FORT BRAGG, Calif. — Every year, as steady as the tides, lifeless bodies are pulled from the cold, restless water along the rugged coastline north of San Francisco.
Most of the victims are middle-aged men. They wear black wet suits, usually hooded. They are often found in small coves framed by crescents of jagged rocks. An abandoned float tube sometimes bobs about nearby. Almost without exception, the victims are found wearing weighted belts that help them sink.
Sometimes the bodies are discovered by friends nearby. If the fog is not too thick, the victims might be seen from the towering bluffs above, where lifeguards patrol dozens of miles of desolate coast and armed game wardens spy for poachers.
Many of the bodies are plucked from the swells by a search-and-rescue helicopter crew accustomed to making daring rope rescues and recoveries several times a year.
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The bodies are those of abalone divers.
“There’s a lot of death in abalone diving,” Nate Buck, a longtime Sonoma County lifeguard, said as he steered a pickup south along Highway 1, the Pacific Ocean churning below the cliffs to the right. In 14 years, he has lost count of how many bodies he has helped retrieve. “Lifeguards know that. Drive around here, and every one of these coves is another reminder.”
Abalone is an edible mollusk, a snaillike, single-shell gastropod found in coastal waters around much of the globe. But the red abalone is the biggest and the most prized, found only on the west coast of North America. In California, with a litany of restrictions to protect its fragile population, the hunt for wild red abalone is permitted only north of San Francisco, and only for sport.
Part of the enduring allure is how easy it is to take part. No experience and little equipment are necessary. Air tanks are illegal. Abalone divers simply slip into the murky water and hold their breath, in search of a hidden prize.
The red abalone’s thick, domed single shell grows to more than 12 inches in diameter. Brick red on the outside and pearly silver on the inside, they are trophies, framed for the wall, mounted above a mantel or set along walkways as yard decorations. The meat inside, sometimes several pounds’ worth, is a delicacy, with a taste and texture not unlike calamari.
“It really is an iconic species for California,” said Laura Rogers-Bennett of the University of California, Davis, Bodega Marine Laboratory and a senior biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It is a species that is part of our fishing heritage. And because of the size of red abalone, the biggest in the world, it’s not unlike the redwood or the sequoia.”
During the seven-month diving season — April through November, with a hiatus in July — thousands arrive each weekend to the wild edges of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.
Those brave enough to dive deep below the water’s surface for abalone or pick through the shoreline rocks during low tides may take no more than three in a day and 18 for the year. Each abalone has to be at least 7 inches in diameter, meaning it is probably at least 10 years old. Each shell must be tagged and recorded immediately. It cannot be resold.
But temptations are real, and the black market for poached red abalone is active, because a full-size one can fetch $100 or more.
With about 250,000 red abalone legally captured for sport in California annually, and estimates that at least as many are taken illegally each year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, including its undercover Special Operations Unit, spends as much time and resources protecting abalone as any other creature in California.
Abalone, in other words, is a big deal in Northern California.
“It’s like the last warrior-hunter thing to do,” said Sydney Smith-Tallman, whose family owns a dive shop in Fort Bragg that caters mostly to abalone hunters. “There’s danger, thrill, beauty.”
And, though no one tracks the numbers specifically, up to a dozen people die doing it every year.
The holy grail for divers is an abalone with a 10-inch shell. No one has caught more than Dwayne Dinucci, a retired high-school technical arts teacher who lives on a cul-de-sac in Union City near Oakland.
Dinucci had captured 343 abalone before the start of this season, including 20 that were more than 11 inches. The biggest he has caught is 11 29/32 inches, just shy of the world record of 12 5/16 inches, set in 1993 by John Pepper, a former student of Dinucci’s.
“The lure is finding the world’s largest abalone,” Dinucci said. “And on my gravestone it’ll say, ‘Never found it, but sure as hell tried.’ ”
The black market
Concern grew as the red abalone population plummeted through the 1970s and 1980s. California took serious action in the 1990s, banning all commercial operations and declaring that sport diving (unassisted by air tanks, with no reselling allowed) could take place only north of the Golden Gate Bridge. (There remains a legal, niche business for small, farm-raised abalone steaks, sold to restaurants and consumers for about $125 per pound.)
These days, about 98 percent of the legal abalone diving in California occurs off the remote coasts of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.
Even so, if biologists’ estimates are correct, at least a quarter-million abalone are illegally poached each year off the coast of California, and the street value could be $25 million.
“It’s not endangered, but it’s scarce,” said Capt. Robert Farrell, head of the special operations unit. “But with lots of money from the black market, it could be endangered quickly.”
Last August, using armed wardens from across the state, Farrell’s team led simultaneous early morning raids on 14 homes in Sacramento, Oakland and several Bay Area suburbs. It was dubbed “Operation Oakland Abalone Syndicate.” Thirteen men, most of them Vietnamese, were charged with illegal possession of abalone, suspected to be part of a black-market network.
Not all abalone-related deaths are by drowning. In June, a 55-year-old man fell to his death immediately after diving while climbing a 100-foot cliff near Mendocino.
Most out-of-water victims, however, are struck by heart attacks.
Divers wear constricting wet suits and weight belts, up to 30 pounds, designed to help offset their buoyancy. They sometimes panic when swept into riptides or swamped by sudden swells. Other dangers lurk in the depths, ranging from tangled forests of kelp to great white shark.