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For over thirty years, my husband and a band of friends have been making trips to Mendocino to dive for abalone. Abalone are sea snails that live underwater, attach themselves to the undersides of rock edges with their single suction-cup foot and graze on the kelp growing in the ocean. They are hunted avidly by divers. The taste of abalone is hard to describe. Not fishy in the least, it is tender and almost a cross between the taste of lobster and crab meat. It is simply delicious. To legally harvest this delicacy (you cannot buy wild abalone and farmed abalone sells for about $100 per pound) the hunters must ‘free-dive’ meaning no oxygen tanks or oxygen hoses can be used. This limits the depth to which a hunter can go, and it limits how long he/she can stay underwater. Supposedly these restrictions give the abalone a fairer chance.
Legal sized (seven inches) abalone can be found at any depth, but the larger ones are usually deeper and hidden in crevices. My husband can dive to about 25 feet, but is much happier when he can get good ones at 12-15 feet. Abalone hunters wear thick rubber wetsuits because the ocean in Northern California is very cold (50 degrees F/11 degrees C). The wetsuit my husband wears to surf is not thick enough to keep him warm for an abalone hunt. These hunters also use snorkel masks, weight belts and fins, and have their 'ditty' bag attached to a float board. The ditty bag is useful in hauling their equipment when they descend or ascend the cliffs, and it is useful to haul their catch! Three legal-sized abalone would be very awkward to carry (they are round with no handles!) and are heavy (about ten pounds altogether). The ditty bag also carries the tags and ties that are required to legally take abalone out of the ocean. The heft of the weight belt is determined by the diver's body weight. The heavier the diver, the more lead weights on his belt to help him stay underwater. Most divers in their prime can dive for one minute, but it is more comfortable to remain under for only 30 seconds. Try holding your breath for one minute, and imagine swimming and prying a reluctant critter off a rock at 20 feet at the same time. Not easy to do.
Divers/hunters are limited to three abalone a day and a total of twenty-four per year. Divers can only hunt for abalone in certain months of the year, and the shell must be a minimum of seven inches across for the abalone to be mature enough to harvest. Divers carry small ‘ab irons’ that resemble tire irons and these are what they use to pry the abalone off the rocks. It costs nearly $75 to get a license for abalone. The rangers sit on the cliffs and watch through binoculars. If they suspect someone has too many abalone or is not tagging them properly on the beach, the rangers swoop down and write tickets with enormous price tags. About three years ago, the first year with the 'new' tag system, my husband freely admitted to the ranger that he had not tagged his abalone properly because he did not have scissors with him at the beach. The ranger ticketed him on the spot at the campsite and it cost $500.
Abalone meat is delicious to eat, and the shells are beautiful to display. The diving, I am told, is fun as long as you don’t get caught in the kelp or lose your weight belt or see a large creature with a single fin eyeing you like you are going to be its lunch. The ocean must be very calm and the tide must be out for optimal abalone diving.
|Swimming in the heavy kelp|
When I first moved to California, this is one trip my husband could hardly wait for me to make with him. Off to Mendocino to camp in a tent for four days in Van Damme State Park, his diving friends and their families camped around us. I enjoyed the whole event. Definite selling points for me included the potluck feasts every night with the main entrée being abalone, the side dishes that were family specialities and the big 'family reunion' atmosphere. Long evening sessions around the campfire with my husband and his friends playing their guitars and singing campfire songs were so entertaining. The visiting and bouts of laughter were cherished. The physical contentment that comes from days spent outdoors led to deep restorative sleeps in our sleeping bags in our tents. The camaraderie of the band of abalone hunters was seamless, woven tightly after many consecutive years and strong enough to have survived these many years. The members of this band were newly-weds together, young teachers together and new parents together. They observed the growing up of each other’s kids and the growing old of each other.
|Coming in, giving me the all's-good wave!|
The annual Mendocino camping/diving trip seems to be on its last legs. The group used to number in the forties for the potluck dinners, and whole sections of Van Damme State Park were crammed with our tents, trailers and RVs. No more. Last year there were only two families in our section of the park, and only about ten of us for dinner each night. There were two other families from the original group in another part of the campground but beyond some socializing, there was not a lot of contact. Most of the original abalone divers have 'retired' due to their age or health conditions. My husband and maybe one or two others of the original hunters still dive. The next generation (with the exception of a very few who were raised with annual camping/diving trips) seems to be more interested in other recreational pursuits. It is sad to see this 30-year-old tradition end. I shall miss the campfires, singing, shared potluck meals and hours of visiting in the afternoon sunshine. I know my husband is mourning this loss of the time together with his friends in the water and woods.
|An abalone as it comes from the ocean|
|Abalone shells emptied of their meat with an ab iron resting on them|