Each April divers come down to the sea in rubber suits in search of one of California’s most tasty treats. The red abalone is the world’s largest abalone and this mollusk thrives in Northern California. In the south, a combination of factors have reduced the abalone population to levels that are not sustainable; however, Northern California is another matter and healthy stocks remain. North of the Golden Gate, abalone are so plentiful that experienced free divers who can work the bottom at 30 feet will have no trouble getting their limit even at NorCal’s most popular beaches. In this article I offer tips for beginner abalone divers.
The single most important factor in successful abalone hunting is your ability to relax. Since abalone may only be taken with breath hold diving, your comfort level in the water will determine how deep you can dive, how long you can stay down, and how many abalone you can find. Surprisingly, the ability to relax is much more important than being an athlete. The more time you spend in the water, the more comfortable you will be, and the longer your breath will last.
New divers are always looking for abalone “hot spots.” The truth is there are abalone off nearly every NorCal beach with rocks offshore. However, years of diving pressure have taken their toll on abalone that are just off the beach and in shallow water. New divers should try to concentrate their diving in shallow water just north or south of the popular coves, or swim up or down the coast as far as their endurance and skill will permit. If you have access to a boat, kayak or privately owned beach, you are in luck. In remote areas abalone may still be found in abundance in very shallow water.
Ab divers should avoid looking along the tops of rocks. Rather, concentrate your efforts at the base of rocks and in cracks. Abalone are often found upside down, back in the deepest cracks on the reef. They are found looking like buttons as they cling to a rocky reef just above a sandy area. There is often a thick layer of palm kelp growing just off the bottom in springtime. Try parting the kelp to find the abs underneath.
Once you spot an abalone, avoid the temptation to immediately attack the ab with your iron. First, try first grabbing on to a rock or a piece of kelp. This has two effects: it calms you so your breath lasts longer; and it allows you time to study how the ab is sitting on the rock, to determine the best place to insert your iron, and to measure the ab. Never pull an abalone that you think might be short.
Avoid wild, uncontrolled stabs at your abalone. The abalone iron should be smoothly inserted between the foot of the ab and the rock and rotated outward, all in one fluid motion. You are not “prying” the ab off the rock, but rather breaking the suction. Remeasure your ab and if it is undersized, put it back where you found it, or at least in a protected crack where it has time to suck down. An abalone thrown overboard will sit on the bottom, shell down, and die. They cannot turn themselves over.
Once you have your three legal-sized abs, stop. Swapping out bigger for smaller is not only illegal, it is likely wasteful as the a replaced abalone stands a much greater chance of dying.
Abalone can only be taken by breath-hold diving; no scuba allowed. A California fishing license is required along with a punch card, and the daily bag and possession limit is 3, with a maximum annual take of 24. The minimum size limit is 7 inches, and you must have a legal abalone tool and gauge in the water with you.