April 2, 2007

Abalone......Ah, My Baloney Has a First Name!

Diving for delicacies
Divers old and new enjoy mollusk potluck at Fort Ross

Ken Hower of Sebastopol pulls on his gloves as he prepares to enter the water Sunday at Fort Ross State Historic Park for the first day of abalone season. CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat


Strong winds agitated the waves off Fort Ross on Sunday, but underneath the swells, calm and relatively clear water made for a good opening to abalone season.
"It was a great day for the opener," said Dave Sereni, a Santa Rosa physical therapist who has been diving for more than a decade.
Winds swept ashore at speeds upward of 20 mph, but revelers found peace in sheltered coves where they barbecued and enjoyed the sunny, 60-degree weather.
State park officials and divers said visibility was good Sunday, allowing abalone hunters to see five to six feet down into the blue waters. Last year, visibility suffered because of heavy rains that drained sediment into the water.
Sereni was with a group of about 100 people who drove to Fort Ross State Historic Park for a potluck centered around freshly caught abalone. Most divers in the group had no problem hauling in their daily limit of three abalones to contribute to the feast, Sereni said.
"It's great," he said. "People sit around and eat while telling lies about all the fish they've been catching."
Abalone, a prized delicacy, can only be caught for personal consumption during the season that runs from April through November - but is suspended in July.
Divers swim down to depths of 30 feet to pry the mollusks from rocks with what looks like an oversized butter knife known as an abalone iron. The handle is usually wrapped in brightly covered tape in case it is dropped.
Using scuba equipment, such as air tanks, is banned. And divers can only harvest 24 abalones a year. Regulations passed in 2002 reduced the daily and yearly limits, which used to be four a day and 100 annually.
Among the group at Fort Ross was first-time diver Morgan Rucks of Santa Rosa. Rucks grew up savoring the abalone his grandpa hauled in while diving, but he said nothing beats the experience of eating your own harvest.
"It tastes even better when you catch it yourself," Rucks said.
The seasoned divers peppered Rucks with harrowing stories, such as close encounters with great white sharks. But he retained a calm demeanor.
"Plenty of other things to worry about - smoking and car crashes to name a few," he said. "The whole time I was out there, I didn't think about sharks."
But the seasoned divers who had encountered sharks, couldn't muster the same indifference.
"Most people who spend enough time in the water see a shark," said Sereni, who had a harrowingly close call in July. "I don't want to be mistaken for something lower in the food chain."
Besides sharks, the ocean alone can be cold, rough and unforgiving, making abalone diving dangerous. It's common for a few drownings to occur each year, although no one died last year while abalone diving in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, down from three people in 2005 and four in 2004.
Search-and-rescue teams had planned well in advance of Sunday's opener, including positioning the county Sheriff's Department helicopter near Fort Ross. But as of late Sunday, no injuries had been reported, according to the department.