The Most Dangerous Game: Chasing a Sea Snail?

Abalone divers die of exhaustion, heart attacks, or becoming entangled in kelp. The fear of being eaten by a great white shark is persistent and haunting

abalone divers
These Northern California abalone divers have bagged their limits and are out of the water again safely. On some "ab" dives, tragic accidents happen. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ingridtaylar

They’re clammy. They’re rubbery. They’re often deep-fried in vegetable oil. And though the red abalone of California was once a staple of dirt-cheap seafood shacks, this big slippery sea snail is today one of the most prized seafoods in the world.

Abalone is also the goal of one of the most dangerous recreational games in America. Abalone diving season kicked off in Northern California on April 1, and though no fatalities have yet been reported, well, let’s just knock on wood. Because since 1993, at least 54 people have lost their lives while pursuing abalone, including eight in 2008 and seven in 2007, and rare is the season in which at least one diver doesn’t perish in the cold and rough waters of the North Coast. Yet so fervent is the urge to get in the water and bag one’s daily limit of three abalone that many divers who have driven hours to get to their favorite spot only to find the sea surging and violent just brave the waves anyway. Sometimes they die. Kelp may be the greatest of hazards to the diver, who are prohibited from using SCUBA gear. This spectacular seaweed, so gentle in appearance and symbolic of the California coast, occurs in nasty thickets in many locations. Kelp may grow more than a foot per day, and in the summer sun during calm periods, kelp forests can burgeon seemingly out of control until the fronds layer the surface like a carpet. Underwater, the long, cord-like stipes hang ceiling to seafloor. Among the rocks at their base is where the abalone dwell. Some divers wait until a large storm rips these kelp plants from the seafloor, clearing the water, while most just deal with it—the sensation of long, rubbery cords of kelp sliding over one’s legs is familiar to any abalone diver. Many carry knives strapped to their lower leg to cut through the kelp should they become entangled. Ironically, divers have drowned when their knives become snagged on the kelp.

Other divers die of exhaustion or heart attacks, sometimes collapsing on the rocks after a particularly strenuous dive. Among the least of dangers is the great white shark—though the fear of being eaten is one of the most persistent and haunting. In 2004, a well-known diver in Mendocino County was decapitated by a shark in one swift attack. Though dozens of abalone hunters have died from other causes since, Randy Fry remains a name that Northern California divers speak with a tone of regret and unmistakable dread. Today, many divers, as well as kayakers and surfers, wear “Shark Shields,” a relatively new device that emits an electric field that may deter sharks as large as great whites.

So, what is all the fuss and excitement about? For many people, abalone means nothing more than an excuse to get wet in one of the world’s most beautiful underwater settings. For some divers, it’s a treasure hunt—all about locating the big snails and prying them out of their crevices and holes. For a few divers, eating abalone isn’t even the point—collecting them is. After sacking their limits an driving home, they hand out the snails to their friends. (I recently joked with one such diver that she might just hunt for rocks instead and leave the abalone, which may be decades old, to their peaceful business.)

For others, abalone hunting is an obsessive game of numbers. These dedicated trophy hunters will take nothing but “tens,” that is, abalone at least 10 inches wide. (The minimum legal size is seven inches.) So particular are “ten divers” about this hallowed but arbitrary dimension that they usually measure and record their catches down to the hundredth of an inch, with the difference between a 10.64- or 10.47-inch abalone being a worthy distinction. The shells they polish and display on walls, and there is even a website dedicated to the hunt for huge abalone called Abalone Ten. Large abs, as divers often call their quarry, often occupy dark crevices 20 feet or more beneath the surface, and one may wonder as shivers creep up the spine how many divers have drowned with their heads stuck in an underwater cave.

A red abalone in its natural habitat—unwittingly being pursued by some 35,000 divers. Photo courtesy of Flickr user NOAA Photo Library.

The snails, meanwhile, keep meekly minding their business. They slide slowly across the seafloor, seeking kelp scraps, their chief food source, by day and returning to cracks and caves by night, and little do they know of the storm that their existence stirs—a storm of economic activity, weekends spent camping, poaching busts and car chases, photo ops, celebrations and family feasts … and funerals.

By the numbers:

Of about 35,000 licensed abalone hunters in California, more than 50 have died in the past 20 years.

Of about 300,000 licensed hunters in California, 27 died in accidents from 1994 to 2009.

20: Fatal mountain lion attacks in North America since 1890, including 6 people in California.

934: Commercial fishermen killed in America between 1992 and 2007.

6,000 to 8,000: Estimated total number of mountain climber deaths on Mont Blanc.

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