With the depths of the Santa Barbara Channel serving as a second home, urchin diver Andres Martinez was remembered this week as a prolific and gifted diver as well as a “child of nature” by friends who are still struggling with the news of his death.
The body of Martinez, 64, was found late Tuesday afternoon by a U.S. Coast Guard crew after he disappeared Monday while diving in shallow water near Santa Cruz Island.
His body was found on the beach, and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department said there was no sign of foul play.
A day earlier, Martinez and two other men had been diving in an area about 300 yards off the north end of Santa Cruz Island, where all three conducted their dive to a depth of about 25 feet. When Martinez didn’t resurface, the men notified the Coast Guard, and during the search, Martinez’s weight belt and other items were discovered at the bottom of the dive location.
The Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office is investigating the cause of death, and many are left wondering what could have happened to the experienced diver below the surface.
“He was one of the most experienced, if not the most experienced, urchin divers in California,” Alan Hopkinson, a friend to Martinez for many years, told Noozhawk. “His knowledge of the waters in the Santa Barbara Channel and the location of urchin ‘shoals’ was legendary. His personal catch was almost always the largest.”
He said that because Martinez had incredible instincts about the dangers below the surface, he believes Martinez’s death was the result of a medical accident or from a predator.
“(Martinez) survived when others didn’t,” he said, adding that one of Martinez’s diving partners was killed by a great white shark about 20 years ago while the pair were diving together.
The Santa Barbara man was a child of nature, Hopkinson said, and diving for sea urchins in the Santa Barbara Channel was a way of life for him — at one point bringing in more than 50 percent of the urchin catch from the channel.
Martinez was out on his boat, the Josefina Dos, named for his mother, the day of his death, and he leaves behind his wife, Gloria, children and stepchildren, and many friends, according to Hopkinson. Martinez was originally from Burgos, Spain, and the third oldest of nine children.
Lance Mason, an original member of that first rugby team, said Martinez was an integral part of that first group.
“Andres was like a brother to many of us founding members,” Mason said. “A wild-ass, maverick, hell-raising iconoclast, but a brother nonetheless.”
In addition to diving, Martinez’s other passion was cooking paellas in an enormous 6-foot-diameter pan.
“He had such a reputation at this that he was even flown down to Peru and to Brazil to cook his famous paellas for some wealthy fan,” Hopkinson said.
Tom Bortolazzo, who had been friends with Martinez since the 1970s, recalled diving for scallops and fresh fish with Martinez to use in those savory paellas.
When Martinez came to the United states in the mid-1970s, he witnessed a traffic accident and was compelled to be a witness during a trial. During the next couple of months as he waited, “he watched soap operas and learned English,” Bortolazzo recalled, laughing.
“He led a very colorful life,” he said. “He always lived life dangerously, and I think that was his appeal to people.”
Well known in the fishing community, Martinez was a “boat rocker” with the Department of Fish & Game when he sat on an advisory committee in Sacramento, according to Hopkinson.
“(He) became their persona non grata when he wouldn’t play politics — he couldn’t — and surfaced their draining of the urchin diver’s fund and inept fishery management policies,” he said.
Four of Martinez’s brothers will be arriving from Spain this weekend, and a gathering of his friends and family will be held at Leadbetter Beach at 2 p.m. Sunday. Those who knew him are invited to share, and a paella and barbecue will be held at the park.