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87-Year-Old Deep-Sea Diver and Shark Enthusiast | Atria Woodbridge

Deeper Waters: 87-Year-Old Diver and Shark Enthusiast Stays Active


Posted on September 19, 2014 by Michele Macmartin


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Being underwater in the ocean is like entering a new world – just you and the creatures of the deep blue. Some people are drawn by adventure and discovery. After all, who knows what can be found beneath the waves? To see a coral reef for the first time, to share crystal clear waters with a slow-moving sea turtle, to look out into the open sea and gain a fresh perspective on how vast this planet truly is – these experiences have no age limit. You’re never too old to explore!

Just ask Atria Woodbridge resident James S., aka “California James.” At age 14, he took his first free dive in La Jolla Cove near San Diego and received an invitation to join the San Diego Bottom Scratchers, the nation’s oldest and most exclusive skin diving club. Skin diving is also called free-diving or breath-hold underwater diving. Initiation requirements for the Bottom Scratchers included collecting three abalones (ear shells) in 30 feet of water on just one breath, bringing in a six-foot shark by the tail and catching a 10-pound lobster.

“I was the youngest and last member initiated into the club,” said James. “The initiation test was quite challenging but I completed all of the tasks. And, I ate the lobster.”

In 1952, James began his scuba diving career when he joined Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Because there were no scuba diver training programs at the time, he learned scuba through trial and error and by sharing knowledge with others divers. Soon, he became a pioneer and expert in the field. The Scripps diver training program was intended to train scientific divers with scuba. However, it paved the way for many sport and scientific diver training programs used today throughout the world.

“If something has never been done before, then it is pretty easy,” said James. “You get to make your own mistakes and you never have to tell anyone about it. And of course, you never make the same mistake twice.”

Looking back on his career, James conquered many obstacles including surviving a shark attack, diving under Arctic and Antarctic ice and surveying effects of nuclear blasts at Enewetak Atoll in the North Pacific. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names named a 1,097-meter mountain in Antarctica to honor Jim’s years as a diving officer for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs.

Today at age 87, not much has changed for James since he retired. That includes his can-do attitude, which he continually applies to new challenges every day.

“I stay active by continuing to dive along the Channel Islands in Southern California alone and as a guide, giving lectures to diving groups, hunting, fishing, mountain climbing and watching my son surf at the beach whenever I have the chance,” said James.

“James is an inspiration to all who know him,” said Holly Clark-Harreld, Engage Life Director at Atria Woodbridge. “He is a very positive person and stays physically and socially active at the community on a daily basis. He attends happy hours and takes scenic rides to the beach, and also takes long walks around the community.”

When asked what advice James would give to others about the importance of staying active, he said, “Just do it! If you feel you can do it, just do it!

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