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A deadly snail trail

Abalone, slow-moving and succulent, are a prized catch. Diving for them is full of danger.

October 18, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

MENDOCINO, CALIF. — Shaun Stratton pulled on his wetsuit, grabbed his inner tube and headed to the beach to take part in one of California's riskiest pastimes: hunting for abalone.

It's not that abalone is an elusive quarry. The giant snail inches its way across the rocks in relatively shallow water. Even so, diving for abalone has become one of California's most hazardous recreational activities.

At least seven abalone hunters have died so far this year along the rugged coast of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, authorities say. Last year, seven died in Mendocino County alone.

"When you throw yourself into the food chain, there are a lot of factors," said Stratton, 54, a general contractor from Chico. "You lose your advantages. You can't just pull yourself out if you get in trouble."

Some divers say the danger is compounded by a ban on the use of air tanks by abalone divers and a lack of education about the hazards divers face.

One recent casualty was Richard Baer, a former U.S. Coast Guard rescue crewman and California Highway Patrol officer. An experienced diver, the 57-year-old businessman drowned Sept. 12 near Sea Ranch in Sonoma County after he got tangled in thick kelp.

"I spent a lot of time training for this kind of thing and I have dealt with a lot of death," said Ron Long, a certified diving instructor who tried to save Baer. "But there was nothing that prepared me to go down in 12 feet of water and stare at the face of my best friend who was drowned."

Long added: "I am not ever going abalone diving again."

The quest for abalone brings thousands of people to the Northern California coast during the season, which runs from April 1 to Nov. 30 with a month-long break in July. The divers swim down and pry the abalone off rocks in water as deep as 15 feet.

Abalone aficionados rave about the slow-growing mollusks' "velvety tenderness" and "succulent flavor." Divers often come to the coast in groups -- renting a house or camping out -- and cook their catch at the end of the day. Some divers return year after year.

As the numbers of abalone have declined over the years, the state has banned commercial harvesting and imposed ever stricter regulations on recreational hunters.

Abalone divers must have licenses and can take only one species, the red abalone, north of San Francisco. Divers are limited to three abalone a day and 24 a year. Each one must be at least 7 inches in diameter.

Divers are allowed to use a mask, snorkel and flippers. Typically, they also wear a weight belt and take along a covered inner tube to hold their gear.

Statistics indicate that abalone diving is more dangerous than some other activities commonly held to be risky.

Of roughly 40,000 licensed abalone divers, at least 23 have died since 2004 in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, according to official records and news reports.

Officials acknowledge that some fatalities may go uncounted because no agency is responsible for recording them.

By comparison, of about 300,000 licensed hunters in California, 11 have died in accidents since 2004, state records show. The website dropzone .com, which tracks sky-diving fatalities, reports 12 sky-diving deaths in California during the same period.

"We deal with a lot of recreational activities -- hunting, fishing -- and abalone diving takes more lives than any of them," said Sgt. Shannon Barney, deputy coroner of Mendocino County. "There's a lot of ways to get in trouble."

In addition to getting tangled in kelp, divers can be buffeted by strong waves that smash them against the rocks. In 2004, one ab diver was killed by a great white shark off the Mendocino coast.

During extremely low tides, some abalone hunters clamber onto the rocks to pick the mollusks out of pools. Occasionally, a hunter is swept out to sea by a wave.

Some divers die simply because they underestimate the ocean -- or overestimate their own fitness.

"A lot of our folks don't necessarily die of drowning," Barney said. "They end up perishing because of heart-related issues because they aren't in the physical condition to get into the ocean."

There is also what locals call "Sacramento syndrome."

After traveling here from other parts of the state, some divers are loathe to depart empty-handed -- no matter how rough the ocean.

"By the time you get your wetsuit and your vacation house rental, you are spending a significant amount of money," Barney said. "You can't spend all this money and not come home with something."

All 14 abalone hunters who died in the last two years came from outside the North Coast area. Among them were three who died in Mendocino County over two days in April 2007, when the ocean was particularly rough.

The most recent fatality was Robert Stewart, 38, of San Francisco, who died Sept. 21 after he became ill while diving off Shell Beach in Sonoma County. Stewart's friends pulled him onto a rock 100 feet from shore and gave him CPR. A county rescue helicopter rushed him to waiting paramedics, but efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

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