Diving The Infidel: Advanced Diving at Catalina Island
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” This saying from Gandhi can be seen in practice every day; and I’m talking about the latter as opposed to the former idea in the quote. The “greed” part was definitely flourishing on a December night in 2006, at the east end of Catalina Island off Southern California.
Words & Photos by Joe Dovala. Visit his website here.
The squid purse seiner Infidel was near capacity when the gluttonous skipper decided another haul of squid needed to be crammed below decks. Supposedly, in their haste, the cargo hold baffles had not been secured either. So when the heavily squid-laden net came out of the sea, the vessel heaved to that side, then just kept going all the way to the bottom in 150 feet of water. Luckily, all the crew managed to abandon ship and swim to the rocky shore. The insurance company paid the claim, so no attempts were made to do any salvage.
Intact shipwrecks are few and far between in Southern California, and the fact that this one has only been down for a handful of years is even more rare. Unfortunately, the large purse seine net was still partially deployed when she sank. The billowing nylon mesh caused many marine life casualties even after the ship’s fishing career was over. Sea lions, sharks, even cormorants became trapped and drowned after getting too close and becoming snared. Thankfully, a local group called Ocean Defenders Alliance has made several dives on the derelict, removing a good portion of the killing net. About half the netting remains but it now appears to be a little “safer” for animals that may be cruising around the wreck. The hanging curtain of net gives the Infidel a very spooky feel to her. Most of the remaining netting is located just aft of the bridge, and can’t really be seen if you swim up on her from the bow. As you get closer and see the stowed anchor in its place, it looks as if she could still be at the dock.
The Infidel sits upright on the sand with most of the glass intact. They’re covered in algae and other marine growth so you can’t see through them. Wires, cables, drums, and other bric-a-brac lay exposed everywhere, with newspapers and magazines flowing back and forth in the gentle surge. Computer and refrigerator components are toppled over on each other, and even a mountain bike sits upright in the bridge. Fishing vessels of this size are fairly cramped – even on the surface – so you must be very cautious while poking around one underwater. The netting is surprisingly difficult to cut, even with a very sharp knife, and the fact it’s made out of nylon means it will last almost forever.
The Infidel has, as usual, become an artificial reef. Schools of juvenile rockfish and blacksmith cruise the ruins, and more pelagic critters cruise by as well. Schools of sardines, mackerel, and a few rays occasionally make an appearance. Of course, since there’s a sea lion rookery on shore you can count on getting a visit from a curious “sea dog” as well while diving here.
Despite the depth and recently sinking, a considerable amount of algae has grown upon the netting, providing significant grazing potential. Sea stars, cucumbers, slugs, and sheep crabs ply over the dark green mesh looking for morsels. There is little doubt that if your luck is running you might even see a shark or some other nomad passing by, too.
While the Infidel lies in only moderate technical diving depths, it’s still considered an advanced dive. The wreckage happens to be just the right distance from the island to at times have a veritable freeway overhead. Because trolling fishing boats, jet skis, charter and sightseeing boats all seem to track overhead, this is definitely not the place to surface without a down line. In fact, even a free wheeling deco under a submersible marker buoy wouldn’t be such a good idea here. Currents can make an appearance, and although slight, because of the depth, surge can still be a factor when maneuvering around potential entanglements.
This shipwreck is the real thing. Other than some of the fishing net removed along with most of the fuel, the Infidel is pretty much the same as when she was a working vessel. There is no shortage of potential hazards even if you don’t penetrate the tight confines of the interior spaces. While a no-decompression dive plan is possible if you only visit upper structures, the allowable bottom time would be quite short. Along with the hazardous surface conditions and possible currents, visiting the Infidel is best done by qualified technical divers only.
Even though she’s only been down a short time, the amount of life on and around the shipwreck is considerable. I plan to visit her on a regular basis. As time goes on, her transformation will be fascinating to watch. To be sure, a sinking boat can have negative environmental effects, but there are also some benefits too. When the M/V Infidel plied the ocean, her job was to remove marine life. Now part of her job will be to provide sanctuary and hard substrate for all manner of sea critters. In a way, the Infidel is giving back to the se, which is not a necessarily bad way for a fishing vessel to “retire.”
Words & Photos by Joe Dovala. Visit his website here.
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