So this summer I have the opportunity to go abalone diving since I’m living and working on the Mendocino coast in and around Ft. Bragg. I have wanted to go abalone diving for a very long time but have not had the opportunity, mainly because my dad, the former Seal, has repeatedly tried to put the fear of God into me regarding this hazardous, and sometimes deadly, foraging past time. What can I say? I love you dad, but I’m not gonna go around wearing a suit of bubble wrap…
One of the main reasons I got PADI diver certified in 2004 was so I could go spearfishing. Ever since I went snorkeling at Brenneke’s on Kawaii after my cousin’s wedding in 2000 I have wanted to go in the ocean and see what I could find, and forage. After all, we are terrestrial beings, what a challenge to ‘tame the deep’ and harvest something in the ocean where we are guests. Plus I LOVE sushi and how can you get sushi for cheap/free? Yep, go fishing.
I grew up spending several weeks in the summer in Capitola, Aptos, and Santa Cruz boogie boarding and surfing until one summer at camp they played Jaws for the older kids to watch… What were they thinking? So ever since I haven’t spent much time in the ocean, the only exception being a bunch of ocean kayaking towards the end of my high school career. But I digress.
Fishing is hunting in the water. Most of fishing happens when we cast a line into the water and use it to penetrate the fish’s habitat, luring the fish with shiny hooked things that instigate the fish’s natural instinct to chase said shiny thing. Other techniques involve using hooks that are dressed up to look like a fish’s natural bug/small animal prey. This is Fly Fishing, and the kind of fishing I do mostly. You can also bait the hook with general prey items like pieces of food that a fish would normally find floating around in it’s environment, or use the shiny lure thingys to catch a fish. Both of these fishing options don’t involved getting into the water (usually, waders help with access but aren’t required). And, as I’ve been told, it’s called Fishing, not Catching, because it’s not always successful.
Then there is the other option. What craziness is it to go fully into the water after a fish or other edible aquatic species? I still haven’t been spearfishing and scuba diving equipment is EXPENSIVE!! And since you rely on it to provide you with AIR (kinda essential to LIVING!) it’s not something that you can ‘get by with’. I have found that Abalone diving is the gateway to aquatic foraging.
Abalone diving requires free diving, that is, you cannot use tanks, you can only use the air you breathe before you dive into the water. This is a regulation stipulated by CA Fish and Game because back in the day when you could commercially harvest abalone, the use of tanks allowed divers to over-harvest the aquatic snail and almost led to the annihilation of the species. Now, you can only harvest red abalone (black, pink, white, and flat abalone are illegal to harvest) for ‘sport’, meaning there is no legal way to obtain abalone unless you get it yourself, or someone who got it gives it to you, without compensation! And you can only harvest them north of San Francisco Bay. Any harvesting and selling of abalone is highly illegal and the CA game wardens will come and ticket you, take your abalone, and possibly seize your vehicle and boat used to transport the abalone, any equipment, and possibly make you serve jail time. So don’t do it.
I have a friend that really likes abalone diving, so he said when he comes down to Ft. Bragg he would take me, and finally I got to go out a couple weekends ago. I had a good time, unfortunately it was not a good day because conditions were not ideal. But next time… next time!
Once I get some I will post again about the experience… and the recipes!!
Several things are required to go abalone diving, and several conditions make it easier and much less dangerous:
-Good swimming ability. Very important to be a good swimmer if you are going in the ocean.
- CA Fishing License and Ab report card. Here is the link to the CA Abalone regulations, and a video!
- Wetsuit. It is cold on the North Coast and on a nice day 5mm is ok for an hour or 2. 7mm thick is better, with the ‘long john’ suit for a double layer over your core being the best. Also want a hood, booties and gloves.
- Weight belt. This is one of the things that frustrated me, mine was borrowed and didn’t have the right weight so I couldn’t get down and stay down long enough to pry my ab off the rock. Make sure you have a weight belt that has the proper weight for you AND your suit (because your suit has buoyancy, talk to the dive shop).
- Mask and snorkel. A properly fitted mask and snorkel will make seeing and breathing easy.
- Fins. Depending on where you are going, you may or may not need them. They can get tangled in kelp, but they can also help you get farther in the water.
- Ab gauge and iron. You cannot harvest abalone smaller than 7 inches wide, you need something on your person to measure them with. The iron is used to pry the snails off the rock.
Other things that are nice to have: a game bag to put your abs in, a boogie board or dive float to stow your gear on and also lets you rest somewhat out of the water if you need to.
The conditions that are ideal for Ab Diving, and increase your chances of a safe and successful dive:
-Always dive with a friend. And always have someone who knows where you went and when you are expected back.
- Go during low tides. Even though it will be more crowded (because low tide is the time to go) there will be more abalone accessible at lower tides than at higher tides, so less water to dive through is good.
- Clear and calm days. Never turn your back on the ocean, the calmer it is, the more enjoyable your time in the water will be.
- Visibility. Best when the ocean is calm or it hasn’t been raining.