Abalone Diving In Northern California

One of the most interesting dives in the world is the free diving for abalone on the North Coast of California.  This is an area bounded roughly by Bodega Bay on the South and Fort Bragg on the North.  Although there is more California coast to the North, it is very shallow and sandy around Eureka. It is illegal to take abalone by scuba recreationally in Northern California.

I have found the best abalone picking to be just a little south of Van Damme State Park near a town called Elk.  Here, I have actually seen legal abalone in water that can be stood up in at low tide.  There is an access to a beach across a long field with cows grazing and watching these strange looking creatures in black suits walk to the steeply terraced approach to the beach  What makes this area so good is that there is an adjacent beach which is only accessible at low tide through a sea cave.  This is the spot I have discovered where abalone are still in shallow surf.  The most memorable time I remember was when several of us got limits on both days of a weekend, and we rarely got our fins wet in doing so!

Abalone diving is often undertaken in harsh surf conditions, in low visibility and in very cold weather and water.  Abalone are very aware of your presence and have a very strong foot, since they are a single shell (univalve?) mollusk.  It is virtually impossible for you to dislodge an abalone that decides to stay on its foundation. The most humane way to get abalone is to very carefully move your hand close to the shell without making any wave motions.  Then using the heel of the hand, strike the shell sharply to dislodge the abalone, and gather him up before he comes to rest on another foundation.  Divers usually use an iron that resembles a length of auto spring but to use a sharp iron is illegal, since an abalone which cannot be taken, but has an injured muscle, will bleed to death and die, and be of no use to the hunter.

The type of abalone most sought after in Northern California is the Red Abalone.  It is the largest and to be legal the shell must have a diameter of 7 inches at the widest part.  Abalone are taken that are 10-11 inches in diameter and this size abalone will generally yield 8-10 steaks which look and feel something like either veal or chicken before cooking.

Words of caution are necessary as you undertake your first abalone dive.  First, the coast is remote and most divers don't arrive early enough in the day to avoid bad weather.  Second, the coast is rocky and there are many treacherous flumes or inlets in the rocks which trap a diver with the strength of the current.  Finally, wear all proper equipment, have a valid license, take only your OWN limit, and for the first several dives, go with an experienced North Coast diver.

Preparing abalone is also an art much like making chili.  Everyone has their own recipe.  I have found that keeping them overnight in a cooler before trying to pry the meat from the shell is best.  They seem to be more tender when preparing. Also, cooking in a very hot oil for only 20-30 seconds on a side is preferable in a light coating of egg, Ritz crackers, and beer.