Underwater equipment inventor Wally Potts, 83, dies
Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002
Los Angeles Times
He began diving in the ocean off San Diego in the 1930s before scuba tanks, face masks and swim fins and at a time when lobsters, abalone and sea bass were bountiful along Southern California shores. As a pioneer of modern free diving and a prolific innovator of spearfishing gear, Wally Potts preferred to use only his own lung power to dive deep under the sea.
Potts, who set world records for spearing and landing large game fish, designed mechanisms that are key parts of the modern spear gun, died Feb. 5 in La Jolla of complications from diabetes. He was 83.
“He was a true pioneer,” said Eric Hanauer, who interviewed Potts for his 1994 book “Diving Pioneers” and included Potts in an exhibit he created on early divers, now on display at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
His diving equipment consisted of a pair of strong lungs, a tolerance for cold temperatures and vision so acute he earned the nickname “radar eyes.”
Fins were just an accessory.
In an era before wet suits and fancy apparatus, Wally Potts was among the fathers of free diving. With a crude mask and an improvised fishing spear, he became the first member of the pioneering San Diego Bottom Scratchers to land a fish of more than 100 pounds: a 110-pound gulf grouper in September 1945.
Later, applying his mastery as a metal worker with fellow Bottom Scratcher Jack Prodanovich, Mr. Potts designed spearfishing gear that helped revolutionize the industry.
“The Potts reel and his two-part trigger mechanism are still defining standards of modern spearfishing equipment,” said Jim Cahill, a San Diego diving enthusiast and longtime friend.
Mr. Potts, a legend among watermen for his diving prowess and design ingenuity, died Tuesday in La Jolla of complications from diabetes. He was 83.
“On a fifty-fifty basis, Wally and I worked on everything in spearfishing gear that’s on the market,” said Jack Prodanovich, who welcomed Mr. Potts into the Bottom Scratchers in 1939. “I don’t think anybody had more experience in the field than the two of us. We worked with companies like Swimmaster and Scuba Pro.”
The designs, created in Mr. Potts’ garage, included a plastic reel that allowed divers to subdue large fish underwater. When the fish was speared, it would fight the line and float.
Their quest for larger fish also led to the development of spears powered by .38-or .22-caliber waterproof shells. When the point came into contact with the fish, the cartridge fired, propelling the point through the fish like a dart.
Mr. Potts’ designs included underwater camera housings in an aluminum mold. A fellow Bottom Scratcher, Lamar Boren, pioneered underwater cinematography and modeled his first camera housings based on the Potts design. Boren went on to film the pilot for “Sea Hunt,” a TV series that debuted in 1958, starring Lloyd Bridges.
Mr. Potts and Prodanovich had their own fling with Hollywood in 1977, with the release of the James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me.” They designed an underwater rocket for a scene in the film.
“We had 30 days to do it and it had to shoot at least 30 feet,” Prodanovich recalled. “We made it big enough to shoot 50 feet.”
To divers such as Cahill, a former lifeguard, Mr. Potts was the Babe Ruth of watermen.
“There really was a tribe, and he was the tribal chief,” Cahill said. “He was a mentor to several generations of watermen.
“His favorite fish was the white sea bass, which was very difficult to find because it lived in cold, murky water. In his older years, he became an advocate for conservation of the fish.”
Mr. Potts, a native of Saskatchewan, Canada, moved to San Diego at age 8. He immediately took to the waters off Sunset Cliffs, learning to swim in the tide pools.
He began diving in the ocean off La Jolla in the 1930s before scuba tanks, face masks and swim fins and at a time when lobsters, abalone and sea bass were bountiful along Southern California shores.
As a pioneer of modern free diving and a prolific innovator of spearfishing gear, Wally Potts preferred to use only his own lung power to dive deep under the sea.
Potts, who set world records for spearing and landing large game fish, designed mechanisms that are key parts of the modern spear gun and served as a mentor to generations of watermen, died Feb. 5 in La Jolla of complications from diabetes. He was 83.
“He was a true pioneer,” said Eric Hanauer, who interviewed Potts for his 1994 book “Diving Pioneers” and included Potts in an exhibit he curated on early divers, now on display at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
“Wally was a world-renowned free diver and spear fisherman at a time when it was politically correct to shoot big fish,” Hanauer said.
In 1945, Potts became the first diver to land a fish weighing more than 100 pounds, a 110-pound gulf grouper taken in the waters off La Jolla.
In 1954, he speared a giant black sea bass off the Coronado Islands in Mexico that weighed 4011/2 pounds, a world record that held for the next six years.
A photograph of the barrel-chested Potts landing the giant sea bass appeared in the fifth issue of Sports Illustrated in 1954, the first underwater picture the magazine ran.
“He’s one of the legends,” said diving historian Jim Cahill, a friend who wrote a profile of Potts for Hawaii Skin Diver magazine two years ago. “It’s like if you grow up in Hawaii and you hear about Duke Kahanamoku, the great legendary surfer. That’s kind of what Wally was here in San Diego.”
An early member of the San Diego Bottom Scratchers–one of the world’s first organized dive clubs–Potts worked with his close friend and fellow Bottom Scratcher Jack Prodanovich to produce innovative spearfishing and diving gear.
After face masks were introduced by Japanese producers in the late 1930s, Potts and Prodanovich redesigned the mask using a metal rim, softer rubber and a custom-contoured fit.
After a crude spear gun was introduced in the early ’40s from Europe, the two men found it underpowered and inadequate for larger fish, Cahill said. So they improved upon it by changing the hardware and the power of the rubber bands.