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Trip Report and Photos:
An Almost Deadly Encounter with a Southern California Gill Net

December 30, 2007

Warning: If you encounter a wayward gill net - stay away from it if you are able to. They are indiscriminate killing machines that will kill you just as easily as the sea life.

Story and Photos © Elaine Jobin, may not be reproduced in part or whole without advanced written permission.

I don't think that there is anything that could have prepared me for this encounter with the drift net, the gill net, or whatever you want to call the thing. Somewhere in my past I had read the stories of the deadly "Ghost Nets" that roam our oceans, and, seen an occasional picture. In my mind there were only one or two of them out there and I didn't believe that I would ever come face to face with one.

Ross had been out the weekend before with one of his friends looking for new dive sites to explore. They had dropped anchor on near a structure that looked interesting on the sonar. Their dive at this site had been cut short by poor visibility and an extensive anchor entanglement in some kind of net. During the anchor disentanglement they had noticed the decomposing body of a trapped sea lion and piles of surrounding bones. Clearly this net was not only a dive site hazard, but also a lingering killer of marine life. A return trip with some capable diving friends to clean the thing up seemed like the logical, responsible, follow-up.

The following week, a group of recreational diver "do gooders" formed who thought that they had all of the bases covered. The cleanup team had a plan to tie up this wayward piece of net to disable it's killing abilities and to hopefully raise it to the surface for suitable disposal. Two boats would serve as surface support. I'd take pictures of the disposal of this nasty piece of ocean garbage.

When we traveled down the anchor line we were full of optimism and blessed with probably 20+ feet of visibility. First we saw an old net made of rope or twine laying on the bottom, then we saw the "other net". The suspended body of a freshly killed sea lion greeted us. We traveled along side the net, looking for its boundaries - there were none. It was huge and seemed to go on forever. We saw more suspended bodies of sea lions and cormorants. We swam over piles of bones as well as the scattered still intact bodies of sea lions and harbor seals. We all started counting the dead.

I stopped momentarily to take some pictures. The group kept swimming. I kicked to rejoin them and found myself immobile. A fin had become trapped by a piece of the net. I couldn't free myself using the usual kelp entanglement tactics and I screamed - but of course no one heard me. I felt an urge to panic as I thought about dying entangled in a gill net. I worked to free my fin, and for a while, the task seemed impossible. I had to keep the net as motionless as possible or it would entangle more of me. I thought about leaving my fin and wondered if that would be enough to get me out. At the same time I was wondering what the chances were that the group would see me on their return trip to the anchor line. Finally, I managed to free myself. Fortunately, I was able to remain relatively calm as I worked to free my fin, and fortunately, while I was doing this, nothing else became entangled. I wondered, if I stayed entangled, if the group would find me on their way back to the anchor line. I kept working with the net and finally I was free. I met up with the group a short time later.

Even with nitrox, our bottom time on our 95 foot dive was short. I experienced one more, less involved fin entanglement with the net as I was taking pictures. This time Ross was near by to quickly get me out.

Back on the boat we discussed just how huge the net was and that we knew we weren't going to be able to disable it. We shared our anguish at the massive numbers of sea creatures being killed by its existence. We checked in with the group on the other boat - they had never seen the gill net, but had successfully removed the old rope net that had being laying near by. At this point, most will probably think us crazy - but we began planning our second dive. And, yes, we did another one on this horrible killing machine. We wanted to bring back some photos because there just aren't words to describe what we had seen.

These are some of my photos from the day. I know as I post these that that net is probably still there - killing more with every passing hour. It is so very sad.

Ross observes "freshly" entangled sea lions:

Scuba Diver observes Sea Lion killed in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin Scuba Diver observes Sea Lion killed in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin

Exploring the extent of the net:

Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin

Squid eggs and possibly a net weight of some sort:

Squid Eggs in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin Piece of Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin

These sea lions were some of the more recent kills:

Sea Lion trapped in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin Sea Lion trapped in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin

Numerous Cormorants were victims.

Cormorant killed in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin Cormorant killed in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin Cormorant Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin

Decomposing Sea Lion and Harbor Seal bodies littered the bottom surrounding the abandoned gill net.

Dead and Decomposing Sea Lion laying in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin Dead harbor seal laying next to a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin Dead and Decomposing Sea Lion laying in Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin Dead Sea lion laying in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin

A pair of Sea Lions entangled together.

Pair of Dead Sea Lions killed in a Southern California Gill Net, photo by Elaine Jobin

These are a few of the things that I learned in my encounter with the net. I'm not a scuba instructor, and most scuba instructors have probably never spent time ensnared in a gill net.

1. Abandoned gill nets are indiscriminate killing machines. They will kill scuba divers as well as marine life. They will snag you when you least expect it and will snag you worse when you try and get out of them. If you become aware of their presence it is probably most prudent to end the dive immediately. Your curiosity could get you killed.

2. If you can see what you think is most of a gill net, beware, there is probably more that you just haven't seen yet either above you, or below you.

3. Don't turn you back to a gill net - a tank valve snare is probably the most deadly.

4. If you become entangled. Try and stay calm. With as little body motion as possible, try and remove the snag. If a second diver approaches to help you - stay even calmer. Move as little as possible. If the net is thrashing around, the chances of getting your buddy snared with you drastically increase. At least with the net that we encountered - a dive knife or scissors will cut you out - if you can get to them.

5. To everyone who scuba dives in Southern California on poor visibility days - god help us if we ever encounter this when we can't see what we are dealing with.

I also want to include a word from Ross:


"The net is far too large for us to swim it, but based on our SONAR work we believe that it runs from the rock pile to a black flag 1/4 mile away. This is a REALLY BIG net, and while I'm no expert on large commercial fishing gear, I don't think anyone can work with this thing unless they have a large commercial fishing boat with the big spool on the back.

This thing is really dangerous and I'm worried that it's going to kill someone. I've dove it 3 times now and was feeling pretty cocky about my underwater skills until I found myself solo and tangled it in at the end of a dive watching my deco obligation go up and air rapidly go down. It got all around my tank valve & first stage. Through several minutes of hacking away at it and swimming like hell, I managed to cut myself free, but just barely. By the time I got free I had built a significant deco obligation and had lost my camera (Phil later recovered my cam). There were times where I really felt like I wasn't going to make it. I haven't been talking about this on the web for the obvious reasons, but I'm still shaking from yesterday and I'm terrified that someone else will find themselves in the same situation. I've decided to post this on diver.net and the other places that Phil has been discussing the net in hopes that no one else gets in trouble. ***** it, people can flame me all they want, at least they’ll be comfortably behind their computer and not sitting in a net at 95fsw.

Solo divers on open circuit, as I almost demonstrated, can easily wind up like the sea lions. It's a long shot, but even a good buddy team could possibly get stuck at the same time. To do it right, that net should be worked on by commercial guys on surface supplied air with communication systems, or with some other such commercial diving approach that I don't even know about. I’m the first to admit that I know about as much about brain surgery as I do about the best way to safely accomplish this task.

I am not a safety nazi. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I more risk tolerant than most. I got a new respect for these nets yesterday. If you work on this thing, please don't take rec divers with you and please do it in a way where everyone comes back. In a way it's good for people to see the photos so they have an idea about what these nets do, but I'm already feeling bad about taking others out there and putting these pics on the web. (I thought it was just a small section of net or I would have never gone yesterday. The first time I dove it the vis was really bad and I turned around as soon as I got my anchor out of it.)

There have been far too many offers from rec divers to help clean it up. This isn't the place for rec divers any more than fitting pipes on an offshore oil rig in 300fsw would be for rec divers.

If this were a little 20' x 50' section of net, I would be all for grass roots action to clean it up but this is not the case."


So, that is my report. I have gone from a "neutral, they don't affect me all that much" attitude about gill nets to viewing them as wretched killing machines - especially untended and abandoned ones. I am appalled at the few laws that goven them and that govern those who put them in the water. Lastly our Southern California coastal waters receive heavy recreational use. I now strongly feel that there is no place for these nets in the San Pedro Channel - the people who cast them clearly aren't responsible enough for them to be used anywhere near civilization. This year, I think I'll send a donation to GreenPeace. (Actually, make that the Ocean Defenders Alliance)