They get smashed against the rocks. They have heart attacks. They get tangled in ropes of kelp. In the hunt for abalone, people can die all sorts of ways.
This year, seven abalone seekers have perished off the coasts of Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, all for the love of a slimy white mollusk that is more sublime texture than taste.
In April, just after the start of abalone season, three friends drowned in choppy waters north of Mendocino. Another man died near the same spot in August. In June, a Texas man drowned in Tomales Bay and a Santa Rosa man had a heart attack off Sonoma’s Timber Cove. A man fell to his death after getting trapped by a high tide north of Ft. Bragg in April. The victims ranged in age from 49 to 67.
“I think people underestimate the amount of exertion that it takes to do the diving,” said Jerry Kashiwada, an environmental scientist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Ft. Bragg. “People just don’t appreciate how rough the water is. It may look calm between wave sets, and that can fool them.”
To understand why divers go to such lengths, you need to understand the mystique of the world’s most-sought-after sea snail. In the wild, a 10- or 12-inch abalone, not uncommon, might take as long as 30 to 40 years to grow. The shell that protects the muscular blob is unremarkable on the outside and spectacular mother of pearl on the inside.
Wild abalone are tough and tasty, nearly impossible to buy and difficult to procure at sea. If you can even find it in restaurants, the price will shock you. Last week, my sister-in-law and her husband celebrated their anniversary with a wild abalone entrée at a restaurant in Monterey; $82 for 10 ounces.
Cultivated abalone, on the other hand, are small. The meat is soft and unremarkable.
Eric Johnson's beach house, which hangs on a cliff above the abalone-rich waters of this tiny Mendocino County town, is the gathering spot for a group of friends who come together a few times a year to fish and dive.
This band of abalone brothers are avid sportsmen; their love for the outdoors led most of them to careers in marine biology or environmental sciences. I'd like to say they spend hours spinning yarns about near misses with all manner of marine predator. Except their stories are all true.
On Tuesday, as they wriggled into thick wetsuits and strapped on 25 pounds of weight, Eric, 61, and Steven Lagos, 64, did not appear worried. With decades of experience, they are pros at reading the water.
But they know even a routine dive can turn deadly without warning.
In 2012, Eric was diving near his family's beach house here when a surge pushed him backward into a crevice. The back of his weight vest caught on a rock. He was deep underwater, holding his breath and trapped. “I thought that was it,” he said.
His friend, Curtis Steitz, was bobbing in a kayak nearby. “I thought he was down there for a pretty long time,” Curtis said. But he had no idea his buddy was in mortal danger until after Eric wrenched himself free.
Abalone, it turns out, is one of the most heavily policed edibles in California. Wildlife officials estimate that as many are poached — about 250,000 a year — as are taken legally.
In an effort to preserve a dwindling population that has been beset by disease and overfishing, state authorities have made it as hard as possible in the last two decades to nab the indescribably delicious mollusk.
Divers can’t use air tanks, only masks and snorkels. They must have a fishing license and an “abalone report card,” a scroll-like form with detachable tags and a place to record the date and location of each catch.
They can take only three abalone a day, 18 total a year. They may possess only three abalone at any one time, so if a diver takes three one day and three the next, he or she better have eaten or given away three abs.
Divers are required to return the report cards to the Department of Fish and Wildlife each January so the state can keep track of the harvest.
But wait, that’s not all.
Divers must tag their abalone as soon as they reach shore — or before they reach shore if they are diving from a motorized vessel.
The wildlife department considerately recommends that divers carry their abalone report cards, fishing cards and pens in a Ziploc baggie. Eric's friend, Paul Miller, told me that a testy young warden once threatened to cite him because his pen had stopped working.
“I mean, you could see the imprint marks from where I was trying to write on the card,” Paul said.
“The rules are incredibly complicated, but people are really good about following them and educating themselves,” said Kathleen Boele, a state wildlife officer in Point Arena, north of Gualala.
In abalone season, which runs from April to November with a break in July, checkpoints are a familiar sight along highways. And yes, there is an abalone-sniffing dog, a yellow lab named Cali. “I’ve seen her find abalone that people have hidden in rocks,” Boele said.
There is no one I would rather be on the ocean with than Steven Lagos, who is not only one of my favorite people, but also happens to be my brother-in-law. When he told me I could tag along on one of his abalone trips, I jumped at the chance. I am passionate about abalone, preferably sliced into steaks, pounded, breaded and sauteed in butter.
“There might be some thought that it acts as an aphrodisiac,” Kashiwada said.
I don’t know about that, but I do know that abalone can make you hot … for more abalone.
On Tuesday morning, I wasn’t quite ready to strap on weights and flippers and dive 20 feet in cold water, holding my breath to try to pry an abalone from a rock. Instead, I kayaked out with Steve and Eric to watch them dive off Robinson Point, a Gualala landmark.
First, we had to climb down a rocky ravine to a small cove to launch the kayaks. Without a rope line, the descent would have been impossible.
The water was cold and calm, with a gentle swell. Bull whip kelp bobbed up and down, looking like a thousand otters. Steve and Eric took deep breaths and disappeared for what seemed like impossibly long stretches. I began holding my breath just waiting for them to reappear.
Within 45 minutes, they each had their limit. They were disappointed it took so long.
Personally — and I say this as someone who is driving home with two giant abalones in a cooler — I thought it was worth every minute.