Abalone have been eaten by humans and disease over the last half century to the point of near extinction in some areas. Fortunately, abalone are still common along some parts of our coast and have even made a slight recovery in others. If you are a hunter, you’ll have to concentrate your efforts north of San Francisco and only during the months of April, May, June, August, September and October. Additional restrictions apply.
But this is not an article for hunters, but rather for those looking to have a little fun with abalone and observe some unusual behavior. So no matter where you are along the coast, you can try a little trick if you can find some abalone.
All abalone eat algae, primarily kelp. They will congregate at the base of a reef and wait for broken kelp fronds to be pushed to them in the surge. They then reach out and snatch the loose blades of algae. It is this action you can manipulate to make the abalone “dance.”
Once you have located an abalone, preferably one at least somewhat out in the open, find a loose kelp blade or break one off from the nearest stalk. Return to the abalone and wave the kelp frond in front of its mouth end. The mouth end of an abalone is the end of the shell that is the thinnest. The thick end of the shell is its, well, rear end.
Tickling the abalone’s outer mantle tentacles with the kelp frond will get its attention. It will then reach out with out with its mantle and mouth (its head, if an abalone has such a thing) and try to grasp at the kelp. Pull the kelp back, “teasing” it to reach out ever farther. Lift the kelp upward away from the shell slightly and the abalone will rise up, sometimes quite high. Wave the kelp back and forth and the abalone will move back and forth, reaching for the kelp. You just made an abalone dance!
Of course, after teasing the abalone in such a manner you need to reward it with a feeding of the juicy kelp leaf. This will also reinforce the behavior making it easier for the next diver to make the abalone dance. (Just kidding—abalone are not much more than just a marine snail and, as such, generally, not very intelligent.)
The abalone dance works best on red abalone. Red abalone are abundant along the coast north of San Francisco and you can take abalone only while breath-hold free diving. Hence, abalone dancing is a popular activity when scuba diving along the north coast. Off Southern California you can still find red abalone at San Miguel Island and occasionally at Santa Rosa Island and, since they are fully protected in this area this is a good way to have some fun with the famous mollusk.
Pink abalone are spotty around the Channel Islands will dance a little and green abalone hardly at all but they are still fun to feed. Greens are uncommon but sometimes found in shallow around Anacapa and certain parts of Catalina Island.
Remember to never touch or move an abalone. Their flesh is delicate and if cut they will bleed to death. We must continue to work on preserving this important endangered kelp forest species—but that does not mean we cannot have some fun in the meantime!