Ryan Huff, an experienced waterman, had spent weeks planning his lobster-diving excursion on Sept. 28, opening day of the recreational lobster-fishing season.

“He was really excited,” said his wife, Diane Huff, a teacher at Warren High School in Downey. “I wasn’t, because I knew that meant he would be gone a lot.”

Around 4:15 that morning, Huff kissed his wife of 11 years goodbye and they exchanged “I love yous.” She told him to be safe, as she always did, and he responded with “I will,” as he also always did. Huff then headed out to Laguna Beach with two good friends. They were excited to catch “a lot of bugs,” Diane Huff said.

At 8 a.m., Diane Huff received a call from a friend saying there had been an accident. She wasn’t sure if it was Ryan or someone else. So, she headed to Laguna. Halfway there, she received a text confirming it was her husband and that he was unresponsive at Mission Hospital Laguna Beach, just blocks from Totuava Beach where he and his friends were diving.

Hospital officials pronounced him dead at around 8 a.m., about the same time his wife got the call. The Orange County coroner is investigating the cause of death.

An athlete and waterman

Ryan Huff, 40, a welder who grew up in Downey, had been freediving for four years. He loved the ocean, was an avid spearfisherman and owned a 26-foot fishing boat. He was athletic and pursued a variety of sports in the water and on the snow.

This was his fourth season of lobster diving.

His wife said he was adamant about safety and diving with a partner and he was FII (Freediving Instructors International) certified, meaning he had taken courses training him for all freediving (diving without breathing apparatus) and other breath-holding activities. He even taught his two sons, Gavin 7, and Spencer, 3, the importance of safety in the water, having them practice breath-holding in the Jacuzzi.

Opening day of lobster season

Huff — like thousands of other recreational lobster fishermen — planned to start diving promptly at 6 a.m., the official start of the season.  A member of the OC Spearos, known as the premier Orange County spearfishing and freediving club, Huff and his friends selected Laguna for opening day because they had been there before and knew the area.

They had been diving for more than an hour and had a good stash of lobsters when Huff said he was going to try for some sheepshead he’d seen during his earlier dives.

“His friends were close by when they heard his shot (spear gun) go off,” said Diane Huff. “He normally would have come up right afterward. When he didn’t surface in less than a minute, they immediately swam to the area he was. The ocean conditions were bad and the visibility was low. The fact they got to him as quickly as they did, was amazing.”

Diane Huff said the two divers found her husband tangled in a dive line about 25 feet down, at the bottom of the ocean. He was unconscious. The shaft of his gun was stuck in a rock and Diane Huff said his friends thought he might have tried to get it unstuck.

Data from her husband’s dive watch, she said, showed he had made it to within four feet of the water’s surface before he began dropping down again.

“It’s all theory right now,” she said. “He may have shot and tried to free the gun — at that point he may have had shallow water blackout.”

Shallow water blackout refers to loss of consciousness caused by a reduced supply of oxygen toward the end of a breath-hold on a free dive. It can be caused by hyperventilating before a dive, or from pressure reduction on the ascent.

It can happen to experienced freedivers who may never have had problems before.

Inherent risks

Lifeguard agencies along the Orange County coast report that within the last five years, they do not recall a fatality that has resulted from freediving for lobster. Still, Patrick Foy, a captain with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, said the sport has its inherent dangers.

Among the 30,000 people each year, on average, who recreationally fish lobster, most use hoop nets, which keeps them from having to get into the water. Instead, they bait a net and drop if from a boat or a jetty and wait for lobsters to climb in.

A smaller number of fishermen dive with scuba gear and an even smaller group freedive.

Lobsters also aren’t easy to catch, especially for divers. They are fast and can wriggle free with a flick of their tail. They also hide in holes and rocks — and trying to get them out brings the danger of entanglement for divers.

“Scuba diving can be more comfortable but it can also be cumbersome,” said Foy, who has freedived for lobsters. “You can slowly look around the water and grab a lobster with your hand. You have time to plan your approach. In freediving, you’ve got to find the lobster but you’re limited by the amount of seconds you can spend down there. The percentage of the time it takes just to get down is working against your bottom time. At the bottom, you’re limited by the amount of time you can hold your breath. For most people that’s about a minute.”

Most people who choose to freedive do so because they enjoy the challenge, the workout and sport of it, he said.

“Lobster tastes a lot better when you’ve worked for it,” Foy said.

That was exactly how Huff felt.

“He loved the ocean and he had a thrill of catching his own food,” said Diane Huff. “He’d make his own ceviche and lobster bites and he loved the bond he shared with his dive partners.”

Support from the community

Diane Huff has received a lot of support since her husband’s death, including from a GoFundMe account set up by the Downey Unified School District that had raised about $26,000 as of Thursday afternoon.

She said she is overwhelmed by the outpouring and takes a bit of joy in planning a celebration, Sunday, of her husband’s life.

“I’m very humbled,” Diane Huff said. “Donations are coming from family, friends, the diving community and even strangers. It’s amazing to see how many connections he had. I’ve had 50 people say to me: ‘He was my closest friend.’ His connections seem endless.”

She said she hopes somehow through her husband’s tragedy, other divers will be reminded of the risks of freediving in the ocean.

“No matter what your skill level, it can happen to everyone,” Diane Huff said. “We talked about shallow water blackout and he was always doing what was safe. The ocean doesn’t spare anyone no matter how safe you are even for all the invincible guys out there — it can happen.”