‘Keep diving’: Owner of SLO dive shop knew ill-fated boat well, calls fire tragic accident

Anthony Reynolds received a cryptic text from a friend just after he awoke to prepare for a dive lesson shortly before dawn Monday morning.

“He just said, ‘Conception fire.’ And that was it,” Reynolds said. “And all of a sudden, I got another text, and another, and another.”

Reynolds, owner of the San Luis Obispo dive shop SLO Ocean Currents, said he’s personally taken at least 150 trips on the Conception — the ill-fated vessel from Monday’s fire that claimed 34 lives — over 25 years. He said he ultimately received about 20 text messages from friends and employees before 7:30 a.m.

“And I’m trying to field calls from people who’ve spent many nights with me on that boat. And then I looked at the news,” he said. “From there, I pretty much thought, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve been on that boat before, I could see that happening.’ Though I wouldn’t expect it by any means.”

Three days after an early morning fire swept through the commercial diving vessel near the Channel Islands, Reynolds said his phone lines have finally started to calm down.

Leaning against the front counter of his shop — which chartered an average of of six trips per year on the Conception or other vessels operated by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics — Reynolds said that, as tragic as the Conception fire is, the public needs to put the event in perspective and consider the number of fishing boat or international lost-at-sea deaths that occur each year.

“They’re all very tragic. They’re accidents,” he said.

‘Some of the nicest boats out there’

SLO Ocean Currents was scheduled to charter the Conception for a three-day excursion early next month, which would have been the business’ 25th anniversary lobster dive they call the “Bug Fest.”

The entire event will likely be called off this year, he said.

Reynolds said his business, established in 1990, chose Truth Aquatics as its preferred boat operator for more than 25 years because it’s among the premier dive operations on the West Coast with a three-boat fleet that specializes in servicing the northern Channel Islands, a world-renowned dive spot roughly 30 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Their fleet, Reynolds said, includes “some of the nicest boats out there.”

“The Channel Islands are really equal in California to what the Galapagos Islands would be (elsewhere), and a lot of people get that. It’s world class,” Reynolds said. “We run international trips two, three times a year, but we’ve got the best diving in our backyard.”

As the fire gutted the Conception shortly after 3 a.m. Monday, five crew members jumped ship, leading to some speculation that they abandoned their passengers.

On Thursday, however, Jennifer Homendy, who is overseeing the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, told the Los Angeles Times that crew members jumped over the side and remained close to the burning vessel in an attempt to rescue passengers.

Reynolds on Thursday called the Truth Aquatics crew “top notch.”

“If I’m going to be running a trip with 30 to 35 people on it every year for 25 years, I have to feel pretty good about it,” he said. “We always slept well. Let’s put it that way.”

‘A lot of speculation’

Reynolds said he hasn’t been pleased with the media’s coverage of the story in the first 24 to 48 hours of the event, and that in the rush to be first, reporters and producers neglected to educate themselves about diving and maritime culture.

“There’s a lot of speculation,” he said. “In the long run, this information is going to be found out.”

Earlier Thursday, Roy Hauser, who designed the Conception and commissioned its construction in 1981, estimated to The Los Angeles Times based in part on footage he viewed, that the blaze may have started in the bunk area due to a lithium battery charger.

A crew member also told the newspaper the fire could have sparked in the galley above the bunk level, where he remembered cell phones and cameras were charging.

Reynolds said he did not want to speculate on the cause of the fire.

“You got to remember when this boat was built; how many cell phones were there (then)?” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said that besides the captain and crew members, he doesn’t know if he knew any of the passengers aboard, and has stopped watching the news.

He’s not been in communication with Truth Aquatics since the fire, he said.

“We’re going to let the dust settle,” he said. “There’s not much we can do to change things. From a business standpoint, we know what the outcome is.”

Changes in safety protocol?

Reynolds said he believes the Conception fire will lead to changes in safety protocols for the commercial diving industry, but he doesn’t know if that will include changes in design on vessels like the Conception.

“That boat was designed to be a great diving platform,” he said.

Asked whether he thinks the well-publicized tragedy could have a chilling effect on the industry, he predicted that while it definitely has had an “immediate” effect on the community, the industry as a whole will weather what he called a “true accident.”

In terms of what he hopes will come out of the tragedy, he said he hopes people don’t villainize Truth Aquatics or its crew over such an accident.

“There could be a million things that could have happened,” he said. “Just that people don’t judge, and let this thing play its course, and as a community we just stay together.”

Reynolds said he knows the captain of the Conception who survived the fire, calling him “the most safety conscious person I know.”

“When you’ve got a captain taking care of a 75-foot vessel and the safety of people, that’s a pretty big responsibility,” Reynolds said. “And to feel as comfortable as I have with the captain for so many years, speaks to his capabilities and the capability of Truth Aquatics to hire someone like that.”

Asked if there was anything he wants to say to the dive community on the Central Coast, Reynolds replied: “Keep diving.”

“It’s easy to get out of diving,” Reynolds said. “This shouldn’t deter people from getting that 30- to 60-minute checkout of reality in an underwater fantasy.”

Staff Writer Gabby Ferreira contributed to this article.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.