The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Sea Water Showdown

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A plan being considered by California's State Water Resources Control Board would end the practice of allowing power plants along the coast to suck in ocean water to cool their machinery.

Reporting this radio story, I was lucky enough to take a kayak ride around a small part of Elkhorn Slough, where my guide, Steve Shimek, and I saw hundreds of sea lions, and sea otters that popped up just feet from our kayaks.
I highly recommend the trip. Kayak rentals are about $40, and this excellent guided tour, courtesy of the folks at QUEST Interactive, will tell you everything you need to know.

Now, about John Vincent's brush with death. I first read about John Vincent in this LA Times article about once-through cooling. John's story has a pretty irresistible opener, even if it was a freak occurrence. In the radio story, we hear that John went lobster fishing in El Segundo one night. (Lobsters are nocturnal, in case you didn't know.) He picked what looked like a perfect spot – right next to what he thought was a white buoy.
In fact, it was a red buoy, covered in seagull poop. Red means "Don't dive here." Which, after putting on his scuba gear and grabbing his lobster bag, is exactly what John did.

Here is his account — which I've edited and condensed — of what happened next.

After about 20 minutes, I had my limit, 7 lobsters. I’m about to head back to the boat when I feel a current. I let it pull me in the direction and I’m just looking… Before I knew it, I was like vroop! Abruptly — abruptly — I got sucked into the pipe.

What saved my life is I had a flashlight. I could see the gauges. I could see the walls of the pipe, could see that it's round, and it’s pulling me in deeper and deeper.

The flashlight also revealed that Vincent's oxygen supply was dangerously low — and diminishing rapidly, the more John panicked. He tried to fight the current, but the harder he swam, the more out-of-breath he became.

I had a compass on my gauge that told me I was heading east. Toward shore. So, I started kicking with it. I said I’m going in. I’m almost out of air, but I need to swim fast. I kicked as hard as I could.

That pipe was like a quarter mile long. It made one turn. By the time my head got out of water, I was probably pretty quick to being close to out of air, because of the panic situation. I was breathing fast. I was kicking hard.

But, anyways, I ended up in a concrete… like a concrete elevator shaft. I could see a lid about 40 feet up, and I could see stars through the lid. I guess sea lions and fish get pulled in there.

I took one of my lead weights off and slammed it against a pipe to make noise, like a hammer. It rang like a bell. So I started doing it in successions of three. Three horn blasts on your horn means help.

About an hour later, some old man on the beach heard me. He got off his bicycle called 911. They had the fire department come and pull me up through the opening at the top.

I gave that flashlight to my buddy, as a souvenir. That’s what saved my life was that flashlight.
[DID YOU TAKE ANY ACTION AGAINST THE COMPANY FOR WHAT HAPPENED?] No, it’s a power company. They’re trying to create power for the city. Why create problems?

But immediately after that happened to me, they put out a brand-spanking new buoy. That buoy is spic and span! It looks like they've got someone out there with a toothbrush, keeping that thing bright red.


Listen to Sea Water Showdown radio story online.

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Category: Environment, Radio

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About the Author ()

Amy Standen is a radio reporter for KQED Science. Her email is astanden@kqed.org and you can follow her on Twitter at @amystanden.