The Mysterious Death of Ryder Sturt: Unraveling the Secrets of Painted Cave

Incident LocationDiver Full Name
USA, California, Santa Barbara, Painted CaveRyder Sturt

On November 5th, 2022, two recreational divers were exploring an underwater cave system off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Near the bottom, the divers made a gruesome discovery—it was a human body. They immediately called the police, and rescue crews from the mainland were in the water shortly after. However, determining the identity of the deceased body and the events that led to their demise would prove to be a gradually unraveling mystery, one that would take investigators back two years prior to the discovery.

Dead diver

The Unusual Location

One of the first things investigators had to reconcile was the unusual and remote location where the body was discovered. While everyone in the world knows Southern California from movies, with its pristine coastline, there is a lesser-known archipelago of inhabited islands beyond its coast. There are eight islands in total, covering an area of roughly 350 square miles in the Pacific Ocean, with about 4,600 people living on them, mostly in the small city of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island near Los Angeles.

The largest island is Santa Cruz Island, at just under 100 square miles. However, a government census conducted in the year 2000 found that the total population of Santa Cruz Island was only two people. For comparison, nearby Los Angeles has more than 400,000 times as many people per square mile as Santa Cruz Island. So, when the recreational divers made their grim discovery, they were essentially doubling the population temporarily. They found the body in the furthest recesses of Painted Cave, one of the largest and most colorful sea caves in the world. It extends a full quarter mile into the underbelly of the island. The remote location and low population make it a surprising place to find even a living person, let alone an unidentified dead one.

The Disappearance of Ryder Sturt

Two years earlier, in November 2020, a 31-year-old man named Ryder Sturt from Ventura County, California, had taken a 20-foot boat out to Painted Cave to go lobster diving. He had a diving companion with him, and besides lobster diving, they planned to enjoy some underwater exploration and take photos. Sturt was known for capturing underwater footage from his dives and sharing it on social media. In late October 2020, he had posted underwater footage taken from another island near Santa Cruz Island, featuring a starfish with a caption joking about the starfish potentially spreading COVID-19.

According to Sturt’s diving partner, who ended up calling the authorities around 6:45 PM on that day, Sturt never resurfaced and was nowhere to be found. An extensive search mission was launched for weeks following Sturt’s disappearance. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office and the United States Coast Guard utilized trained divers, boats, and helicopters to try to locate the missing man, but with no luck. Eventually, teams from Ventura and Los Angeles also joined the search efforts, but there was still no sign of him. The search was eventually called off, leaving friends and family holding onto hope, which unfortunately faded away. From that day onward, Ryder Sturt was never seen or heard from again.

The Identification of the Remains

Two years later, as news of the 2022 discovery of a body spread from Santa Cruz Island to mainland California, authorities wondered if it was possible that the body belonged to the long-missing Ryder Sturt. Presumably, they were unable to visually identify the body due to underwater decomposition. Investigators quickly moved to use a new automated technology called rapid DNA to determine whether or not the remains belonged to Ryder Sturt. In December 2022, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office announced they had confirmed the remains were indeed those of Ryder Sturt. His body had been located inside the cave off Santa Cruz Island, eluding the Coast Guard and multiple sheriff’s departments for over 23 months. Authorities do not suspect foul play in his death; however, the exact cause remains unknown.

Unanswered Questions and Speculation

As of December 2022, both the preliminary cause and the manner of Ryder Sturt’s death were reported to be “undetermined.” It is too early to say whether the case is unsolved or if a cause of death will be identified and made public in the coming months. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Sturt’s death make the case quite enigmatic. If there had been an observable defect or a specific cause of death, authorities would likely not have listed it as undetermined a month after the discovery. It remains unknown whether Sturt drowned or if something else went wrong, leaving investigators with more questions than answers.

The story of Ryder Sturt and his mysterious death at Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island is uniquely tragic due to the long time it took for him to be discovered. Friends and family waited for two years, not knowing what had happened to him and being unable to find him, only to eventually receive the dreaded news. On top of this, they still have to contend with the many unanswered questions surrounding his untimely death. The isolation of the island and its extremely low population seem hauntingly emblematic of the distance we have from the true explanation, which remains out there somewhere.

Diving is a dangerous and unpredictable activity, even for experienced divers who visit familiar locations. Occasionally, the unexpected can strike, leading to heartbreaking and frustrating situations where the cause of death cannot be determined. Ryder Sturt appears to have been an active and outgoing young man who was deeply loved by his friends and family. While this article sheds some light on his memory, it also highlights the need for caution and awareness when engaging in risky activities like diving.

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Where did the incident take place?

The incident took place in Painted Cave, off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, USA.

Who was the diver involved in the incident?

The diver involved in the incident was Ryder Sturt.

What happened during the incident?

Two recreational divers discovered a human body while exploring the underwater cave system. They immediately alerted the authorities, initiating a search and rescue operation.

Was Ryder Sturt ever found after his disappearance?

No, Ryder Sturt was never found after his disappearance during a lobster diving trip in November 2020.

Was the body discovered in the cave confirmed to be Ryder Sturt?

Yes, in December 2022, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that the remains found in the cave belonged to Ryder Sturt.

Rebecca Penrose
Rebecca, an experienced blogger, delves into the world of diving accidents, sharing insights, stories, and valuable lessons learned. Dive in and explore the depths of underwater safety.
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