By John Branch
In Hunt for Red Abalone, Divers Face Risks and Poachers Face the Law
FORT BRAGG, Calif. — Every year, as steady as the tides, lifeless bodies are pulled from the cold, restless water along the rugged coastline north of San Francisco.
Most of the victims are middle-aged men. They wear black wet suits, usually hooded. They are often found in small coves framed by crescents of jagged rocks. An abandoned float tube sometimes bobs about nearby. Almost without exception, the victims are found wearing weighted belts that help them sink.
Sometimes the bodies are discovered by friends nearby. If the fog is not too thick, the victims might be spotted from the towering bluffs above, where lifeguards patrol dozens of miles of desolate coast and armed game wardens spy for poachers. Many of the bodies are plucked from the swells by a search-and-rescue helicopter crew accustomed to making daring rope rescues and recoveries several times a year.
The bodies are those of abalone divers.
“There’s a lot of death in abalone diving,” Nate Buck, a longtime Sonoma County lifeguard, said as he steered a pickup truck south along Highway 1, the Pacific Ocean churning below the cliffs to the right. In 14 years, he has lost count of how many bodies he has helped retrieve. “Lifeguards know that. Drive around here, and every one of these coves is another reminder.”
Abalone is an edible mollusk, a snail-like, single-shell gastropod found in coastal waters around much of the globe. But the red abalone is the biggest and the most prized, found only on the west coast of North America. In California, with a litany of restrictions to protect its fragile population, the hunt for wild red abalone is permitted only north of San Francisco, and only for sport.
Part of the enduring allure is how easy it is to take part. No experience and little equipment are necessary. Air tanks are illegal. Abalone divers simply slip into the murky water and hold their breath, in search of a hidden prize.
The red abalone’s thick, domed single shell grows to more than 12 inches in diameter. Brick red on the outside and pearly silver on the inside, they are trophies, framed for the wall, mounted above a mantel or set along walkways as yard decorations. The meat inside, sometimes several pounds’ worth, is a delicacy, with a taste and texture not unlike calamari.
“It really is an iconic species for California,” said Laura Rogers-Bennett of the University of California at Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and a senior biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It is a species that is part of our fishing heritage. And because of the size of red abalone, the biggest in the world, it’s not unlike the redwood or the sequoia.”
During the seven-month diving season — April through November, with a hiatus in July — thousands arrive each weekend to the wild edges of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, mostly, in serpentine parades from the south and the east. Divers are rooted in tradition and thrive on camaraderie, like those who hunt deer or pheasant elsewhere. They pour from cars and trucks and vans, dress themselves in rubber suits, burden themselves with as much equipment as they can carry and trudge down treacherous rocks to the ocean’s edge.
Those brave enough to dive deep below the water’s surface for abalone or pick through the shoreline rocks during low tides may take no more than three in a day and 18 for the year. Each abalone has to be at least seven inches in diameter, meaning it is probably at least 10 years old. Each shell must be tagged and recorded immediately. It cannot be resold.
But temptations are real, and the black market for poached red abalone is active, because a full-size one can fetch $100 or more.
With roughly 250,000 red abalone legally captured for sport in California annually, and estimates that at least as many are taken illegally each year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, including its undercover Special Operations Unit, spends as much time and resources protecting abalone as any other creature in California.
Abalone, in other words, is a big deal in Northern California.
“It’s like the last warrior-hunter thing to do,” said Sydney Smith-Tallman, whose family owns a dive shop in Fort Bragg that caters mostly to abalone hunters. “There’s danger, thrill, beauty.”
And, though no one tracks the numbers specifically, up to a dozen people die doing it every year.
‘The Dream of a Diver’
The holy grail for divers is an abalone with a 10-inch shell. No one has caught more than Dwayne Dinucci, a retired high school technical arts teacher who lives on a cul-de-sac in Union City, Calif., near Oakland. The license plate of his truck reads, “POPNAB” — pop an ab, the widely used expression for plucking abalone, or abs, from their suctioned underwater homes on the rocks.
“Ten inches is a landmark, the dream of a diver,” he said. “To this day, 45 years later, when I find a 10-inch abalone, I am thrilled.”
Dinucci had captured 343 abalone before the start of this season, including 20 that were more than 11 inches. The biggest he has caught is 11 29/32inches, just shy of the world record of 12 5/16 inches, set in 1993 by John Pepper, a former student of Dinucci’s.
Dinucci has four of the top 10 largest abalone caught on record in California, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“The lure is finding the world’s largest abalone,” Dinucci said. “And on my gravestone it’ll say, ‘Never found it, but sure as hell tried.’ ”
The walls and rafters of his two-car garage are covered in hundreds of abalone shells, like hubcaps. They are perfectly aligned on hooks and labeled: size, date, time, location. The locations are intentionally vague, because a good abalone diver does not reveal such secrets.
Dinucci, with a rim of gray hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, usually dives with a group of like-minded, trophy-hunting friends. While some coves can be jammed with dozens of divers and pickers, Dinucci and his crew look for open water, about 12 feet deep, disguising rocky shoals. From an inflatable boat, they drop into the water, one held breath at a time.
Dinucci has a customized boogie board — most use a float tube, which Dinucci finds too cumbersome — fitted with straps so he can hike up and down cliffs with it on his back. The board has hooks to connect to his necessary tools, such as fins, goggles, a waterproof flashlight and an abalone iron, like a small crowbar, used to pry abalone from rocks. Divers are required to carry gauges that measure seven inches, the legal size, but Dinucci’s is 10, because he wants nothing smaller than that.
He has no special ability for holding his breath — a minute at best — but has patience to dive and resurface dozens of times in pursuit of a single abalone. With tight limits on the catch, Dinucci does not want to pluck one that he will regret if he happens upon something larger.
The water, besides being cold and rough, can be as murky as soup. Dinucci prowls the underwater rock formations, feeling with his hands, shining a light into dark holes. Some of his best catches have required him to squirm through narrow passageways. Others have necessitated great patience and reach, inserting the bar into a nook and under the abalone, hoping the slow-moving animal will slide and attach itself firmly enough to let Dinucci carry it to the surface like a Popsicle.
“I’ve gone into holes and all of a sudden a swell will come over and suck you into the hole, even farther than you wanted to come in,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve come close to losing my life. But I’ve had some scares. Which is good.”
Dinucci said he had been thrown into rocks by sudden swells and so-called sneaker waves, known to pull unsuspecting beachgoers off the shore. In many places, the shoreline can be inaccessible because of cliffs.
“Why do a lot of these people die?” he asked. “Mostly inexperience. We get a lot of Southern California divers, but the North Coast is different. It’s rough. And it can get rough” — Dinucci snapped his fingers — “like that. The key is to know where you’re coming out. Getting in is easy. Coming out is the hard part.” More....