On Saturday, my brother Paul called and asked if I wanted to go abalone diving on Sunday morning. I have been wanting to learn how to do this for quite some time. Early this year, when I got my new copy of the Tide Log, I looked up all the low tides and e-mailed them to my friend Gary Lorenson, who is an avid diver. I have suggested to Gary that he could stop by my house on the way to and from the coast. I'm happy to offer a place to stay after diving, a place to smash his marine invertebrates, someone to share eating them with. He says "NOT!". But if I get my own fishing license, he said he will allow me to come along and learn from him, and catch my own if I can. I sent him the list of tides to get him to pick a date. He mailed back saying he was too busy this year and would never be able to go. He forwarded my list of low tides to a friend of his, and this 'friend' responded to me with a flame: Ranting and raving about how stupid I was to consider going abalone diving when the low tide was only -0.5 feet. He said that he never went out unless the tide was minus 2 feet, and preferably minus 4. This made me discount a few of the other insults from him, since the tide never goes that low in California, and didn't even get below 2 feet in the entire year of 1995. So I guess this turkey didn't go abalone diving this year either.
I was reminded of this when I looked at my Tide Log as we drove towards Fort Ross. Just about the time we would get to the water, there was going to be a +6.2 foot HIGH tide. I chided Paul, asking him who planned this trip, but actually I did not mind. I figured we would have the ocean to ourselves at a high tide. We could go to a place I knew with shallow water, and I could learn to dive without the pressure to actually find any abalone.
But when we got to Fort Ross Reef, the shore and the water was lousy with abalone divers! I drove down to the cove at the end of the campground and unloaded the kayak and most of our gear. We took most of the equipment to the water here, and I carried it in the kayak around to the point. Paul parked up at the top of the cliff close to the reef, and walked down the trail to meet me on the beach. I already had my wetsuit on before getting in the kayak, and Paul got into his when we met again. When we were both in the water, I had Paul try to sit on the nose of the kayak, but even with 50 pounds of weight belts in the back, the nose sank until it was an inch under water. So instead, Paul hung onto the handle on the tail of the kayak and pushed with his flippers, while I pulled with the paddles. I felt like I was working very hard and not going very fast, like into a tremendous head wind. But Paul said that he felt he was going much faster than usual. He said "This is luxury!"
We only went a few hundred meters out to sea, heading towards the closest rock of the "reef" where I had paddled over only a few feet of water once before. Paul had his mask and snorkel on the whole trip out, and was able to report on the clarity and depth of the water as we traveled. When he found the bottom only two meters beneath us, I figured this was the spot. We stopped and tied the kayak to some kelp.
I put on my hood and mask, took off my flotation vest, and got in the water. As usual, I felt strange getting out of the kayak on purpose, and stranger still taking off my safety equipment. Putting on 25 pounds of weights seems like the greatest of folly to me out on the ocean, so I didn't do that right away. I tried flopping around and diving without it to see just how buoyant the wetsuit really is. As expected, it is very buoyant, and although I could dive my body length down into the water, I would pop back up immediately like a cork. So finally I put the weight belt on to try out the water again. I was using a borrowed 25 pound belt, and it was not really heavy enough. However, I was happy to have some positive buoyancy left to me. What I didn't have was an abalone bar, a 7" caliper, a pair of flippers, or a fishing license. But Paul had all these things, and I could borrow some of them if I needed to. Besides, at high tide, in shallow water, close to shore, picked over by lots of other divers, we would not find any abalone. Paul found a huge one after only a few minutes.
I asked Paul to find another one and point it out to me. Recognizing them is supposed to be the hardest part of collecting abalone, and having someone show you is the best way to learn. He found two, and gave me directions to go down a particular kelp cable and then a half a meter south. I used the kelp cable to compensate for my buoyancy and pulled myself down. The rock that the kelp was attached to came up and met me half way down. In the surge, me and the kelp drifted away and lost our bearings and never saw those abalone. Besides, I was laughing too much to hold my breath any more. Paul found a few more of them for me to look at, but the only ones I clearly saw were on edge in cracks, looking difficult to lever out. I wandered around looking under the kelp to try to find one myself, but only found rocks. Eventually I got tired and decided to get back into the kayak before I was totally exhausted. I was probably in the water for only an hour.
Paul continued searching for abalone, and I went to paddle around the next few rocks in the reef. I looked back and saw that Paul was already holding an abalone over his head. I paddled back as fast as I could so he would have someplace to put it. When I got back, he was gone, back down to the bottom and I figured that I must not have actually seen him with an abalone. But then he came back up with two of them! Holding the first one in his left hand, he had pried a second one off a rock, dropped the iron and grabbed the second abalone before it settled back down.
We were scheduled to meet my dad that evening to see his new place and have dinner. Dad's new place is next to my sister Paty's house. When we got back to my house, I called around and arranged to have an impromptu family get together at Patty's. Paul gave lessons on cleaning and smashing (tenderizing) abalone, then fried them for dinner. Patty supplied a salad and a mixed sautéed vegetable dish, dad brought a vegetable casserole called "neat loaf".