Search for abalone diver turns up body

Paddock is a Times staff writer.

A submerged body recovered off the coast of Sonoma County was tentatively identified Tuesday as that of missing diver Jonathon Su of Sunnyvale, the eighth abalone hunter to die off the North Coast this year.

Su, 29, was hunting for abalone with a cousin near Fort Ross State Historic Park on Nov. 9 when he dove underwater and apparently drowned. The body, clad in a wetsuit identical to Su’s, was recovered Monday by a state Parks and Recreation Department search team on the ocean floor near the spot where Su was last seen.

At least 15 abalone hunters have died off Sonoma and Mendocino counties in the last 19 months, authorities say.


“Abalone diving is very hazardous,” said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Glenn Lawrence. “My understanding is [Su] was an experienced diver, but there were 12-foot swells. Even an experienced diver can get in trouble.”

The body was found in about 20 feet of water with an abalone diver’s weight belt still attached. There was no indication that the diver was caught in thick kelp, which has led to the drowning of other divers this year.

“He went down and never resurfaced,” Lawrence said.

An autopsy will be conducted.

Abalone season draws about 40,000 free divers to the North Coast each year. The sport is riskier than it appears, and authorities say some divers do not appreciate the hazards. The use of scuba tanks is banned to protect the badly depleted species.

Abalone divers have been killed by being swept into rocks by unexpectedly strong waves, becoming entangled in thick kelp, or suffering heart attacks in the cold water. One was killed by a great white shark.

Abalone were once abundant off California, but with over-hunting, the giant mollusk has become scarce. Divers are now permitted to collect abalone only north of San Francisco and under strict limits: no more than three a day and 24 a year. The seven-month season runs from April 1 to Nov. 30, with a break in July.

Authorities say a lack of familiarity with local conditions contributes to fatalities. All 15 divers known to have died since last year came from outside the region. In Su’s case, the waves were rough the day he went driving, said Jeremy Stinson, supervising ranger at Fort Ross State Historic Park.


“People who want to come here to abalone dive need to be aware of their own limitations,” Stinson said. “They also need to be aware of the ocean conditions.”