BY LOUIS ALCORN
Starting early one overcast Saturday morning in Berkeley, we had piled eight people and dive gear into my Nissan Armada and set sail for the Mendocino coast of Northern California. On our first stop, we pulled into Petaluma to purchase abalone diving licenses at the very unofficial-looking Harry’s Dive and Liquor Store. Regardless of the odd nature of the licensing process, abalone diving is one of the most regulated sports in the state of California. Dive without a license and the Department of Fish and Game will throw you behind bars for illegal poaching. Harvesting of abalone for restaurant use nearly threw the species into extinction before any regulations had been set in stone. Today, divers may never posses more than 3 abalone at any point in time and may only pull a total of 24 per year. All abalone pulled must exceed the legal minimum of 7 inches and all divers must carry a 7 inch gauge on their person at all times while in the water so as to verify the limit before prying the slug off the ocean floor.
All official-speak aside, three hours later after having traversed the foggy, serpentine Highway 1 all morning, we had arrived at Stillwater Cove Regional Park. Typically divers wear two-piece dive suits with an attached hood providing for anywhere between 10 and 5 mm of neoprene to keep body heat within the suit while diving. Coming from Southern California, my wetsuit is geared for surfing in warmer waters – rather than diving to the frigid depths – and only provides between 2 and 3 mm of neoprene thickness throughout. In water your body looses heat five times quicker than when simply immersed in air. Spending six minutes naked in the 45-degree water here would result in some serious hypothermia. Needless to say, I was cold.
The ocean is no stranger to me. I’ve grown up at the beach and I’ve surfed since age four, but I’ve never really delved beneath the surface to check out what’s down below. As a child, I had dreams of a time when the oceans would dry up and I’d be able to walk around the once underwater landscape and find ships and buried treasure from ages ago. Although I didn’t find any shipwrecks free-diving, going beneath the water’s surface allowed me to experience a whole new environment. Kelp forests surround cliffs, caverns and inlets teeming with the wildlife of the sea.
When it comes to actually searching out abalone, I had to develop a pattern of breathing that would allow me to kick around beneath the water for an extended amount of time. I can easily swim 50 meters underwater in a tepid Olympic pool, but floundering around against the forces of buoyancy in the frigid deeper waters is a whole new ballgame. Once an abalone is actually located, prying it off in one fowl swoop is typically what divers strive for so the slugs don’t have a chance to suck down onto the rock. A certain amount of danger exists here as fingers can get caught in the suction between the slug’s body and shell leaving divers with two options: 1) hope that they have enough strength and air to overcome the suction and return to the surface or 2) drown.
By the end of our endeavor, we’d collected a variety of the ugly creatures and headed home to shuck and prepare them as food. I’d describe the taste as similar to a tough octopus/calamari meat. Perhaps more than anything else, this journey helped me to realize how much work it takes to produce semi-exotic culinary creations. Going out and hunting for dinner exists as a stark contrast to my typical style of eating: simply paying for something made by someone else.