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In the News~

October 3, 1954 [LAT]: “Little did they realize—the handful of Catalina Island glass-bottom boat and coin divers of 50 years ago—that they had originated a sport which one day would have thousands of participants prowling the waters off the Southern California coast from Palos Verdes to Laguna Beach—and off Catalina itself. But such is the evolution of modern skin diving as outlined by one of the original Catalina Island free divers, Duke D’Arcy, who was born and raised in Avalon. Performing without such artificial aids as aqua lungs, swim fins, face masks and snorkel tubes, the original Catalina divers staged quite a show for tourists as they paddled beneath the glass-bottom boats in the island’s famous marine gardens or scrambled for coins thrown into the water off steamer pier by boat passengers. ‘It was around 1900 that free diving had its origination right here in Avalon Bay,’ D’Arcy said. ‘The divers operated from glass-bottom rowboats. There were 25 of these at one time. Later glass-bottom powerboats were placed in operation. I started diving from the glass-bottom boats and for coins as well when I was 13 years old.’ In putting on underwater exhibitions in the marine gardens, the divers paddled around at a depth of 35 feet and remained submerged for three minutes on average,’ D’Arcy said. However, dives beyond the 35-foot average weren’t unusual, Duke himself having dove 58 feet to retrieve a lost anchor from the ocean floor. In fact, one of the original divers, Ford Travilla, dove 65 feet beneath the clear waters off Catalina to set a world free diving record, which has never been surpassed. Comparatively, the modern skin diver considers 30 feet quite deep—unless an aqua lung is employed... As for coin diving, it became a highly specialized profession with two-man diver-rower teams operating from the steamer pier, the old bathhouse and off yachts until the practice was halted in 1916. Coin diving since has been limited to activities of teen-agers. ‘We made our living at coin diving,’ Duke explained, ‘and would average $8 to $10 a day. That was in the days when a skilled machinist was paid $2.50 a day. We had to be quick to beat the other guy to the coin. If we didn’t snatch it on the first dive there was a terrific underwater scramble for it. Thus, we had to keep fit and sharp, diver and rower, in order to outmaneuver our competitors. Why, most of these modern skin divers would have starved to death if they’d competed against is.’ Duke recalled that his top daily take was $26 on the occasion that Harry Thaw, famed murder trial figure of the early 1900s, visited Catalina and tossed 150 silver dollars from the steamer. Duke also had another big day when Marshall Field, Chicago department store magnate, was the contributor. Silver and gold pieces were preferred by the divers with pennies shunned and allowed to sink to the bottom of the bay. ‘There must be thousands of dollars worth of pennies sunk in the sand alongside steamer pier,’ D’Arcy mused. Duke also recollected the names of two ‘summer boys’ who entered the coin-diving competition—Governor Goodwin Knight and the late General George Patton. ‘After the coin diving ban we concentrated on the glass-bottom boats underwater exhibition.’ A number of Duke’s coin and glass-bottom boat diving contemporaries still reside on the island. One is his brother, Frank, with whom he operates the glass-bottom boat Coral Queen. The others are Tinch Moricich, Oscar Griffith, Everett and Pete Adargo and Hernandez brothers, Sam, Marce, Andy and Manuel. However, none has dived for years. At least since the last of the glass-bottom boat diving exhibitions in the summer of 1941, prior to the outbreak of World War II. Of late years underwater exhibitions have been staged by Harold Warner and Al Hansen, aqua lung diving experts who put on a good show amid the fishes and submarine flora.”