An El Cerrito man searching for abalone died this week off the rugged coast of Mendocino County, marking the fourth fatality in the area this month related to mollusk-hunting.
Joel Falcon, 52, and a friend were searching for abalone -- a shellfish considered a delicacy -- in a cove near Westport on Tuesday when they became trapped by the rising tide. Falcon fell about 75 feet from a steep bluff while trying to climb to safety, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office.
It was the fourth death of an abalone hunter in Mendocino County since April 12, when three abalone divers drowned after entering the choppy water in Caspar Anchorage Bay, authorities said. The abalone season began April 1.
Falcon and his friend, who has not been identified, spent several hours Tuesday searching for abalone among the rocks during a low tide, a process called picking that involves wading into shallow water to search for the abalone rather than diving for them in deeper water.
After several hours, the tide quickly rose, cutting off the route they had used to enter the cove, the sheriff's office said.
Fearing they would not be able to withstand the cold until the next low tide, Falcon and his friend tried to exit the cove by scaling the bluff. Falcon lost his footing and fell to the rocky shoreline below.
His friend climbed back down, called 911 from a cellphone and started CPR. But Falcon was dead by the time an ambulance arrived, the sheriff's office said.
The Westport Volunteer Fire Department used a rope and harness to recover the body.
Last week, authorities released the names of the three divers who died while searching for abalone near Caspar Anchorage Bay: Tae Won Oh, 49, of Dublin, Calif.; Hyun Kook Shin, 49, of Suwanee, Ga.; and Aaron Kim, 53, of Fort Lee, N.J.
The trio were among a group of five men who went diving that afternoon for abalone, authorities said. After entering the water in the southern part of Caspar Anchorage Bay, they became caught in a narrow channel between two rocky outcroppings. A fisherman saw the divers in peril and called 911.
Two divers were rescued, treated and released. Two bodies of two others were recovered from the water and the body of the fifth was found several hours later in a small cove near Caspar Beach. Because of the remote area, his body was hoisted up a 50-foot cliff by volunteer firefighters, authorities said.
Thousands of people flock to the rugged Northern California Coast during the abalone season, which runs from April 1 to Nov. 30 with a month-long break in July.
Deaths occur annually in the area. Last year, five people died during the abalone season, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported. Eight people died during the 2013 season, and two died in 2012, the newspaper reported. Four abalone divers died in 2011.
In Westport, a small coastal town, "everybody has just been very sad" since Falcon fell to his death, said Shelly Lopez, a camp host at Westport Beach RV Park and Campground. For weeks, abalone hunters have been saying the water's been rough, that the mollusk catches have come slowly, she said.
Falcon and his friend arrived at the Westport Beach campground late Monday night.
After Falcon fell, his friend returned to the campground, distraught, Lopez said. He gave campground workers his abalone, saying he never wanted to eat it again.
The friend left everything at the campsite: tent, food, supplies. They had arrived in Falcon's vehicle, and he had to drive it home – which he dreaded.
"He said he wanted to find a way to get home where he couldn't see the ocean," Lopez said. "He never wanted to go in the ocean again."