The waves had been mild all week, so Paul and I planned to go abalone diving this morning if the weather held up. I invited Dan Leake to come along and he was able to fit it into his schedule on short notice. Paul brought a friend of his, Steve, so we planned to go from Fort Ross Reef and launch in two groups. Paul and Steve swam out from shore at the bottom of the cliff while Dan and I launched from the "boat access" a kilometer farther south. We met out in the middle of the water and talked about what to do. I suggested a place on the other side of the reef near a square rock where I have found abalone before. Paul and Steve agreed to follow the kayaks out there but dove a few times on the way out and found a bunch of abalone closer to shore. So they stopped and got their limit without having to swim out to the reef.
Dan and I crossed over the reef, tied up to the kelp, and started diving under the kayaks. On my first dive I found an abalone and showed it to Dan who hadn't caught his breath yet from kayaking and putting on all his equipment. In the next few dives I brought up two more abalone. Dan found the water under the boats to be a little deep and started working closer to the reef. I followed him over there to look around. The water was unusually clear for Sonoma County, perhaps better than 15 foot visibility. In the shallow area we could just make out details on the bottom. When Dan dove I watched him from the surface and could follow his orange BC vest around by eye. If the sun had come out, we could easily have seen abalone from the surface, but the sky remained overcast. I dove a few times in this area and found my fourth abalone. It looked like a large one deep in a crack but turned out to be under eight inches (seven is legal).
I popped the abalone off the side of the crack and reached down to grab it. My abalone iron is attached to my wrist with a strap made out of elastic cord. This allows me to forget about it when clearing my ears or picking up an abalone. So as I reached down into the crack for this abalone I let go of the iron and forgot about it. As I picked up the abalone and started up to the surface, my abalone iron crammed itself sideways in the crack and trapped me on the bottom. I looked down and figured this out in an instant and reached down with the trapped hand to push, twist, and pull out the iron. Then I dropped it and forgot it again. When I was back at the surface and half way back to my kayak I noticed that the iron was missing! The initial jerk on the cord must have loosened the stopper that holds it on, then it could have slipped off anytime since then. I figured now I would need another one, the second replacement abalone iron this year! I started thinking that this sport is more expensive than I planned. But before giving up I paddled back to the area where it was lost. I thought I recognized an unusual strand of kelp that came up in a spiral. Dan was in the area, so I told him about loosing my iron. His reply was "So that's what that is", and pointed to a bright yellow spot he could see on the bottom. He was right! The day-glo yellow color of the handle could be seen in the great visibility this day, and I was easily able to dive down and recover it.
There weren't as many abalone in the shallow area, so Dan had to dive many times for each one he found. Even with me diving and trying to spy then out, he only got three before we got tired and decided to head back. On our way we saw Paul and Steve already up on top of the cliff. We waved at them and they came by to see us as we were getting out of our wetsuits back at the parking lot. I landed first and turned to help Dan. But as he approached the shore he turned, braced into the small wave behind him, and leaned into it. A perfect side-surfing landing, although the wave wasn't nearly large enough to do it justice. I was very impressed! I had described this to him several times, but we have never practiced in surf. It cannot be my superior teaching skill, so he must be a very good student.
While we were putting away our equipment, a park ranger drove down to see us. In the last two years of diving for abalone, this was the first time I have ever had anyone stop to count or measure my catch. I told this to the ranger and he says most people say the same thing, even though they try to check everyone. Then he picked up MY caliper and used it to measure my abalone. I told him that if I knew he was going to use my caliper to measure them, I would have made it smaller.
I am still experimenting with the "best" way to prepare abalone. I tried slicing it thin with a deli slicer once instead of pounding it. But the resulting pieces wrinkle up on the frying pan and only the parts that touch the pan get cooked. This is still somewhat true when frying pounded pieces. I am opposed to deep fat frying, so I tried the following experiment: I put one can of stewed tomatoes in a frying pan, added one cup of white wine and a pad of butter. Bring it to a boil and then add one pounded abalone cut up into strips. After only 5 or 10 minutes, the abalone is tender enough to cut with a fork. But I let it cook for a while longer to thicken up the sauce a little. (One time I tried adding corn starch to thicken the sauce with mixed results). Served over rice or pasta it's very good. I'm pleased with the idea that the boiling sauce contacts the abalone over a large surface area, like deep fat frying without all the fat. It's not as hot as oil of cource, but apparently hot enough. And the tomatoes do not overwhelm the mild taste of the abalone.