It’s been just over a week since the devastating dive boat fire off the coast of southern California that left 34 people dead. Onboard were scientists, photographers, diving enthusiasts and a marine biologist who was the trip’s divemaster.
As the sun begins to rise, a couple of fishermen launch their boat at the Santa Cruz Harbor. The harbor is home to commercial fishing boats, charter vessels for whale watching and hundreds of sailboats. For many locals, life revolves around the ocean.
That’s true for the Finstad family. Nearly 50 years ago, they opened a dive company here at the Santa Cruz Harbor. The company, Worldwide Diving Adventures, was eventually handed down to daughter Kristy Finstad and her husband, Dan Chua.
Finstad’s brother, Brett Harmeling, says taking over the family business was a big responsibility, but something she was passionate about.
“And so, she was literally living her dream. Many people will admit and agree with the fact that Kristy was meant to do exactly what she was doing while she was here,” Harmeling said.
Finstad, 41, was leading the scuba trip to the Channel Islands National Park. Just off the coast of Santa Barbara, the park encompasses five islands with remarkable diving.
Before dawn on Labor Day, the trip ended in tragedy. The boat that Worldwide Diving Adventures hired for the trip caught on fire. Federal investigators have launched a criminal investigation, looking into possible safety lapses on the boat. The boat, named Conception, is based in Santa Barbara and owned by a company called Truth-Aquatics.
Finstad is among the 34 passengers who died on the boat. Passengers were sleeping in the bunk area and got trapped by flames. Five crew members were able to jump off and were rescued by a good Samaritan boat.
Finstad has been diving since she was a child. She studied aquatic biology at UC Santa Barbara and often brought her microscope onboard. Harmeling says she opened people’s eyes to the small and sometimes overlooked creatures of the ocean.
“She had a heart that was full for adventure and exploration and just getting to know Mother Earth,” said Harmeling.
In 1999, Finstad briefly worked for the Australian Institute of Marine Science. She worked with their coral experts as a researcher and diver.
In the early 2000s, Kristy Finstad worked for the California Coastal Commission. Chris Parry, the Public Education Program Manager was her supervisor and says Finstad’s love for the natural world was palpable.
“She had such a strong life force and warmth and was able to just convey that in her work. And I feel like just being around her, I felt inspired,” said Parry.
During her time at the Coastal Commission, Finstad created a restoration program called Project Grow along the coast in Orange County.
“It’s really a wonderful legacy for her, I think. It’s still growing strong. We have involved tens of thousands of people in this work of restoration and many acres of wildlife habitat have been restored,” Parry said.
Between 2005 and 2015, Finstad worked part-time for the City of Santa Cruz’s Water. Her team was responsible for watershed health and protection.
It was around 2015 that Finstad turned her full attention to the family dive business.
Finstad’s friend, Emily Zimmel, co-owns another dive company in Santa Cruz called Adventure Sports Unlimited.
“She had a lot to offer to this diving world. She came in all the time with these awesome ideas it's just radical ideas,” Zimmel said.
Ideas like incorporating seafood foraging into her dive trips. Zimmel says her family and the Finstads co-charter dive trips together, including an annual family trip over Memorial Day weekend.
“That's what these boat trips are all about too. You know, it’s having the best time you can have with the people around you who share the same passion,” said Zimmel.
Passion for the underwater world was something those onboard the Conception shared. The victims include five others from the Santa Cruz area. Vaidehi Campbell worked at the Soquel Creek Water District and will forever be remembered as a “water princess.” Steve Salika, a veteran employee of Apple, and his wife Diana Adamic were on the trip with their daughter Tia. She was celebrating her 17th birthday. Tia’s friend and Pacific Collegiate School classmate Berenice Felipe joined them.
As hard as it is, Finstad’s brother Brett Harmeling says he’s grateful his sister left doing the thing she loved most.
Finstad and her husband recently completed a sailing trip across the open ocean, from Cabo San Lucas to Sydney, Australia.
“They literally sold everything they had. They had been planning this trip for years and then they just did it. Simply just did it,” Harmeling said.