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Why are so many people dying in search of abalone?

An abalone diver in Sonoma County kicks to the surface with his catch.

An abalone diver in Sonoma County kicks to the surface with his catch (Kanoa Zimmerman)

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An abalone diver in Sonoma County kicks to the surface with his catch.

Regulations meant to save abalone have also endangered human lives, resulting in dozens of drownings in the past decade alone. (Kanoa Zimmerman) 

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An abalone diver in Sonoma County kicks to the surface with his catch.

A vest designed by spearfishing legend Terry Maas has the potential to save lives. (David Cuetter)

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By the time the Sonoma County sheriff’s air ambulance helicopter reached Cedric Collett in the roiling waters off Sea Ranch, it was too late. Collett, a 66-year-old retired firefighter from Pacifica, wasn’t breathing and registered no pulse. Moments later, he was pronounced dead.

The next day, Sunday, April 28, 2013, the same rescuers found another victim. Ten miles south of Sea Ranch at Salt Point State Park, Kenneth Liu, a 36-year-old security checker at San Francisco International Airport, was discovered floating hundreds of feet from shore. Liu had been scavenging in the shallow water an hour earlier when a riptide swept him off the rocks and dragged him into the open sea. He drowned shortly thereafter.

On the same day, at the same time, 70 miles north, Henry Choy, 50, of San Bruno, was diving off the coast of Fort Bragg. After losing sight of him in the surf, his friends called for help. As an air ambulance arrived at the scene, the crew spotted Choy’s dive buoy bobbing in the whitewash. Fifteen feet below the buoy, they discovered Choy’s body.

In the course of 24 tragic hours, the Sonoma coast had suffered half the number of fatalities it usually sees in an entire season, the deadliest spate on record. Over the next seven months, three more divers would drown within a few miles of Liu and Collett. The most recent victim, Alan Rosenlicht, 57, of Oakland, was recovered on November 24, 2013, a few hundred feet from the shoreline of Fort Ross State Historical Park. Like Collett and Choy, he was found pinned to the seafloor, still wearing his weight belt.

I was diving at Fort Ross that November Sunday, about a half mile from where first responders later recovered Rosenlicht’s body. But I didn’t hear the sirens, and I didn’t see the emergency crews. I didn’t because I couldn’t. I was holding my breath 25 feet below the ocean’s surface, cutting kelp from my legs and jamming my hands into the shadowy cracks of boulders on the seafloor.

I’d come to Fort Ross with the same goal as Collett, Liu, Choy, and the other divers who had lost their lives in the past several months: to wrench a few eight-inch, slimy gastropods out of the sea. In Britain they call them ormer, in New Zealand they’re pāua, and Australians call them mutton fish. Around here, we call them abalone.

To the uninitiated, risking life and limb for a shellfish seems crazy, and for the most part, it is. First off, abalone aren’t much to look at. Their exteriors are craggy, crusted with dirt, covered in algae and barnacles, and hardly distinguishable from the rocks under which they make their homes. Their insides are even less impressive: Abalone flesh is tough, like a cow’s tongue, and covered in a thin film of transparent mucus. It takes hours to render it edible. You need to dislodge it from its shell, then cut away its foul-smelling guts and excrement, slice it up, tenderize the chunks with a mallet for 15 minutes, and finally cook it. The meat lasts about a day in a refrigerator and doesn’t take well to freezing.

In short, wild abalone is a notorious pain in the ass—a hassle to prepare, illegal to sell, and, increasingly, lethal to hunt. The only way to catch California abalone is to dive down, using your own kicking power and a single breath of air. Since the 1950s, the use of scuba equipment or air tubes in the collection of abalone has been strictly prohibited in the United States. The authorities reason that scuba diving for abalone is simply too easy and would put the species, especially the larger and older specimens in deep water, at risk of being exterminated. But these provisions, meant to save abalone, have also endangered the lives of thousands of hunters and resulted in dozens of drownings in the past decade alone.

Despite the obvious risks for foragers, the sport continues to thrive even as abalone numbers decline. In many parts of the world, including Japan, China, and South Africa, the 60 or so species of abalone have been fished to near extinction. (Abalone meat in Tokyo can fetch as much as $100 per pound.) In the United States, two species are on the federal endangered list, making it a federal crime to harvest them, and the rest are heavily monitored. Wild red abalone, which is found only along the Pacific coast, can’t be bought or sold. It’s illegal to hunt in Washington, and Oregon has strict catch limits. In California, red abalone is protected in all waters south of San Francisco. (Poaching could get you a $40,000 fine and up to six months in jail per ill-gotten mollusk.) North of the city, in Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino, licensed hunters can harvest only 18 red abalone a year during the season, from April through November, down from a cap of 24 last year.

But for the 25,000 or so active abalone hunters in California, this ugly sea snail, with the meaty texture of steak and the delicate flavor of calamari, is an unsurpassed luxury. And the punishment and perils of the hunt are more than a cheap adrenaline rush. For them—for us—abalone is a taste worth dying for.

But does diving for abalone require a death wish? Terry Maas, a 69-year-old Los Gatos real estate mogul and world-renowned spearfisherman, believes that it does not. After almost a decade of toiling away in obscurity, Maas recently found a way to make abalone diving, spearfishing, and freediving significantly safer. In March 2011, he debuted a new device, called the Freedivers Recovery Vest, or FRV. The system contains an inflatable vest and a handheld programmable computer that constantly monitors a diver’s depth and time underwater. If the computer senses that the diver has stayed submerged for too long or has dived too deep, it triggers two carbon dioxide cartridges to fill the emergency buoyancy vest, bringing the diver safely to the surface. Maas is now selling the streamlined second generation of the FRV to the public, albeit with a hefty price tag: $1,500.

Maas argues that the FRV could have prevented a number of the abalone-diving fatalities along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts last year and, if promoted by the authorities and adopted by more divers, could save dozens more lives in years to come. But Maas finds himself kicking through murky waters: sometimes bumping against the hunters themselves, who argue that the price of the FRV is too high; other times against skeptical state officials who worry that the device might lead to even more fatalities.

Decades ago, when red abalone were abundant along the coasts and there was little to no market for them, most fishermen would simply walk out in jeans and a sweatshirt and gather them from tide pools and shallow rocks. Only in 1998 did the California Department of Fish and Wildlife begin requiring abalone hunters to carry special fishing licenses. By 2000, the DFW had initiated catch limits and begun requiring divers to carry abalone “report cards” and file annual catches. Shallow-water abalone, which were plentiful around the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts just 10 years ago, are today snapped up within the first few days—or hours—of the annual season opening on April 1. Overharvested areas like Fort Ross, which from 2005 to 2007 experienced a 90 percent increase in catch totals, have now been closed to hunting indefinitely. (My trip there in November was among the last permitted.) In 2011, a bloom of toxic microorganisms killed off much of the red abalone population. What few remained lurked around 15 feet below the surface (depending on the tide). Today, abalone at popular dive spots like Stillwater Cove, Salt Point, and Fort Bragg is mostly found at depths below 20 feet.


Page two: the danger of "Sacramento Syndrome"