California’s 840-mile coastline offers incredible diversity in its range of diving opportunities. The southern coast has relatively warm waters all summer long while further north, in Monterey, world-class cold water diving awaits, with deep water canyons and an abundance of sea life.
North of San Francisco, the California Coast takes a turn towards the rugged, with icy water that rarely warms beyond 48-56 degrees Fahrenheit, lower visibility than much of the Golden State, and limited shore access. It’s here that the ocean’s edge is met by steep, rocky cliffs. Waves crash obstructed on these rocky shores, and diving is not only challenging but often impossible for even the most experienced and determined diver.
So why do thousands of divers flock to the northern coast each spring and summer? True, this coastline offers some of the most beautiful scenery in California, both above and below the surface. But the reason for many divers comes down to a single-shelled mollusk – California’s famous red abalone. Every year from April through November, abalone divers crowd the narrow, winding cliffs of Highway 1 to kayak or shore dive below the cliffs in search of this tasteful delicacy. Unless you are acquiring farmed abalone, these waters stand as one of the few places in the world where divers are able to harvest abalone themselves.
For the uninitiated, abalone diving is practically a whole new sport –one that demands special gear, techniques, and training in order to guarantee safety and success. For starters, divers in search of red abalone are limited to breath-hold diving. There is no scuba gear allowed in the water, at the dive site, or even in the boat. Most divers enter the water in a wetsuit (drysuits are often too bulky and cumbersome for freediving), a weight belt, mask, fins, snorkel, with a float tube or paddleboard to provide extra surface support. Some divers like to launch a kayak from shore, as this allows them to reach more remote areas, and thus catch, or in some cases, larger abalone. While limited on California’s North Coast, there also exist a few locations where smaller dive boats can be launched, offering divers the opportunity to dive in the less diver-populated locations.
Thanks to very effective fisheries management, red abalone continue to thrive on the North Coast, and their populations have generally remained healthy over the years. There is an increased concern, however, that the abalone are being overfished, especially over the past few seasons. With the recent closure of salmon fishing and the imposition of other fishing limitations in the area, many are turning to abalone diving. The Department of Fish and Game is strictly enforcing fishing regulations and is closely monitoring the number of abalone being collected in attempt to maintain a healthy abalone population. As divers, it’s vitally important that we do our part as well.
California’s Red Abalone
The red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) is a relatively slow-growing mollusk that reaches a breeding age at about 6 years. After about 10-12 years, it is roughly 7 inches in size and is considered legal to harvest, although they can grow much larger – 10 inches or more. – with the current record- size red abalone measuring in at 12.34 inches. During her first season of breeding, the female abalone will produce about 100,000 eggs and a healthy, full-grown 7-inch abalone producing nearly 2.5 million eggs each season.
Originally harvested by the Native Americans in Northern California, the shells of abalone were much more sought after than the meat. Chinese laborers, arriving to California in the mid-19th century, were the first to regard abalone meat a delicacy, and they began exporting it to the Orient. By the 1930’s, abalone had become popular throughout the United States, and it exists today as one of the most highly-prized (and expensive) types of seafood. Aside from recreational diving, abalone is farmed in pens for commercial use, although in very limited quantities.
Abalone clasp tightly onto rocky surfaces using their giant “foot” to hold fast against currents, waves, and predators such as sea otters and, of course, divers. They are sensitive to water movements, and if they sense that they’re about to be plucked from their current habitat, they’ll tighten down onto their rock, making it difficult and sometimes impossible for a predator to force their removal. It takes special tools and honed skills for the successful diver to remove an abalone from its rock and safely return to shore with the catch.
As a breath-hold freediver on the prowl for the abalone, you must be as energy-efficient in the water as possible, and this means streamlining your gear. Training and experience are just as important as gear when abalone diving. Testing the waters with a seasoned veteran is a great way to gain fundamental tips and guidance in this challenging and sometimes dangerous sport. Here’s a look at some of the basic gear needed for abalone diving the north coast:
Due to the cold water, most divers wear booties with open-heeled fins (the same style commonly used for scuba diving). If you’re wearing fins with heel straps, the loose strap ends should be trimmed and taped or otherwise secured so they do not create excess drag. This practice also reduces the chance of entanglement, such as the fin catching onto kelp stipes. It’s also key to carry an extra set of fin straps, as there are a limited number of dive shops in the region. It is not always easy to pick up supplies, and something as simple as a broken fin or mask strap can end your diving for the day. The North Coast environment is a rough one and gear really takes a beating on all dives up here, so it’s wise to bring along a well-stocked save-a-dive kit.
Some abalone divers and spear-fishermen prefer to use longer fins that are specially designed for freediving. Cressi Sub Garras, or Picasso Black Team fins are frequently favored among dedicated freedivers. The Picassos powered Japan’s fastest fin swimmer, Mr. Noboru Tomotake, all the way to his Gold Medal for the 400 meters in 2000. Efficiency and the ability to reach greater depths is a huge advantage to the abalone hunter. In decent conditions, those who can dive greater than 30 feet usually have thir pick of large abalone, have no problem filling their bag with the legal limit.
Since you’re definitely wearing a wetsuit up here, a weight belt is a necessity. Weight belts should fit securely and should be easy to release in an emergency with the buckle positioned for a right-hand release. Some ab divers prefer to wear a rubber weight belt with a hooked, fixed-position buckle to compensate for suit compression, and some manufacturers offer traditional metal buckles that also compensate at depth. Properly adjusted (i.e., very snug), these belts counteract the water’s depth and cling tight to the body without the need for underwater readjustment. If you’re wearing a more traditional, nylon-webbed weight belt and buckle, be sure it’s properly adjusted that you readjust at depth if necessary. It’s also highly recommended to remove any hooks or extra straps from your weight belt. Spring snap clips, stringer clips, and the like are sometimes referred to as “suicide clips” in the ab diving community. Enough said!
It’s critical that you, as a diver, be comfortable releasing and ditching your weight belt, and unafraid to act if and when trouble presents itself. If you’re struggling and out of breath, ditch your belt. If you have a bad cramp and are having problems with buoyancy, ditch your belt. If your buddy is struggling in the water, ditch his belt. It’s easy and inexpensive to replace, and with a full wetsuit you’ll instantly gain positive buoyancy. It’s great training to review this procedure and practice it regularly so that if the time comes, you’re ready!
A properly-fitting mask is critical for abalone diving, and many ab divers prefer a low-volume mask for its streamlined profile and the ease of equalizing and clearing it. The bane of an abalone diver’s existence is a poorly-fitting, leaking mask that constantly needs adjusting (which is especially difficult while wearing thick gloves). Cressi Sub, Riffe, Mares, and SporaSub all design make excellent freediving masks, as do many other manufacturers; however, many divers wear their regular scuba masks for this sport. Whichever style you use, make sure your mask fits properly, and that the skirt is sealed to your face – and under your hood – before you get in the water. Finally, if you’re an eyeglass wearer, take the extra step and buy a mask with prescription lenses. You’ll need to be able to read the measurements on your ab gauge easily and also to navigate back to shore at the end of the dive. As mentioned before, be sure to bring along at least a spare mask strap, and preferably a spare mask.
Carrying a dive knife is a somewhat controversial subject among abalone divers. Some veterans avoid carrying a dive knife because it’s an additional entanglement hazard. A knife sheath makes a great hook for kelp to latch on to, which could potentially make it difficult to surface from a dive. And while kelp can usually be broken by doubling it over with your hands, one strand of monofilament fishing line (or worse – the newer Spectra line that’s literally 10x stronger than steel) could be far more problematic. Smaller, sharp knives are often preferred by ab divers, as they’re less of an entanglement hazard than full-sized knives. If you choose to wear a knife, make sure it’s secured before the dive, that all loose straps are trimmed and tucked in, and that you wash it thoroughly as soon as you emerge from the salty water.
There is a huge range of snorkels available on the market. Some divers prefer one of the various “dry” snorkels, as they include water deflectors and purge valves that help keep the breath drier when dealing with surface chop and wind. The classic “J” snorkel is preferred by others who like to keep it simple and who favor its smaller, more streamlined profile in the water. Whichever you prefer, make sure it’s comfortable, well-secured to your mask, and easy to breathe through, especially in rough, irregular waters. If you haven’t breathed through a snorkel for a long surface swim lately (many scuba divers rarely use a snorkel, and are not used to breathing through one for long surface swims), a trip to your local swimming pool is probably in order. Getting accustomed to breathing consistently and forcefully through a snorkel is an important skill, as is the ability to clear the snorkel of water after a surface dive or on an arduous swim to shore. It’s a skill that not all divers, especially not scuba divers, are always comfortable with, but important for the abalone diver.
To harvest abalone, you’ll need a few additional tools to measure and pry them off the rocks. Regulations require all divers to have an approved measuring caliper and abalone iron, which can be picked up from almost any Northern California dive shop. Remember that once in the water, these tools can be entanglement hazards, so securing them to your wrist with a lanyard is not recommended (although many come with them), and attaching them to a “suicide clip” is out of the question. Some divers prefer to hand-hold their tools, while others use a long line leading to their surface float.
In the early days of abalone diving, some divers used cut automotive leaf springs, screwdrivers, or other home-made tools to pry abs off the rocks. These are no longer allowed by law, so be sure to pick up the approved tools. They’ll make your ab harvesting easier, and keep you on the good side of the Department of Fish and Game. Some divers also favor carrying a small flashlight to find abs who have taken shelter under boulders and ledges.
As a side note, abalone are hemophiliacs – once their flesh is cut or damaged they will most likely die, even if placed back on the rock they were plucked from. Proper tools are necessary to prevent the deaths of undersized abalone that have been removed accidently.
In the early days of ab diving, many divers used a homemade float – typically a burlap gunny sack stretched over a tire inner tube. It allowed for supplementary floatation at the surface, and created a place to stash extra gear along with the day’s catch of fish and/or abalone.
Today, float tubes are still commonly used, but like everything else they’ve evolved. Float tubes are now made of heavy nylon covers with zippered pockets, and some have handles around the perimeter to provide a grip both in the water and while being carried on land. Float tubes give the diver a place to rest between dives and make it easier to carry catch back to shore. They also make an effective rescue tool. On the negative side, float tubes not very streamlined in the water, and add significant drag.
Many divers now are using custom dive boards, similar to boogie boards, rather than float tubes. By adding a few tie-down straps, these boards offer the benefits of a float tube in a more streamlined design.
Kayak diving has also gained in popularity in recent years. In addition to providing comfortable transportation to the dive site, kayaks also offer a great surface. Dive kayaks are portable and easily launched from beaches. They’re rugged and durable, and allow the diver to go “around the corner” to less-picked over abalone spots. Many dive sites offer easy kayak launching within easy paddle distance to the dive site, eliminating the need for a dock, ramp, or traditional launch. In addition, many abalone divers also enjoy breath-hold spearfishing, and the kayak makes a great surface platform for both.
While gear is an imperative part of any diving experience, there’s no substitute for training and education. Many dive centers offer special training for freedivers. This is an incredibly valuable tool for making your abalone diving safer, more productive, and more enjoyable.
One of the most important elements of safe freediving is proper weighting. While it’s very important when scuba diving, it’s critical for freediving. Freediving while overweighted wastes energy, can make surfacing from a dive extremely difficult, and increases stress while swimming at the surface. All divers should do a proper buoyancy check in shallow, controlled conditions, and adjust their weight as necessary, before venturing into the open water. If you wear a new wetsuit, or if you gain or lose a few pounds between seasons, then it’s necessary to rework your buoyancy in shallow water before heading offshore. It’s always worth the time and effort to ensure that you’re properly weighted.
It goes without saying that you’ll need to be in very good physical condition to dive for abalone. Carrying your gear down trails and cliffs to the water, donning a tight wetsuit on a hot day, and swimming offshore through waves can be exhausting, even for experienced divers. Once at your ideal diving location, you’ll be swimming out to the dive area, holding your breath while repeatedly surfacing diving, and then swimming back to shore, sometimes against the current, and hopefully with a heavy load of abalone in tow!
If you’re losing your breath in the water, stop, relax, and evaluate before continuing on. If the conditions are rougher than expected or if you’re not feeling well for any reason, it’s much more prudent to head to shore and abort the dive. Like managing your air supply in scuba diving, be sure to reserve enough energy to not only complete the dive trip, but to return to shore with energy to spare for contingencies. And contingencies do often pop up on the North Coast. Conditions change very quickly in this region, so make sure you take time before and during your dive to re-evaluate the wind, waves, and any currents that might be present.
Abalone diving involves many risks, so diving with a buddy is recommended. Shallow water blackout poses a huge risk for serious freedivers, and swimming through waves, against currents, and in constantly changing conditions is physically demanding on the calmest days. A buddy team can rely on one other for assistance with gear and navigation. It’s also much more fun, with bragging rights for the biggest abs a bonus! During the summer months, it’s sometimes possible to meet a buddy at the more popular dive sites. In addition, most northern California dive shops and dive clubs do regular dive trips and campouts on the North Coast. There’s also some great camping available in the area, making it a fun mini-vacation not only for divers, but for the entire family.
Rules & Regulations
While abalone was once on the endangered species list, the dwindling populations have successfully recovered. To protect the abalone population, there are very strict rules and regulations that all divers must follow when collecting this cherished mollusk. Disregarding these rules – whether intentionally or not – will have a negative impact on the abalone population, as well as a potentially serious financial impact on your wallet.
Divers over the age of 16 who wish to harvest abalone must posses a valid California fishing license ($41.50), and must also purchase an abalone punch card ($19.95). The punch card has small tags which must be removed and attached to each abalone immediately after collection (usually with a plastic tie wrap), and the location and size of each abalone must be recorded on the card itself. For shore divers, the tags must be attached to the ab immediately after exiting the water (on the shoreline) and for boat divers, immediately after surfacing and boarding. If you return to your car before affixing the tags it’s too late, and you could be fined.
The minimum legal size for abalone is 7 inches, measured at the largest point across the shell. Each diver is required to carry an approved measuring device with them to make sure the ab is of legal size. Divers should always measure the ab underwater, before prying it off its rock. It’s always good to re-measure the abs once you’re on the surface, and again when you reach the shore just to make sure you’re legal. If you accidently take an undersized ab, it needs to be returned immediately to the rock from which it was taken; simply dropping it to the bottom of the ocean can be a death sentence. There’s a collection limit of 3 abalone per day, with a limit of 24 abalone per season (April – November). Abalone season is closed during the month of July to help protect the population during the height of the summer dive season.
Wardens from the Department of Fish and Game heavily patrol the North Coast during abalone season, and if they catch you violating the rules, the fines are steep. Poaching wildlife is a misdemeanor in California, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Abalone violations can be four times as high. Additionally, a violation can result in the confiscation of your dive gear and the suspension of your fishing license for a year or more. Keeping the abalone population healthy is the responsibility of every diver. It will protect our privilege to dive for this treasure, and allow us to share this sport with our children and grandchildren.
Abalone diving on California’s North Coast is a breathtaking journey in itself, that offers incredible rewards for the adventurous diver. While challenging, nothing matches the chance to cook your fresh abalone catch after a long day’s dive. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy nature, both on and off shore.
About the Haliotis rufescens:
Population: Exact numbers are difficult to estimate, but they are the most common of the seven species of abalone in California.
Habitat: They thrive in rocky, intertidal areas with kelp in cold Northern California waters up to 100 feet deep.
Diet: Abalone primarily feed on kelp and algae.
Shell length: The dome-shaped shells can reach a foot long, making red abalone the largest species of abalone in the world.
Life span: Abalone can live for 30 to 50 years. It takes at least 10 years for them to reach the legal harvest size of 7 inches.
Check out this year’s abalone regulations by clicking here.