Excitement ran wild in Seattle last Spring, when the news came out that the GUE Conference for 2012 would be held in our own back yard . . . or, if not QUITE in our back yard, at least in our time zone. Rather than taking place in some exotic, hard-to-reach place like Budapest or Florida, the conference was going to be in Southern California, and specifically on Catalina Island. It took less than a day before all the rooms at the seaside hotel were spoken for by Seattleites, and almost all the doubles that Karim Hamza and Hollywood Divers could put their hands on.
By the time the conference rolled around, we had an even dozen Seattle folks headed south — some on Thursday, to indulge in some Friday diving, and the rest of us arriving on Friday.
The weather forecast was stellar, even for LA — sun, more sun, and warmer temperatures throughout the weekend. Even more important, considering that this was a conference held at a site where the diving is easily accessible and superb, was that the reports on water conditions were fantastic.
Catalina Island is a beautiful place, only about 20 miles offshore of Long Beach. There is very little permanent habitation on the island, and the majority of it is centered on the tourist town of Avalon. As one would expect of a place which lives off visitors, there are lots of restaurants and watering holes, hotels, and shops — and Catalina has the Casino Point Dive Park, which is a marine reserve set aside specifically for divers. The dive park offers kelp forest, boulder slopes and small wrecks, and an absolutely amazing density of life. Diving was certainly going to be a main focus of the trip!
Saturday morning began with diving, whether it was from the dive park or from the SunDiver boat. Conditions were splendid, with warm temperatures and really blue water. It’s unlikely the dive park has ever seen so many sets of doubles or scooters at one time before!
This was more than a congregation of like-minded divers at Catalina, though. Half of each weekend day was spent in conference. Day 1 began with Michael Menduno’s recap of this summer’s Rebreather 3 forum (which had a surprise ending). The second talk was given by Karl Huggins, who has been for many years head of the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber — the only chamber in the US which exists solely to treat divers.
Following those presentations, we got to hear a real-life mystery story from the Russian GUE contingent — the discovery and documentation of the wreck, Moskva, which answered a long-standing question about precisely how she was sunk during one of the earliest Russian battles of World War II.
The afternoon concluded with a joint session from Vanessa Belz and Todd Kincaid about the conservation effort of GUE, Project Baseline, after which the group repaired to one of the waterfront restaurants, El Galleon, for food and socializing.
The following morning began with conference, with the first talk being from Jarrod Jablonski, President of GUE, who gave a wonderful presentation on the discovery and exploration of the wreck of the Mars, a Swedish king’s ship from the mid 1500′s. Not only is Mr. Jablonski a delightful and entertaining speaker, the whole topic around the discovery of this ship, and its meaning to the Swedish archaeological community, is absolutely spellbinding. (The humorous anecdotes regarding the King of Sweden and a side trip to play on waterslides added to the fun, too.)
Talk time then wound up with presentations from several GUE affiliates. Seattle began, with Koos du Preez and Laurynn Evans talking about the genesis and growth of GUE-Seattle. Heather Hamza then spoke about ghost net retrieval projects in the Los Angeles area, and illustrated with an impressive video of the diving on the Infidel wreck. The session ended with Bob Sherwood describing the documentation project that NEUE undertook on the wreck of the Vickery in the Saint Lawrence River, again made real by another excellent video from Karim Hamza.
Following the talks, folks either repaired to Casino Point for shore diving and a Halcyon gear demonstration, or went out on the SunDiver too look for Giant Sea Bass — which were very happily found by just about everybody!
The conference was a wonderful experience of community and passion, and also a living example of the ease with which people with the same training and background can slip into even unfamiliar water and be immediately comfortable. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet and speak with the folks most of us only see as names in the reports of fantastic dives, or as bylines in Quest articles. Friendships were made and links forged between GUE divers from far-flung places. It was well worth the effort to get there, and future conference, in more distant places, may well see their own share of Seattle GUE divers!