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Van Damme State Park, Mendocino County--

A 46-year-old man from Santa Rosa died while diving for abalone on Labor Day, marring an otherwise safe season in Mendocino County for State Parks. The accident occurred in the last 4 hours in what State Parks considers the end of its season.

The man, whose name has not been released yet, drove from Santa Rosa at 5 AM on Labor Day to dive for abalone without his usual diving buddy, thereby breaking one cardinal rule of diving: don't dive alone. When he did not arrive home or call by 6:40 PM, his wife called State Parks. The diver's late model blue Chevy pickup was located in the early evening at the Van Damme State Parks parking lot-- locked and without diving gear in the cab.

Participating in a search and rescue operation were the Coast Guard, State Parks, and the Mendocino Volunteer Search & Rescue Team. A Coast Guard helicopter from Humbolt Bay and a boat from Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg searched the waters until after after midnight, and the helicopter resumed the search at 6:13 AM the next morning, according to Coast Guard Spokesperson Kevin Kelly.

The body of the diver was spotted by the helicopter at 11 AM on Tuesday in shallow water in a hole in a rock formation known as the "keyhole." It appeared that the diver, recoved with all diving gear, had become tangled in seaweed.

Labor Day on the coast was unusually warm, and in the evening during the search, warm winds blue from inland as flares were shot over the almost flat water in attempt to spot the diver. As the search and rescue operation began, Park Ranger Bob Stone speculated that the diver may have met friends and gone to dinner at the campground--not an uncommon practice among divers there--but as the diver's truck was locked and without diving equipment, the grimmer possibility seemed the more likely.

State Parks has had no fatalities this year in Mendocin County, and no abalone divers have drowned this year in the season that runs From May through October. One cliff rescue was required in Greenwood State Park in Elk over the weekend. In recent years it has been customary for as many as 6 or 7 divers to drown during the abalone season- -typically during the first part when ocean conditions are roughest.

Making the Labor Day accident especially eerie were the halcyon-like ocean conditions.


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