Since my snorkeling experience a few weeks ago, I have tooled up a little better to go abalone diving. I borrowed a snorkel from Bob Flemming at work, and I found an extra 5 LB weight to add to the weight belt I borrowed from Dan Leake. Rummaging around in my dome, I found an old pair of flippers. I bought an abalone iron, caliper, and a mesh bag. Oh yea, and I also got a fishing license. The license is only good for a few more months, and abalone season ends this month, but I decided to donate the cost of the license to the state and try it out for a few weeks anyway. This week, I determined to go try and find an abalone to share for a meal with friends at work.
I started reasonably late, getting in the water at almost 10:00am. But it was a calm day with no wind, 3 foot swells, and a low tide around noon. After finding abundant abalone two weeks ago in a 6 foot high tide, I figured this mild +2 foot low tide would be fine. Also, I got in the water at Russian Gulch Beach, and headed north into the Sonoma County Lost Coast. With the road climbing up to 300 meters above the shore, the abalone divers who climb down the cliffs would not have over-fished these waters. It was a foggy morning, but I could see several boats offshore. It turns out this was the first day of commercial crab season, and the sea was lousy with crab fishermen. Last year, the swells at sea were 15 feet on the first day of crab season, some of the crab boats went out anyway, and several of them did not survive.
The water at Russian Gulch was clean looking, but an opaque milky green. Away from the sandy beach it looked darker and less turbid. I traveled north a few kilometers, looking for a field of kelp, and tying my kayak up to some kelp heads in calm water. At even moderately low tides like this, the top several meters of the kelp floats sideways on the surface, and I hoped this meant shallow water I could dive in. But when I finally got all my equipment on and dove down, it turned out to be too deep for me. The kelp ropes just seemed to go down forever, and I could barely see the bottom when I was as deep as I felt like going. Also, even with an additional 5 LB's of weight, I still had too much positive buoyancy. I got back in the kayak and paddled a little farther north.
Behind the next point was a pebbly beach with very calm waves where I have been promicing to take Marty for a picknic one day in the Kevlar canoe. I landed here to try abalone diving from the shore. The plan was to head out until the water was deep enough for the abalone, but not too deep for my current meager diving ability. Snorkeling is something I have never been able to do in my local waters, before I had a wetsuit and all the rest of this equipment. Even in the middle of summer, these northern California waters are always too cold for swimming in, around 50 degrees F. So I am enjoying seeing another level of my local coastline, just a few feet below where I have been paddling the last year or so.
I found the compromise depth about 50 meters from shore, where the water was still around 3 meters deep and I saw my first abalone. I prepared my iron and went hunting in earnest. I found another abalone, took a poke at him, but misjudged and banged him on the shell. That one is warned now, and I'll never get him loose. A few dives later, starting to get tired and short of breath, I found two abalone in the crack between two rocks. I paused for calm, and found it. I forgot the discomfort of holding my breath. Even my excessive buoyancy seemed to disappear and give me time to choose a good angle for my iron. When I struck out, my iron stalled halfway under the abalone, and I had time for a moment of disappointment. But then I tried prying up, and it popped the rest of the way off! I was jazzed! I had caught my first wild abalone! Once back on the surface, I fumbled for my caliper and found that I had a legal one by a long shot, probably 8 inches or more. It was also very fat and looked like it had a lot of meat in it.
Deciding to quit before I was completely exhausted, I headed back to shore. I re-arranged equipment and took off my wetsuit jacket for the 2 kilometer trip back to the beach. As I pulled the kayak back into the water, I saw something bright day-glow orange in the water: The handle of my abalone iron. It had apparently slipped off my wrist while I was struggling to take off my flippers in the shallow water, and I had forgotten about it. Saved by the bright safety color!
Without the jacket on, I paddled rapidly back to Russian Gulch Beach. I miss-judged the waves, and ended up too close to the steep beach when a medium sized wave arrived. The water pulled away from the sand only a meter in front of me while the wave started breaking behind me. If I turned towards shore, the nose of my kayak would hit dry sand and flip over, but if I stayed sideways the keel would drag on the bottom and I'd get rolled over and over up the beach. Instead, I tried a trick suggested to me by Paul Futcher: I leaned into the wave far enough to capsize the kayak. The idea is to fall into the wave and force it to expend energy tipping you back upright again, then it won't have the energy left to tip you over. It worked! I braced as far and deep into the white water as I could reach with the paddle, and even dragging the keel sideways up the sand did not roll the kayak over onto me. Of course, I was practically submerged in the white water the whole trip up the beach, but I was already wet from diving and didn't mind.
One problem with this diving sport, is the weight belt. Even though this one is not heavy enough, it almost doubles the weight of the kayak. I had to wear the weight belt on the 300 meter walk from, and then back to the parking lot, while carrying the kayak and all the rest of the equipment which was wet and heavier on the return trip. But I'm not the only one! When I got to the beach this morning, I found tracks in the sand of another kayak! The tracks went both ways, into and out of the water, but it looked exactly like the trails left by my hull being dragged accross the sand. So I'm convinced someone else with an Ocean Kayak had been in the water earlier this same morning.
The abalone had to be shelled and cleaned, taken to work on ice, stored in a refrigerator all day, sliced up and pounded to tenderize it, dipped in egg then spiced bread crumbs, and finally fried in butter. As we sat down to dinner, I declared "This stuff is too much trouble to eat! But we do it anyway!". Despite protestations that I should have caught a few more abalone for dinner for 4 people, My fat abalone had so much meat on him that there was more than enough for all of us. In fact, we had leftovers that I had in a sandwich for a snack as I left the next evening, and enough for a taste with dinner a few nights later.