Good Bye to a Waterman

By Ryan Masters

If you are lucky, there are a few people you meet over the course of your life that are so influential that they literally change its direction. I met Don Wobber in 2002. At the time, he was already in his 70s. Together, we logged over 30 scuba dives in Monterey County...many of which I documented in a series of articles for the Monterey County Herald, The Monterey County Weekly and Scuba Diving Magazine. He's known as the king of Big Sur’s Jade Cove, but he was much, much more than that. He was a world-renowned artist, a poet, a groundbreaking marine biologist, a bon vivant...and a tremendously loyal friend. Ultimately though, he was a teacher.

The man had stories. Almost unbelievable tales of white sharks, gray whales, forgotten shipwrecks…even undreamed of treasure—and they were always conveyed as hilarious misadventures—ironically inuring his humble, inept self to the powerful, immutable forces of the ocean. That was the storyteller in him. But if you listened carefully, these stories were always about God.

He was a deeply spiritual cat who, as a young man, was at the vanguard of the Beat Generation, but retained the naturalistic sensibilities of a Robinson Jeffers. This may surprise even those who knew him, but Don’s poetry appeared in the May 1951 edition of Poetry Magazine alongside no less a talent than William Carlos Williams. (You can read that work here.)

I met him when I was the inaugural poet-in-residence of Pacific Grove. I forget how. I think I stumbled across his 1975 memoir Jade Beneath The Sea in the local library and learned the guy lived a few blocks from me. We initially connected through poetry, but quickly bonded through diving—the two disciplines are not mutually exclusive.

Of all the dives we did together, one stands out—especially now that we’ve lost him. Monastery Beach in Carmel is not a particularly technical dive by professional standards if you stick close to shore, but the place has a secret that non-divers will never grasp. The Carmel Trench, basically an underwater Grand Canyon, abuts the shore here. Without a whole lot of swimming you can traverse the surface, get out over the edge of this thing and then drop down on to its mouth.

Don wanted to show me “the edge of the world,” so I went. He was old school. His 1970’s dive gear literally creaked when he put it on—the dude still used a horse collar buoyancy compensator, for Christ’s sake. Needless to say, we never had a dive plan. We just went by feel. To be honest, I barely remember us considering depth at all. (Note: This is not a glamorization of cavalier diving. It’s only the facts. People die every year diving in Monterey County. I’ve had a family member die diving. In fact, the City of Pacific Grove once gave me a “hero’s” certificate for pulling a dead diver’s body out of the water at Lover’s Point. Still trying to figure that one out.)

After descending to about 80 feet, Don and I followed the sea floor’s slope down to where the kelp fades away and the world goes barren before dropping into oblivion. (I don’t really know how deep we were that day. My guess is between 140 and 160 feet. It’s hard to explain, but minutes seem like hours at that depth.) We sat there at the trench’s edge for a while—just sitting side by side. I absorbed the yawning chasm before us. It was fathomless and unknowable. It was fucking terrifying. But with Don sitting next to me, I felt OK. I felt protected.

Anyway, after a while, I remember kind of panicking and shining my light in Don’s eyes, telling him it was time to go back. He looked…so peaceful—so at ease at this secret edge of the world. Regardless, I wasn't ready to stay. It was time to go.

After a long ascent, we hit the surface. The sun was dazzling and the swell was rolling through us. He yanked off his mask and with these crazy, magical eyes, yelled, “We made it!”

“Christ, Don!” I yelled back at him, “We’re supposed to make it, man.”

I was actually exhausted and scared and pissed when I said that. He laughed and we began the long swim back into shore together.

Don Wobber was an accomplished marine biologist who had been profiled in PBS’s Shape of Life series. In 1987, National Geographic ranked Don “among the best of the world’s contemporary jade sculptors.” But most importantly, he represented the soul of this coast.

Literature and music have long appropriated the culture of our region—from Big Sur to San Francisco. Most of those people are only vacationers selling our culture in their image. Don Wobber was a true artistic son of Northern California. Everything was a gift to him. Everything was an adventure and an opportunity.

After a long illness, Don passed at his Pacific Grove home on Jan. 21. He'd been sick for a while. I stopped by and (hopefully) entertained him with my guitar a few times there at the frail end. Even then, he demanded a beer instead of water.

Fuck. Thank you, Don...for the intersection of ocean, art, poetry and God that you were. And much love to you, Donna, who gave him so much love over the years and sacrificed so much during the last 12 months.

I would say I’ve lost a true light, but I see him glimmering on the surface of the ocean every day and know that what he’s taught me lies right below the distraction.