Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

A U.S. Coast Guard investigation into the disappearance and presumed death of a diver near Catalina Island has resulted in the voluntary surrender of  the credentials of a dive boat operator, authorities said Wednesday.

The case stemmed from a casualty aboard the 43-foot commercial passenger vessel Sundiver Express, which was operating out of Long Beach, a Coast Guard statement said.

“Under the direction and control of Kyaa Heller, the Sundiver Express departed from a dive site off Catalina Island Dec. 29, 2015 while a dive passenger was unaccounted for after entering the water for a recreational dive,” the Coast Guard said.

“A search and rescue effort ensued when the passenger, Laurel Silver- Valker was later discovered missing from the vessel at the next dive site. Silver-Valker was never located and is presumed deceased,” the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard investigated, and filed an administrative complaint seeking revocation of Heller’s merchant mariner credential, with six alleged offenses, including negligence for failing to maintain proper passenger accountability, and misconduct related to the operation of a commercial vessel.

“In lieu of appearing at a suspension and revocation hearing before a federal administrative law judge, Heller elected to voluntarily surrender her merchant mariner credential to the Coast Guard on June 6, 2016,” the Coast Guard said.

By surrendering her credential, Heller is no longer authorized to serve as “Master of a commercial vessel,” the Coast Guard said.

“This is a tragic case, and our hope is that the small passenger vessel community, and in particular, dive boat operators, take some important lessons from this case to prevent such an incident from ever happening again,” the Coast Guard said.

“There is no excuse for departing a dive site without confirming all passengers are on board and accounted for,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Menefee, senior investigating officer, Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach.

“Passenger vessel operators must take the role and responsibility of Master seriously, as the safety of their passengers is in their hands.  The responsibility of a Master cannot be delegated,” Menefee said.

Coast Guard suspension and revocation proceedings are administrative in nature, and are intended to maintain standards of competence and conduct necessary to minimize loss of life, personnel injury, property damage, and environmental harm on the high seas and upon U.S. waters.

Following the casualty, Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach released a marine safety bulletin reminding all small passenger vessel operators of the importance of passenger accountability. The safety bulletin can be found at

—City News Service

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