Abalone diving in Northern California

Abalone is synonymous with Northern California diving. This marine mollusk is the gourmet gastropod prized for the delicate flavor held in the massive muscle that comprises the bulk of the body and foot. Think flattened snail on steroids living in 40-50 degree punishing surf with an affinity for clinging in often impossible to reach places and you pretty much have it. The search for abalone ranges from friendly foray to full scale obsession for California divers. I can sense your eagerness so how do you go about it?

You’ll need a fishing license. You’ll need a 7 mil full wetsuit complete with hood, boots, gloves and snorkel. I say snorkel because abalone can only be taken freediving- as in holding your breath. While you’re holding your breath, in your hand is held a slightly curved piece of flat metal bar resembling a leaf spring, with it’s edges rounded and with a lanyard attaching it and your wrist. Your other hand will be kept busy fending off the urchin-covered rocks that the abalone inhabit, holding on to the stalks of the kelp that the abalone and urchins feed on and generally just helping keep you in the same area code of your destination some meters below.

You’ll also need a gauge or caliper that has a minimum size cut into it- 7" in the case of the Red Abalone, the world’s largest and coincidentally the most prevalent in No Cal. This gauge will be hung from your float- and inner tube with cover or net strung in it it’s center, a surf mat or a kayak, itself tied off to the floating kelp that marks the location of the rocky bottom often just dozens or hundreds of yards from shore and that will waste no time in trying to entangle the in-experienced diver’s legs. Having fun still?

Don’t be put off b the usual 6-12 foot swell that often reduce the visibility to mere single digits of feet. Just keep telling yourself that as long as you can see your hand, it’s all good.

On the bottom abalone resemble the very rocks that they attach to with their giant foot so look for the row of small holes that circle a portion of the shell’s perimeter or the thin red rim of newly forming shell that gives the Red Abalone it’s name. See one and all of a sudden you’ll start to see more. Think of finding your first love- they were great until you saw the next one. This would also be a good time to surface and catch your breath…

Prying an abalone off it’s home is often thought to be a Herculean effort. It’s really just a matter of technique that can be easily mastered on the kitchen counter. Place a dinner plate upside-down on the counter and insert the tip of a knife under the lip of the plate and LIFT the handle of the knife. The suction of the plate will be broken and the plate is yours. You want frustration, try to push on the handle rather than lifting. It’s no fun either upside down at 30 feet so get good at it in the comfort of your kitchen. While it’s an important technique to help you pry them off the rocks it’s really important for the abalone as they lack a clotting agent in their thin milky-white blood. If you stab at them, nick or cut them, they’ll die. So before you lay siege to that snail, make sure it’s of the right size and that you can replace it on the bottom if it turns out to be that maddeningly hair too short. Getting good at the prying technique will help you also in that abalone tend to like their existence down there in the murk and will clamp down on the rock remarkably quick for what you thought was a slow moving snail.

The limit for abalone in possession is three, with an annual total of 24, the season opening on April 1st and ending the end of November with a breeding break in July, so pick them carefully and big- you’re on a tight rein here.

Work your way back to shore with your prizes, again trying to not become an integral part of the topography and celebrate your success on the beach. You still have a climb back to the car and a commute to the kitchen ahead, and then you can begin the process of removing the meat from the shell and tenderizing the steaks you render it into as well as the all-important act of garnishing the platter, all topics to be covered in coming articles.