Diving Into a Prickly Situation : In Search of Sea Urchins, Ocean Divers Contend With Constant Threat of Sharks
The shark that killed James Robinson last month off San Miguel Island did so silently, swiftly and savagely. It struck as Robinson was treading water, then disappeared without a trace.
Or did it?
Terry Herzik claims to have seen the shark several times--in his dreams.
“It was pretty intense,” he said. “I had these horrible, graphic images (of the attack) in my mind for days, and at night I couldn’t settle down to go to sleep.”
Sam Lang could not stop thinking about sharks after the Dec. 9 attack--especially when he was under water.
“I was down at the bottom two days later and something grabbed me from behind, by the legs,” the Ventura resident recalled. “It turned out to be only this little harbor seal that wrapped its flippers around me--they do that sometimes because they’re curious about the rubber (wet suit) or whatever--but I swear that thing took 20 years off my life.”
All this is understandable, considering that Herzik and Lang make their living the same way Robinson did--at the bottom of the ocean, using rakelike tools to gather spiny, round sea urchins for export to Japan.
Sharks come with the territory. The area off San Miguel Island where Robinson was attacked is sometimes referred to as “Shark Park.”
It was the third attack by a great white shark on a “huka” diver--a term generally applied to urchin and abalone divers, who are attached to a line connected to an on-board air supply--at the island, the northernmost of the Channel Islands 36 miles from Santa Barbara.
But until the incident involving Robinson, no urchin diver had ever been killed by one.
Only eight huka divers have been attacked by great whites since 1972, according to Department of Fish and Game records. And most of those resulted in only minor injuries.
“Most of these guys realize they’re at risk, especially at certain areas like the Farallons and San Miguel,” said Robert Lea, a Monterey marine biologist and shark expert for the Department of Fish and Game. “They just know this.”
Most of them, however, have had more trouble with Pacific electric rays, or torpedo rays, which are common in local waters and sometimes hover in divers’ bubbles, zapping them with 50 to 80 volts if they forget to look up before ascending.
News of the attack on Robinson, therefore, sent shock waves throughout the tight-knit California urchin diving community, which includes about 550 divers. Robinson was widely known and well liked. About 400 attended his memorial services and a parade of about 60 boats participated in the scattering of his ashes off the Santa Barbara coast.
Since then the divers have tried to put the incident behind them. But it hasn’t been easy.
“It certainly brings the reality of our situation closer to home,” said Herzik, of Redondo Beach. “It’s been the main topic of conversation ever since.”
Days are long, the work is hard and the ocean can be downright hostile.
But if nothing else, urchin divers’ lives are rarely dull.
Theirs is an undersea workplace lush with amber forests of kelp teeming with life.
Small fish accompany the divers while they work methodically on the ocean floor, waiting for them to accidentally break open one of the urchins, spilling its creamy roe.
“They love the roe,” Herzik said. “They gobble it up.”
Larger fish, such as lingcod and giant seabass, guard their territories carefully, and when the divers are working nearby they benefit immensely, inhaling the preoccupied smaller fish in gulps.
Lang, 48, said he once heard of a diver who got too close to a huge seabass. It inhaled him up to his knees and promptly spit him out.
“They’re just big , " Lang said. “I’ve seen them to 500 pounds. Fortunately, they’re harmless. They don’t seem to be very fast. They kind of just laze around and go their own way.”
Playful seals and sea lions twist and tumble in and about the kelp, curiously watching the divers, occasionally dive-bombing or even grabbing the bubble-blowing strangers. Whales pass overhead, casting ominous shadows.
“I think most of the old-timers will say there is no better lifestyle,” said Jon Holcomb, 49, who spent 12 years diving in Southern California before moving to Northern California eight years ago.
Holcomb’s sentiments are shared by many of the divers, who spend 80 to 100 days and thousands of hours a year on or in the water, gathering red urchins and to a lesser extent purple urchins to satisfy a Japanese taste for urchin roe, which is creamier and a bit milder than caviar. Urchins thrive almost anywhere there is kelp--their primary food source--from Alaska well south into Baja California.
Urchin diving can be lucrative, especially in late fall and winter when the quality of the roe is best. From October through January, divers can earn more than $2 a pound for whole urchins, 90% of which end up in Japan. And on a good day, they can haul up 1,000 pounds or more.
Still, there are fewer urchin divers every year.
The DFG, which is concerned that the resource is being over-harvested, wants to eventually reduce the number of license holders to 300 and is not letting any new divers into the business.
“We’re now losing people only through attrition,” said Dave Parker, a senior DFG biologist in Long Beach. “We tend to lose people who are least effective harvesters.”
As for the others?
“The only thing that keeps us out (of the water) is the weather,” Herzik said.
The dangers associated with diving for urchins are varied.
Strong currents can smash divers into rocks. They can get tangled in the kelp and drown. Equipment failures can be fatal.
“My biggest problem happened when my compressor shut off, twice, " said Rick Evanoff, 36, of Lompoc. “It happened both times on the same day. I was at 100 feet plus at Santa Barbara Island. Fortunately, I had invested in a bail-out bottle, a small tank just for such emergencies. Most divers carry something called Spare Air, but I had a larger tank and was lucky I did.”
Then there is the most ominous, if not the most common danger of them all--that which may lurk around every corner.
“Seen any sharks? Yeah, everybody has,” said John Gelsinger, 49, a longtime diver from Oxnard. “You bump into all kinds of sharks, but usually when somebody asks if you’ve seen one, they’re referring to white sharks.
“These things come through the water like . . . (submarines). You can’t even see them. But they’re looking for seals and they only attack things at or near the surface. Ninety-nine times out of 100, if you’re on the bottom they’re not even going to give you a second glance--I hope.”
But divers have to get to the bottom before they can feel safe.
Holcomb recalled the day he didn’t make it. It was Sept. 14, 1974. He was diving for abalone at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco.
He and two others were on a small boat with no depth-sounder, and Holcomb was the designated diver. One companion drove, and the other tended Holcomb’s air line.
At the first stop, Holcomb descended into water that initially was dark green.
“Then at about 100 feet it turned black,” he said. “I stopped right there and started kicking up. I knew I wasn’t going to hit the bottom.”
He made it to the surface and someone in a nearby boat informed him he was crazy, that the bottom was 180 feet below. They moved to the south end of Southeast Farallon Island, and Holcomb picked a few 10-inch red abalone on his first dive before trying for another. He only made it about 20 feet.
“This thing rammed me from the side and it felt like somebody hit me with a telephone pole,” Holcomb said the other day from his home in Ft. Bragg.
A shark had him by the right arm and shoulder and began to shake him violently.
“I felt like a chicken in a dog’s mouth,” he said.
He managed to pull free and the shark began to swim away.
“The shark went 20 feet and then came back for seconds,” Holcomb said. “I just froze and just as he was about to grab me I twisted and he almost missed, but he got my other arm and leg.”
On the surface, Holcomb’s companions realized something was wrong when blood began to flow up in his bubbles. Holcomb got free again, but this time held onto the shark by the corner of the mouth with his left hand.
“He towed me along for about five seconds,” Holcomb said. “My face mask was down to my chin. I remember consciously letting go and I popped to the top about 15 feet up.”
The deck-tender pulled Holcomb from the water just as the shark was coming back for a third attack.
Holcomb was eventually air-lifted to a hospital in San Francisco and a team of doctors went to work.
“Both of my arms were torn open to the point where it took eight surgeons 11 hours or 11 surgeons eight hours to put me back together,” Holcomb said, not quite remembering.
He spent 10 days in a hospital, and 29 days later he was back in the water.
“I didn’t go to the same spot, obviously,” he said. “But as soon as I was back under water I was OK.”
OK, but he hasn’t forgotten.
Nor has anyone forgotten what happened to Robinson.
“It’s basically always in the back of my mind,” Evanoff said. “Every day when I get my feet out of the water and my last foot on the deck, I breathe a huge sigh of relief.”