The bends were a regular hazard for abalone divers. Storms, fog and collisions at sea confront all those who sail the seas.
Delicious fish and other seafood on our tables can cost more than just the market price.
Commercial fishermen confront many risks. The greatest of these is the weather. Large storms, unexpected gales and heavy fog present great dangers for small boats. These conditions can lead to capsizing, grounding, becoming lost and collisions.
The abalone divers written about two weeks ago faced additional risks such as their lines becoming tangled, the air hose being cut and the bends. The divers experienced decompression illness regularly, and many couldn’t be treated in time.
Several years ago, John Knox, my graduate assistant, and I were interviewing two members of the Pierce family who were involved in abalone diving. They spoke of the men who were rushed to the decompression chambers in Santa Barbara, of those who were too late, and the families who were left without fathers.
The stories cast a dark cloud over us.
Their stories are part of the reality encompassed in the exhibit “The Catch: Stories of Local Fishermen,” that’s now showing at the San Luis Obispo County History Center at 696 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.
It’s researched and organized by Cal Poly graduate history student and Morro Bay fishing community member Barbara Healy Stickel.
Part of the exhibit deals with Arnold Ennis and his family, who came to Morro Bay from Knappa, Oregon in 1954.
Beth Dahlquist Pallai, Arnold’s granddaughter, wrote to Barbara about a shipwreck that has a happy ending:
“My grandfather, Arnold Ennis, and his brother, John Ennis, both fished out of Morro Bay. John since the late 40s and my Grampa since the early to mid-50s.
“Grampa’s boat was the Gladys E. and John’s was the Renabel, both were trawlers.”
Trawlers are a type of fishing boat designed for dragging lures or baited hooks while moving through the water.
In December 1956, Arnold “was traveling from San Pedro en route to Morro Bay for Christmas, because he had promised my mother he would be there. He had the boat on auto-pilot and woke up in the middle of the night when the boat hit the rocks south of Montaña de Oro.
“It was pitch black and raining. He knew the boat was listing, so he got off the boat and swam to the rocks. There wasn’t a beach, just a straight up cliff, so he swam back to the boat and got a claw hammer and then swam back to the cliffs. Before he bailed, he radioed for help via shortwave. My grandma picked up his call, notified friends, family and the local sheriff who all headed out to search for him.
“Grampa meanwhile scaled the cliff using his hammer to help him climb up to the top. Then he searched for some shelter.
“He found some kind of shack or cabin out there on the bluffs and went in.
“Grandma and the sheriff eventually found him and picked him up.
“The next day, the whole town went back out to the Gladys E. and filled up a bunch of empty oil drums with compressed air aboard the Gladys E. to allow her to float, then had her towed by the Coast Guard back to Morro Bay to be dry docked for repairs.”
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.