Long Beach diver dies offshore near Orange County oil platform

The allure of offshore diving proved fatal over the weekend when a Long Beach man died during an excursion to the Elly oil platform off the coast of Huntington Beach.

Theodore Watler, 64, became separated from a dive group who had hired a commercial vessel to take them out to the aging Elly platform Sunday morning.

The area is one of the most beloved dive sites in Southern California, boasting a lively mix of marine life just under the water’s surface, including anemones and brittle stars that coat the platform’s thick steel pilings. Sea lions dart around the waters, and thousands of fish fill out the lively backdrop.

To Watler, and other divers in Southern California, the area was a quiet refuge bustling with life. But it is also dangerous. In October, an oil leak from a pipeline that runs from the Elly platform to the Port of Long Beach dumped over 25,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean.

And on Saturday, the day before Watler’s dive trip, waves along the coast were choppy following tsunami activity caused by a volcano erupting near the South Pacific nation of Tonga. There were no reports of major damage, and most areas saw 1- to 2-foot waves. But officials warned that the situation posed dangers to swimmers, surfers and boats. Beaches and harbors up and down the coast were closed.

But Watler was an adventurist, his friend Tom Menne said.

Menne, who hosted Watler at his Northern California home for the past two summers, said the two met on a diving trip off the coast of Catalina Island nearly six years ago. Menne offered to loan the Long Beach resident a laptop battery, but Watler insisted on paying him for it.

“He was one of those people you were happy to meet,” Menne said when reached by phone Tuesday. “I would put him up there with some of the best people I dove with. He had good equipment and knowledge of safe diving.”

Watler was reported missing to the U.S. Coast Guard around 10 a.m. Sunday, according to Marine Safety Chief Gonzalo Medina with the Long Beach Fire Department.

Divers from the Fire Department, multiple helicopters, sonar technology and a remote operated vehicle were called in for a search, Medina said.

About five hours later, Watler’s body was found at a depth of 200 feet near the Elly oil platform, roughly 12 miles from the Port of Long Beach. On Monday, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office confirmed his identity.

The cause of death has not been determined, coroner’s officials said, and the U.S. Coast Guard is investigating.

On Tuesday, Menne was saddened that the friends would not have another summer adventure together. He had introduced Watler, who was originally from Honduras, to the Marble Mountains in the Klamath National Forest, where Watler went deer hunting with another group of friends.

“He later said it was the best trip of his life,” Menne said.

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