Notes From a Forager: Abalone Diving on the North Coast

We'll avoid the tired "you enter into a different world" cliches, but there's something amazing about being underwater on the Sonoma coast. Paddling out into the rough surf, the sun just starting to peek out from the clouds, the wind whipping the ocean into a froth. You're clutching your float, snorkel awkwardly sticking out of your mouth to battle the spray, legs already tired from the trip, eyes glancing for shark fins...

And then you dive. Down into the dark. You can rarely see the bottom when you dive the Sonoma coast — 10 feet of visibility is a great day (compared to 50 to 60 in more timid regions). But down you go anyway, past the swaying forests of kelp, holding your nose to equalize, mask tightening against your face from pressure, kicking your fins gently as you descend.

It's peaceful down there. No phones, no e-mail, no meetings, no talking; just the bullwhip kelp swaying with the current, the same current that rocks you back and forth. Rays of sunlight flash from the surface, illuminating the rock fish lazily returning to their burrows. You get to the bottom and just sit, looking up through the now-crisp water to the surface, inspecting the algae-sheathed rocks beneath you ... and there it is. An abalone.

All the time you've wasted staring around like an idiot comes into focus. You're short on air, and know that if you go back to the surface, the surf will push you off the spot and you'll never find it again. You only have one shot. Abalone filter feed, so when undisturbed they have a somewhat gentle grip on the rock, but once they're spooked there's no getting them off. You take your abalone iron and gauge (vital equipment: the former an 8-inch flattened length of steel, the latter to make sure the ab is legal size).

You need to measure with one hand, get ready to pop it off with the other, battling the current to stay in place, all the time making sure not to touch it (lest it clamp down). You approach, measure, slip the iron under its shell, and with an outward motion (abalone are hemophiliacs and if you cut them they'll bleed out, making for a not-so-great dinner), you pop it off. Straining to grab it as quickly as you can, you start the now seemingly endless trip back to the surface, lungs screaming for oxygen, as you thrust your way though the kelp into the open air.

Doesn't get any better.

To learn more about the proper permits and rules around abalone diving, visit

My Voice Nation Help

You need to become more experienced before taking a bunch of fellow rookies abalone diving under the guise of being an expert (I'm of course referring to your side business at Hunt n Gather SF). 

First, it sounds as if you went diving on a particularly rough day. If the wind is whipping spray in your face as the sun comes up, you should rethink your plan, maybe go get coffee or something instead. Second, use a FLOATLINE to mark abalone! A bunch of newbies are going to stab countless abalone in their efforts to pry them from the rock, and without a floatline to mark their spot, they'll drift off of it between breath-holds, and leave the ab to die as they go off in search of another. If you know what you're doing you can easily pry an ab off after it has clamped down onto the rock. Just measure it, mark it, and come back to it. And finally, an abalone is NOT a filter feeder! Do you tell your "clients" that? They are grazers. Big difference.

Seriously, someone of your experience level is in no way qualified to lead diving tours. I'd hate to hear of someone getting hurt on your watch. 

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