Underwater Pioneer Lad Handelman Dies at Santa Barbara Home

Career Arc Spanned Offshore Hard-Hat Diving to Preservation of Sea Life

Lad Handelman diving for abalone around 1960 with tender Bill Pouch. | Credit: Barney Clancey Collection

The storied life of Lad Handelman came to an end on October 26 when he died at his Santa Barbara home of a heart attack. Known to his friends as “Laddie,” Handelman was among the pioneers of deep-water diving off the California coast and became the heart and soul of an international company that specialized in offshore oilfield construction.

Handelman got his start as an abalone diver after arriving in California from the Bronx in 1953. He was a 16-year-old kid who’d seen his buddies in the Red Devils street gang go to jail, one by one, and decided to escape their fate. He first worked for his uncle Jimmy, who was an abalone diver. Laddie was eager to go below instead of hauling heavy bags of mollusks up top. 

Lad Handelman tried to replenish the abalone fishery at the Channel Islands, but the arrival of sea otters intervened and neither thrived. A disease called “withering foot syndrome” afflicted the big snails, and a marine heat wave killed the kelp forests they lived on, causing officials to close the fishery. | Credit: Bob Evans / BobEvansPhotography.com

As told to Christopher Swann for the Journal of Diving History in 2014, Handelman’s first dive was a series of mishaps — water flooding his heavy canvas suit up to his nose until he could turn the right valve: “But finally the thing cracked and there was a big noise, and as the air blasted in, the water level went down. That was fantastic. Suddenly I was inflating like a big balloon, and I shot to the surface, upside down. One of the guys jumped in the water and helped right me, and they brought me to the ladder and straightened me out. I was very happy, because I thought it was going to be the shortest diving career in history. It didn’t last even five minutes.”

He told cautionary tales to avoid “sucking the diver’s innards into the helmet” and about other dangers of diving deep. Though Handelman and the cofounders of his companies took risks in using themselves as test subjects in developing deep-ocean diving procedures, an ethos of safety guided his companies. Without divers, offshore construction would stall, so keeping them alive mattered.


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“If worse came to worst, we knew what to do; we’d get a guy out, bent up a bit but alive. We were our own guinea pigs, so there was nobody to file a lawsuit. It was our own skin,” Handelman told Swann.

Working underwater at the time was limited as to how deep a diver could safely go before gases built up in the blood to toxic levels. Mixing helium with oxygen was being experimented with when Handelman was recruited in 1962 by Dan Wilson, who’d gone to 400 feet. By the time Wilson sold his company to another started by Union Carbide, Handelman was the one who flew to New York to broker a deal to keep the oilfield work going when issues came up with the navy. That all led to the company California Divers, which he formed in 1965 with his brother Gene Handelman, Kevin Lengyel, and Bob Ratcliffe, the inventor of the Rat Hat that regulated the oxygen-helium gas mixture.

Cal Dive limped along at Ratcliffe’s garage for 14 months before they learned that Humble Oil — today’s ExxonMobil — was planning a rig in the Santa Barbara Channel. “[Handelman] camped on the doorstep of the company’s executive headquarters in Century City; he hung around the Oxnard airport waiting for George Dabney, the drilling supervisor, to fly in from Texas…. At every turn, Lad reminded the Humble people of past services rendered and repeated over and over that Cal Dive had its diving gear ready to load at a moment’s notice. Eventually, either because they got tired of having him around, Lad supposed, or because they took pity on him … they handed him a contract.”

Mergers, acquisitions, and new partners ensued for Cal Dive, Handelman, and the others. By the time the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill halted offshore development, they’d grown from a group of guys servicing wells below platforms to a company headed for the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. With the West Coast shuttered, their work moved to the Gulf of Mexico, the Middle East, and Indonesia, with Handelman continuing to be the chief problem solver and contract negotiator for the company, now called Oceaneering International.

Around 1980, Handelman formed California Sea Farms to plant abalone off the Channel Islands in an attempt to revive the fishery. The timing was bad, however. The feds imported sea otters to San Nicolas Island soon after. Neither of the new arrivals thrived.

In 1985, Handelman suffered a broken neck in a skiing accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. After 10 months of rehab, he continued to lead his company, finally retiring in 1990. By then, he’d turned his interests to a series of good works such as the Outlook support group for spinal injuries, a wheelchair rugby team, oxygen chambers for wound healing, a marine mammal rescue group, and the United Boys and Girls Club — he credited a Boys Club in the Bronx with saving him from prison.

He reached out to the environmental world through his Stop Oil Seeps group, which investigated natural seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel as sources of air and beach pollution, discussing how pulling oil out could reduce the seeps.

Lad Handelman received multiple awards for his work in the sea and on dry land, but he said his most prized accolade had come during his last season as an abalone diver. Working as a young man for Barney Clancy’s Black Fleet out of Morro Bay, Handelman landed more abalone than any other diver in the fishery during its last week. He said that being the “high boat” was more important to him than anything he did in the oilfield diving business.

Correction: The name of Handelman’s abalone restoration company was corrected to California Sea Farms on November 3.


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