At 85, Torrance Parker figures he’s spent seven to eight years of his life underwater.
On Wednesday, he added another 15 minutes to that.
Promoting his latest book about diving history, Parker plunged into Los Angeles Harbor with a splash as onlookers cheered. He was wearing a vintage canvas diving suit, full brass helmet and big rubber boots in a demonstration aimed at educating people about the history of man’s centuries-old effort to conquer the world beneath the sea.
“I always wanted to dive, ever since I was a little kid,” he said at a reception following the dive near the dock at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.
But go figure, he said of what was an unlikely dream. “I grew up in Oklahoma.”
He began diving at the age of 16 on a Greek sponge diving vessel during World War II, arriving in San Pedro in 1947, when he founded Parker Diving Service Inc., which is still in business.
After Wednesday’s demonstration, which included remarks to the crowd by Parker while he was underwater, Parker signed copies of his new book, “20,000 Divers Under The Sea: A History of the Mediterranean and Western Atlantic Sponge Trades with an Account of Early Deep Diving.”
“I’ve heard so many great things about you,” one woman said as her book was signed.
In honor of the theme, Elisabeth Fotiadou, consul general of Greece in Los Angeles, was on hand to meet the author.
“I feel great, I’ve been lucky, I’ve been blessed,” Parker told Fotiadou on their introduction.
Parker said Los Angeles Harbor has come a long way in cleaning up the water pollution that once made it hard to see your hand in front of your face if you were underwater.
Charlie Orr of Bellflower, one of Parker’s diving partners, said the idea behind the demonstrations is to keep the old ways alive.
“Although,” he added, “you’re not going to get Torrance to admit that this is not cutting-edge technology.”
From diving to build pipelines in crocodile-infested rivers in South American jungles to working on the construction of the underwater Los Angeles Hyperion outfall in the 1950s, Parker has had plenty of close calls in his long career.
He also inspected the wreckage of the SS Sansinena after the oil tanker blew up in Los Angeles Harbor in 1976.
“I’ve had many narrow escapes,” he said, recalling one close encounter with a shark while working on the Hyperion outfall off Dockweiler State Beach.
“He was coming out (of one of the giant underwater pipes) as I was going in,” he said. The shark was so big and the underwater visibility so limited that he only saw part of the animal as it quickly swam past him.
“Part of life is pure luck,” he said.
Commercial diving, said the Rancho Palos Verdes resident, supported his family (he and his wife had six children) well through the years, he said, but there was little written about the history of the field.
So his first book, “20,000 Under the Sea,” chronicled the history of commercial diving in Southern California, including the building of Los Angeles Harbor, to fill in some of the information gap.
His latest volume looks at the history of sponge diving, going back to ancient Greece and including the field’s current epicenter, Tarpon Springs, Fla. Both books are sold at the museum, where there also is a diving history exhibit.
Retired El Segundo firefighter Kenneth McElvain, who has known Parker for about 10 years, was among those in the audience at the museum Wednesday. His first dive was in 1950 in New Jersey as a military trainee.
“I didn’t know if I could put that helmet on and have that face piece closed,” he said, recalling that one of the other recruits panicked and responded with, “I want out of here.”
But McElvain took to it and has been diving ever since.
He’s expected to join Parker at another antique diving demonstration planned for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 3 in Wilmington.
With both knees now replaced, he said it might be his last.
“It’s been an interesting life,” he said.