“The Ocean Is Nothing to Mess With”: Abalone Diving Off North Coast Still Popular Despite Deadly History

They died of heart attacks. Fell from cliffs. Drowned fastened to fronds of kelp. Bitten by sharks. Smashed on rocks. For some it was a first dive. Others were veterans. Many were still wearing weight belts when their bodies were recovered. But they all had one thing in common — they had come to the scenic North Coast seeking abalone.

“The ocean is nothing to mess with,” said veteran abalone diver Al Nulty. “If you slip up, it’s going to make you pay for it.”

More than two-dozen abalone divers have been killed along the North Coast since 2005. Just this past April, three men perished together just after the opening of the season. Another plunged from a cliff to his death. The statistics paint a perilous picture of a rugged pastime involving one of California’s most scenic stretches of pristine nature.

“Abalone diving is a really dangerous activity,” said California State Parks lifeguard Nate Buck, peering toward the ocean at Salt Point State Park, about two and a half hours North of San Francisco. Buck said the park, which is popular with divers, experiences one to two diver deaths every year.

“People get in trouble all up and down the coast right here,” said Buck hoisting a pair of binoculars. “People get into situations and get in over their head.”

He said one of the most common causes of death were heart attacks by out-of-shape divers. Others were caught in rip tides or pummeled on rocks.

The specter of death hasn't seemed to dissuade divers from turning out each year for the opening of abalone season, which runs from April through November, but is closed during July. On a recent Saturday at Salt Point, a rocky beach was filled with divers heading out into the churning surf to try their luck at bringing back the elusive creatures.

Among the divers gathered on the beach, was a group lead by guides from Rhonert Park's Sonoma Coast Divers shop, which runs training sessions for newbie abalone divers. Before heading into the water, instructor Al Nulty explained the gear with the trainees; fins, mask, wet suit, snorkel and weight belt. He explained that if divers got into trouble, they could quickly discard the weight belt, which is designed to help divers submerge.

“It’s an unfortunate statistic, said Tom Stone, owner of Sonoma Coast Divers, “that the majority of people die drowning are still wearing their weight belts when they recover them.”

Nulty urged the group to always dive with a buddy — and to assess ocean conditions before setting-out.

“A lot of people get in trouble by not being familiar with the ocean or the area,” Nulty said.

Veteran abalone diver Rick Bobus offered his own story of getting into a jam by ignoring severe conditions before setting-out.

“I went in the last day one season — waves were really tall,” said Bobus crouching on a rock. “It took all my energy to get out there. I just barely made it in and it was stupid. It was bad conditions.”

Buck said it’s a common scenario for out-of-the-area divers to travel to the area — reluctant to turn back even when the conditions are severe.

“No matter what the ocean conditions are,” said Buck, “they’re going to get in.”

Nulty said diving can be treacherous because abalone cling to rocks near the ocean floor — often on the bottom. Equipment can get caught on rocks and in kelp, divers can get disoriented — rip currents can pull them under. Nulty preached calm.

"Just remember," he told the group,"panic’s never your friend out here."

Some state officials have suggested mandatory training for abalone divers. Stone said even though it would benefit his business, he wasn’t sure that was the right route. He doubted many divers would be willing to take part in forced training. Still, he hoped the safety sessions offered by his business might save lives.

“What we’re trying to do is give people a set of rules to follow,” Stone said, “to safely be able to go out and harvest abalone.”

Following an instruction session, Nulty lead the group of four divers out to sea. They paddled out on flotation devices and began diving down to the rocks just below the sheer cliffs of Salt Point. After an hour and a half, they returned to shore bearing bags of the mollusks. First time diver Sebastian Erggelet held an abalone in his hand, watching the creature very slowly squirm.

“Once you’re down there you really just want to get back out as soon as possible,” Erggelet said of the dive -- describing his initial sensation of diving as “freaking out” a bit. He said he planned to return to dive again.

Nulty watched the group unpacking their catch and marveling at the strange, alien-like creatures morphing and pulsing within their shells.

“Not everybody wants to risk their life to go out and get a snail,” Nulty said.

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