Did diver meet a great white shark?
Kawika Chetron left his job at Cisco Systems in Silicon Valley, got in his truck and headed north. It was the end of the workweek, Friday, March 16, a beautiful spring day. He was towing his dive boat, a 17-foot Boston Whaler named Rapture.
Saturday morning, he pulled up at the public dock in Eureka and set off south for Blunt's Reef, 24 miles down the Pacific coast, a formation of rocks and sea pinnacles 5 miles out off Cape Mendocino. He was alone.
Chetron, 32, was a big, vigorous man, the kind people remember meeting. He left word at the dock that he'd be back by evening.
He never returned.
Chetron was a man who lived in two worlds. In one he was a big-league software engineer in Silicon Valley. He had a degree from Harvard, a master's from Stanford. His friends all said he was the most intelligent person they knew.
In his other world, he lived to dive in the cold waters on the edge of the continent, the world just under the surface of the Pacific. It was the place he loved best.
He came back from the depths with photographs of sea life -- animals, plants in purple, orange and pastel colors, pictures of tiny sea creatures, a shot of a rock cod waiting to pounce on a prey, pictures of a place that looked like another world, just below the surface, just beyond the shoreline. His favorite was a self portrait with a harbor seal looking over his shoulder.
"He was one of the next great California photographers,'' said his friend, Berkley White, who owns a camera shop specializing in underwater photography in Monterey.
The day after he disappeared, the Coast Guard found his boat. A Boston Whaler is an open boat, and it was half submerged, awash, anchored in about 100 feet of water near Blunt's Reef. His camera was still aboard. After two nights and a day of searching, Chetron was listed as lost and presumed drowned.
Blunt's Reef is a hostile place. The currents are strong -- "ripping currents" the divers call them -- and the seas are often rough. The nearest land is 5 miles away. There are no roads in that part of California. They call it "the lost coast.''
"That is the wildest place on the Pacific coast,'' said Chuck Tribolet, another diver. It was the kind of place that Kawika Chetron loved: wild, almost unknown, pristine. He was drawn there, as if by instinct.
"He went to places people didn't know about,'' said his father, Avram Chetron of Berkeley. "He said, 'This is what I want to do. This is what I do.' ''
The kind of reefs found off the California coast fascinated him -- rocks and canyons full of life. Chetron had dived in the tropics, in Hawaii, in Papua New Guinea, but he always came back to the coast of California, to Monterey Bay, Big Sur, the Channel Islands.
"For my money, you can see more life in one square foot off California than you can in an acre in tropical conditions,'' said Christopher Buttner, another diver who was a friend.
"There's no place like home,'' Chetron wrote on his Web site. "More likely ... it's because Central California has reefs that are something special.''
Diving as he did, often alone, carried a risk. "I would tell him, "It's such a dangerous thing. Be careful, don't go alone,'' said his mother, Ibbie White of Hawaii. "It's every parent's nightmare."
The diving community was shocked at his loss -- the blogosphere was full of messages about him, praises for his work, speculation as to what happened.
He customarily wore a dry suit, a mask, a tank, two sets of underwear -- protection against the cold water of the Mendocino coast. He was a strong swimmer, Buttner said. "He was a slow breather, too. He was in peak condition.''
A lot of things could have happened. "He could have got bent; he could have got narced, '' Buttner said. That meant Chetron might have gotten the bends; or developed nitrogen narcosis, which makes a diver woozy, as if he were drunk.
He was wearing weights, probably, and an air tank. He could have been carrying 70 pounds of gear on that last dive.
"You make one mistake, and that's all there is to it,'' Buttner said. "You know that saying? Nature always bats last.''
The best guess is that his anchor got stuck between rocks, and he was diving to free it when he was swept away by the strong current. "It's not uncommon for a diver to miss an anchor line and can't fight the current,'' said White. "It's not unknown to dive alone, either. Why would someone as brilliant as him make that call? We don't know, of course.''
Did a shark kill him? Divers say that's unlikely. Though great white sharks frequent the area where he was lost, they seldom go after people in Scuba gear.
It was a life cut short. Even when he was a kid, his father said, Kawika was drawn to the sea. He grew up in Marin, in Kentfield, in Larkspur, on one of the ridges near Mount Tamalpais.
"You always think of your child as your little boy,'' Avram Chetron said.
"I see him at 5 or 6 wanting to have a pet whale,'' his father said. He was a bright boy, intelligent and adventurous. His real name was David -- Kawika means "David" in Hawaiian. He got that name when he was small and took to it.
He always wanted to see what was beneath the surface, and his father took him to the saltwater. He qualified as a diver when he was only 11.
He went to school: Robert Louis Stevenson School in Monterey, Harvard, Stanford, and then, after he became an engineer, the road led him back to the ocean.
Three years ago, he discovered underwater photography. He was self-taught. "He was absolutely stupendous,'' said Tribolet. "I've been doing underwater photography for 20 years, and he's way better than I am.''
Chetron started with hand-me down equipment. On his last dive, he was using a new Canon 5D digital camera; he had to light the depths as well.
He liked to use what he called "a fly-by'' method. A good photographer, he wrote, goes with "the ebb and flow of the water, setting up a shot and shooting quickly as he rushes past a subject.''
He was almost like an ocean creature himself, comfortable in an alien environment, living weightless in another world.
"Kawika was his own toughest critic, a perfectionist,'' Tribolet said. "Chetron gave a show over the winter, his pictures projected on high tech equipment -- startling stuff, amazing. It knocked the socks off the other underwater photographers and divers. But he would point out small errors, parts that were just out of focus, small things.
"I thought his pictures of harbor seals were the best seal pictures ever taken,'' Tribolet said, "but he thought he could do better.''
"I was just looking through Kawika's underwater photography,'' Dana Nourie wrote in a post on a diving blog. "Wow! What a beautiful legacy he left for the rest of us."