly gracious and hospitable. I was given the total VIP treatment. They provided me and the pilot our own little beach house and it was really quite comfortable. Then came the fresh Abalone for lunch which was absolutely delicious! Then a guided tour of the whole town.
The view from mi casa
Powerhouse. (diesel generators provide electricity for the whole town).
Notice the little red satellite dishes on every house.
After school most kids like to play soccer or go swimming in the ocean.
The future Abalone divers of Isla Guadalupe.
I was very glad to find the chamber in reasonably good shape after languishing at the Naval base in Ensenada for 4 years and being hauled across 200 miles of ocean and then dragged up off of the beach it is actually and surprisingly in good working order. With a little cleaning and painting it will be in great shape.
The divers placed the chamber on a good sized concrete pad close to where the pangas are loaded and offloaded. The location and placement of the chamber is important so that it is easily accessible in emergencies. Where it is now is the perfect spot!
Soon we will begin construction of a new structure to house the chamber protecting it from the harsh marine environment. We will also be installing a high pressure air compressor to charge large air cylinders to provide pressurized air for both the chamber and to fill "bailout" cylinders for the divers to wear in case they experience a loss of air supply of their surface supplied air.
I am very glad to finally be making progress in this very important endeavor. I look forward to spending more time with my friends of the Abulon Cooperativa and spending more time on this beautiful island that I care so much about.
Most importantly I am glad that I am able to finally provide the divers of the Cooperativa a measure of safety for there work so they can continue to provide for there families for generations to come.
Yours in sharks,