Abalone Diving Nearly Made Me a Widow
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Abalone Diving Nearly Made Me a Widow

Divers, both inexperienced and expert, flock to California's oceans in hopes of scoring some buttery abalone for dinner. The problem is—some don't make it back up alive.
June 30, 2015, 7:15pm

Feeling constant waves of elation and panic can be exhausting under any circumstances. The source of my stress is abalone diving, which takes place every year with a group my husband has known for nearly a decade.

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Single-shell sea snails are a West Coast delicacy. And divers, both inexperienced and expert, flock for them. A small group of divers from our community of friends suit up every year to "pop some abs" and bring them to camp for the most decadent potluck known to man.

The northern California hunting season runs April through November with a month long hiatus in July. The last three months have already made this year the second-most deadly in recent history. That didn't ease my worries as my husband slipped on his wetsuit and disappeared among the turbulent ocean's frothy waves.

READ: California Abalone Are as Delicious as They Are Creepy

Catching the slimy kelp suckers isn't hard to do. Divers pile on weights to help them sink while holding their deepest possible breaths, swim down the murky ocean waters—down 25-30 feet or so—to try and surprise the mollusk, pop it off a rock and swim back while avoiding jungles of kelp.

"A lot of guys go out there and wing it," said Dave Murai, who has been diving for more than 30 years. "You got your float and your guts."

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To this desert-turned-city-dweller rat whose nearest body of water growing up was a dry river bed, this all seemed lunatic. Why would anyone willingly put weights on their body and sink to the bottom of the ocean for for a snail? I went out and watched them on their dive and thought, what a bunch of crazies. But what do I know? I have never tasted abalone before.

Both Murai and SunHee Lee, another of the group's veterans, have their wits about them and extremely calming demeanors, which took my anxiety down a notch and a half. Still, weights and one single breath?

The last three months have already made this year the second-most deadly in recent history. Three in a group of five divers died in late April, and the last death was reported in early June.

I understand why oxygen tanks aren't allowed: jerk poachers using tanks can stay underwater longer, pop shells like crazy, and deplete the population. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife caught some San Francisco poachers with 59 abalone popped out of their shells. In 2013, 18 men were caught in a sting operation for the same reason.

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This group? They just want to hang out together. Lee recruited a bunch of young bloods who could carry on the tradition as the original group starts to age out.

The wet-suited hunters resemble Ninja Turtles walking down the cliff into a cove with their floats on their backs. These guys look like they were made for water. My anxiety level: 4.

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The group of five—four of which are in their 30s—went out to the southern Mendocino County coastline and nabbed two to three abalone each during the two hour dive. At 69 years old, Murai decided to sit this one out.

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The divers—and a nervous reporter—take swigs of tequila after the dive to celebrate the day's successful catch. We all then quickly pack up our cars and head back to the ranch where we are staying, where the rest of the campers mobilize and prepare for an abalone and uni feast.

Popping out the meat from the shells is fascinating to watch. The abs are slimy, slippery, and if you break their gut sack, pretty gross.

Why did we do this again?

Once cleaned, a group of strong-armed volunteers slice and pound the meat until it's tender. The slices of sashimi are consumed on the spot while some are transformed into delicate, panko-breaded buttery morsels. Their texture is somewhere between a clam and octopus, chewy and yet naturally crispy around the edges when fresh out of the ocean. As for their flavor, imagine a clam on crack.

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Our feast included corn grilled over the campfire that was tossed in a sweet, butter-enhanced fish sauce. There were salads and a coal-cooked berry crumble straight from the Dutch oven.

Ah yes, I get it now.