Standing at the water’s edge, fully kitted out in my camouflaged 7mm wetsuit, more often than not I have to ask myself: “What the hell am I doing here”? The 5oC water gives me ice cream headaches and I get sea sick from the 8 to 10 foot swell. The visibility is horrible. All the fish are riddled with worms. Unless I get lucky, the biggest fish I can hope to see is going to be less than 10 pounds. Well that’s not entirely true… there’s always the chance of seeing a Great White Shark. Even with all my hesitations, I still jump in, because even though my face will go numb from the cold, the next 4 hours will be the best part of my week.
Here in Northern California we have sea temperatures that are only a few degrees warmer than Alaska thanks to a northern current that brings down arctic water. A seven hour drive south to LA would yield much warm water, big Yellowtail, Halibut and giant White Sea Bass; as well as beautiful beaches loaded with stunning women, and a fan club complete with groupies for every spearfisherman. But where I live, in Northern California, our diving is only famous for its freezing cold dirty water and for a type of giant snail, the Red Abalone.
Northern California holds the world record for the largest abalone ever caught, which was 12.34 inches long taken by John Pepper in 1993. Abalone diving is wildly popular here and dominates the diving sports. The Department of Fish and Game estimates that there are about 40 000 abalone divers in California and that about 267 000 abalone are harvested on an annual basis. These divers bring an estimated 13 million dollars to the coastal economy. The funny thing about abalone diving, is that abalone live in very shallow water. They can be found high and dry at low tide and are almost never found deeper than 50 feet. Abalone divers are an even shallower dwelling species. They will plan their trips to ensure they will be diving during a low tide. This allows them to harvest abalone that would otherwise be a few feet out of reach at high tide. When the abalone season ends, the coast is often desolate even when there are exceptional diving conditions and several species of fish are still in season.
Like many kids on the north coast I started my diving career gathering abalone. When I was 12 my dad took me diving for the first time. I had to swim as fast as I could just to keep his fins from disappearing into the cloudy water ahead of me. It was cold and dark and I didn’t have much fun. I didn’t see an abalone that day. On my fourth dive I took my first abalone, before long I had managed to reach my first daily limit of 3. After that, I became involved in spearfishing and it has been all down hill from there.
That was 18 years ago and the abalone population in Northern California is still going strong. Throughout a day of diving I often swim over hundreds of abalone. Using just one breath, the daily limit of 3 can easily be pried from the rocks with a metal bar called an abalone iron. Finding an abalone spot is fairly straight forward if you follow these steps: walk down to the water’s edge, look due west and start swimming that direction. When you get into 10 feet of water swim down, look under the first rock you see and there will be an abalone. New divers often look right at an abalone, but don’t see them because abalone are well camouflaged by the sponges, lichens and kelp that grows
on their shells. But they always have a portion of their foot, called the mantle, sticking out past the shell and this is what gives their location away. It takes a little practice to develop an eye for spotting them, but once you do they pop up everywhere. Once caught, abalone is typically breaded and fried, but fried abalone dinner gets boring after a while… so us divers are always looking for something more exciting from the ocean.
Luckily for us there is a long list of seafood that can be found when diving in Northern California. Many of these items are rarely sampled by divers. Perhaps the easiest thing to ‘catch’ besides abalone are mussels. In fact mussels are so easy to catch that we don’t even have to get wet in order to harvest them because they grow in the intertidal zone. At low tide clusters of mussels can be pulled from the rocks. They are quite tasty steamed, but they can only be harvested in the winter and early spring due to poisonous plankton that they accumulate in their guts.
Sea urchins are another invertebrate that are quite easy to find along our coast. These spiny, softball sized invertebrates live on the rocks and compete with abalone for kelp. The roe of the urchin is used in sushi and can fetch a high price both for the commercial diver at the docks, and for the restaurateur at the sushi bar. Commercial divers can get almost $1 a pound for a whole urchin, and with up to 2500 pounds taken on a really good day of diving, the money’s quite good. Once harvested, 5 pieces of roe are scooped out of the shell, and then sold in sushi restaurants for about $6 a pair. Urchin roe is an acquired taste and generally people love it or hate it. For those who are totally turned off by the thought of eating urchin roe, there are other less bizarre menu items swimming in our seas, such as fish, scallops and crabs.
Perhaps it’s the icy cold water, but the fish around here are pretty sluggish and quite easy to spear. Huge schools of Blue Rockfish aggregate over our rocky reefs. These small 2 pound fish make nice tasting fish tacos. At the base of these schools, hiding in little caves, are Lingcod. They can also be found out in the open laying in wait to pounce on an unsuspecting Rockfish. Lingcod are one of our tastiest fish and can occasionally reach 25 pounds although 10 pound specimens are much more common. We hunt them by searching the caves under rock piles with a flashlight and speargun. A similar looking fish is the Cabazon, found in the same areas as Lingcod and equally delicious although not as big. These chameleons can change color and almost perfectly blend into their surroundings. They are greedy little guys and eat nearly anything that crosses their path. Their bodies are designed for this task. Proportionally, Cabazon have a huge head and belly that allows them to eat much bigger prey than most fish their size. In one Cabazon’s stomach you could find small fish, whole abalone including the shell, crabs, turban snails and chitons all being digested at the same time.
If we venture out into deeper water we can hunt Vermilion Rockfish, a bright red fish which tastes slightly better than Blue Rockfish, but looks much cooler on your stringer. They are occasionally seen at 35 feet, but most are caught past 50 feet. When I was a kid I saw a Vermilion Rockfish when I went on my first scuba dive. I was diving at 80 feet with my dad. I thought it would be incredible to be able to freedive deep enough to catch a Vermilion. Growing up within the culture of abalone divers, I had never heard of anyone trying to catch a Vermilion freediving. My dad was capable of diving deep enough, but he didn’t realize there were Vermilion just a little deeper than where he was spearfishing and abalone diving. When I was 16 I bought a pair of freediving fins and could finally reach 50 feet. But because I was diving the wrong type of habitat, I only saw one Vermilion over the next 4 or 5 years, which escaped unharmed. A few years later I started exploring parts of the coast I hadn’t freedived before. I ended at the same reef that I had seen my first Vermilion as a little kid when scuba diving with my dad. I swam down to a ridge that ran along the bottom, lay still and looked around. A red fish appeared to my left. He hovered motionless as I lined up my gun and pressed down on the trigger. I remember how excited I was when I shot that fish. Later I learned that there was a whole group of spearfishermen on our coast who could also dive deep enough to catch Vermilion Rockfish.
These guys didn’t consider themselves abalone divers, they were spearfishermen. They spent their days catching fish that I had never even considered diving for. One of these fish was the California Halibut. This Flounder-like flat fish can change colours to blend in with its surroundings and then buries itself in the sand. It takes a keen eye and a bit of luck to spot one before it spooks. When the summer water temperature is just right, Halibut come into shallow water to spawn. During this short two month period we have the chance to catch the biggest and best tasting fish that live on the north coast. Occasionally these flat fish will exceed 30 pounds. They are one of the only fish we shoot around here that requires a reel or float line.
The first California Halibut I caught was just dumb luck. I had been out hook and line fishing with my dad when I jumped into the water to test a float line I had made for a trip to Mexico. I had never used a float line before so I wanted to get some practice before I went on my trip. I swam down with the hope of shooting a 2 or 3 pound Blue Rockfish. When I got to the bottom I saw sand so I started swimming along the bottom towards the shore, hoping to run into the reef. As I swam, I saw the outline of a 24 pound Halibut half buried in the sand. I quickly lined up my
shot and let my spear fly. I hit him right behind the head. The fish took off and I watched my speargun disappear into the murk with the float line in tow. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. I had just stumbled across the biggest fish I had ever seen and speared it on my first breath hold.
One of the more difficult sea creatures to find diving on our coast are Rock Scallops, but the meal that can be made with them is worth the extra work. The larval form of these scallops start life drifting in the currents before settling down on a rock where they attach themselves with a cement. Scallops are typically found growing on the roofs of caves, or on the vertical walls of a pinnacle, especially where a crack transverses the wall. A dive light is handy in finding scallops since the caves they like are usually quite dark. They are extremely well camouflaged because like abalone their shell is covered by all the life that grows on the reef. Unlike abalone, Rock Scallops can close their shell and hide their mantle which is the only thing that gives away their location. If you disturb a scallop and it closes its shell, they can become extremely difficult to find a second time. To detach the scallops from their perch, we use an abalone iron, which will sometimes bend with the force that is needed to pry a scallop from the rock.
There are a few crab species that can be caught while diving in Northern California. Dungeness Crabs are a popular restaurant item and are commercially fished throughout our waters. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time you can swim along the bottom over a sandy sea floor in waist deep water and catch the limit of 10 in a day of diving. I would say that crab fishing the traditional way by deploying baited traps from a boat is a much easier and more productive pastime. In addition to Dungeness Crabs, Puget Sound King Crabs can be caught diving but they are found over rocky reef as opposed to sand. Puget Sound King Crabs are larger and in my opinion taste even better than Dungeness, but are not often caught. This is because they eat echinoderms (sea stars and sea cucumbers) and therefore don’t enter baited traps often. Furthermore they are rarely found shallower than 50 feet, but they can’t be taken while scuba diving, and they are probably much less common than Dungeness crabs.
The amazing things that I see when diving in our cold murky water make the borderline hypothermic conditions worth
- The reefs here are teeming with fish and the kelp forests are a spectacular sight. While the nutrient rich waters offer poor visibility they support an astonishing amount of life. The seafood that we harvest and the meals that we have after a dive are just added benefits to being a diver in Northern California. I hope that other abalone divers will be inspired to venture into ‘new’ territory and enjoy more of what the Northern California coast has to offer.