Photographs of loved ones lost in the fire on the scuba boat Conception are placed at a memorial on the Santa Barbara Harbor on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, in Santa Barbara, Calif. A fire raged through the boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California Coast on Monday, leaving multiple people dead. (AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa )

Pain of scuba diving deaths off California felt across globe

September 07, 2019 - 11:14 am

Less than a year ago, Tia Salika was wearing an animal-print scuba suit and posing for a photograph in the depths of the iridescent blue ocean off South America with her parents and her best friend.

So it seemed only fitting that the high schooler would celebrate her 17th birthday with another adventure: A diving tour through California's rugged Channel Islands, a national park off Santa Barbara's coast.

That was how she and her parents lived their lives — as fearless world explorers like so many of the others who boarded the Conception vessel for the three-day excursion, friends said. Salika's birthday ended in tragedy when fire erupted on the commercial dive boat, trapping the 33 divers and a crew member sleeping below deck.

The pain would be felt across California, the United States and as far away as Japan, India and Singapore.

The Conception brought together an exceptional group of people, who left behind a trail of photos and social media postings that serve as a testament to their lives. They were scientists, teachers, nurses, entrepreneurs, engineers, artists, photographers and activists. One woman, a water district employee, was dubbed the "Water Princess" for her work in urging people to conserve water. Another was a sales director who devoted her time advocating for the protection of sharks.

They worked in everything from the movie industry in Hollywood to research at Stanford University. Many had graduated from top universities with advanced degrees. Several spoke multiple languages. Two grew up in Singapore, and two others were from India. One had a mother in Japan.

After reading some of the names of those identified so far, Santa Barbara County Bill Brown said, "This list is representative of the diverse makeup of the passengers and crew who were aboard the Conception on that fateful day. They were from our local area and from throughout California, from across the United States and from around the world. Their tragic loss has devastated countless family members, loved ones, friends and colleagues."

Many had traveled, worked and volunteered in places around the globe from Antarctica to the Galapagos Islands. Their love of the Earth's underwater worlds transcended into a passion for all living things. It bonded them — a physics teacher with his 26-year-old daughter, a family of five also on a birthday trip for the father, neighbors from Santa Monica and of course, the Salikas.

Tia Salika first put on a dive tank at the age of 6, said Tom Peyton, vice president of Kids Sea Camp, a scuba diving tour company. The Salika family felt like a part of Peyton's family because they traveled with the South Carolina outfitter for about a decade, including last November to Bonaire island, off Venezuela's coast, he said.

"This family was incredibly adventurous, very fearless," he said.

Tia Salika's father, Steve Salika, 55, who worked for 30 years for Apple, and her mother, Diana Adamic, 60, showed her the world, he said.

Adamic, who volunteered with Tia and her best friend, Berenice Felipe, had a "compassionate, inquisitive nature and personal experiences" that "drove her to seek innovative ways to make the community around her a better place," Jen Walker, a former humane educator at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, posted on the shelter's Facebook page.

Many aboard the Conception posted in blogs about being in awe of the planet's wonders and wanting to capture it in photos.

Professional photographer Andrew Fritz, 40, who was on the boat with his wife, an environmental scientist who had done research in Antarctica, wrote on his website that he was so enamored at seeing a Cheetah run at the San Diego Safari Park he had to put down his camera and watch with his own eyes.

Many talked about living to inspire others or to be inspired.

Lisa Fiedler, a 52-year-old hairdresser and photographer, said on her photography website that the moment she picked up the camera, she realized "I enjoyed creating and sharing images that reflect the way I absorb the grandeur of nature."

There were also dreamers and risk takers. Allie Kurtz, 26, quit her job in the movie industry to become a deck hand on the Conception. She was the only crew member of six to die because she was sleeping below deck where the divers were.

Marine biologist Kristy Finstad, 41, who led the tour, had just returned from spending several years sailing across the Pacific with her husband.

Like Tia Salika, she first put on a dive tank as a child. Finstad had done hundreds of dives in the Channel Islands, whose wind-swept beauty still captivated her.

Finstad credited her mother, who founded Worldwide Diving Adventures, with instilling in her an appreciation of the planet and the courage to explore it. Finstad studied damselfish and corals in the Tahitian Islands, dove for black pearls in the French Polynesian Tuamotus Islands and counted salmonids for the city of Santa Cruz, where she lived.

"Dragging your feet is no way to climb a mountain," Finstad wrote in her blog before setting off on her sailing trip in 2015, "holding your breath is no way to dive."

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