Santa Catalina Island, Calif.— A memorial was held this weekend for Laurel Silver-Valker, a master scuba diver and mother of two who was abandoned at sea while diving for lobsters. Laurel Silver-Valker, 45, of Tustin, was last seen on Dec. 29, 2015, after plunging into the ocean off the coast of Catalina island. Silver-Valker was a passenger and extended crew member aboard the Sundiver Express who regularly enjoyed diving at Ship Rock, a popular dive site a few miles northeast of the island’s Two Harbors.
Ship Rock was the first of two stops for the Sundiver Express that morning. Tragically, it was the last stop for Silver-Valker. When the boat departed for the next dive site, about 20 minutes away, she was not accounted for.
Even the most experienced divers are required to participate in a roll call, which records what time they enter the water and return to the boat. Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Menefee said federal regulation requires all masters of passenger vessels to have an “active accountability of passengers aboard.” Silver-Valker was reportedly the last diver to enter the water at Ship Rock, but the boat took off before she was able to return.
By the time the captain of the 43-foot boat realized Laurel – who volunteered with the boat quite often in exchange for diving— was missing, 40 minutes had already elapsed. It wasn’t until noon that the captain finally contacted the Coast Guard to aid in the search for her.
According to an investigation by Sergeant David M. Carver of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, several interviewed witnesses on the boat stated Laurel’s name was not on the dive roster or the manifest – a clear violation of federal regulation that requires dive masters to account for all passengers.
Diver and passenger Raymond Blanchard, was the first to notice that Laurel’s name was not on the original roster or manifest, but had been “hastily added with black ink” once it was clear that Laurel was missing. Blanchard commented that he felt it was “an attempt to cover up the blatant violation.”
Once it was clear that Laurel was missing and the boat had returned to Ship Rock to find her, Blanchard made an effort to assist with the operation. He picked up the diver manifest and began noting which divers were in the water conducting a search for Laurel. Blanchard documented this information along the left hand column of the manifest.
When he took possession of the manifest, Blanchard saw the following names had been added to the bottom of the manifest in black ink: Brent, Sherry, Chris, and Laurel. Blanchard said the above names were “not called during the initial roll call at the dock and not called after the first dive at Ship Rock.”
The search was called off at dusk after no signs of Silver-Valker were found.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time Sundiver has left a diver behind in the water.
According to the Orange County Register, in 2010, a court awarded $1.68 million to a Santa Monica man who was abandoned by Sundiver. The diver, Daniel Carlock, was stranded at sea for several hours until he was found off the coast of Newport Beach by a boat full of Boy Scouts.
Silver-Valker was not so lucky.
After days of searching, her family is preparing a memorial. One of Laurel’s five sisters, Valerie Silver of Los Angeles, finds it hard to believe that Laurel, a master diver, might have met her fate in the ocean she so loved.
“We just keep hoping she’s on a fishing boat somewhere with no radio, so they haven’t been able to reach us,” she said. “But if she were to choose how she would have gone, and where, it definitely would have been in the ocean doing what she loved. So there’s some sweetness to that.”
According to state records, Sundiver touring company was operating illegally at the time Silver-Valker disappeared, as the company owed approximately $4,000 in unpaid taxes. The state code will prevent the company from defending themselves in court until their suspension is lifted. This may pose an extreme challenge for the owners of Sundiver, who are well-known on the radar of the U.S. Coast Guard after leaving two divers behind at sea.
Silver-Valker is survived by her fiancée Tom Gordon, her two sons, five younger siblings, her mother, Eileen Silver, and a 4-year-old grandchild.
“I ask everyone that knew her, please don’t be sad. Instead honor her by not giving up what your passions are as I will be doing,” her son Graham Valker, 24, posted to Facebook. “Fair winds and following seas, Mother. You will be missed dearly.”
Jorgensen and Salberg, LLP has been retained by the family to ensure due diligence and justice for Laurel Silver-Valker.