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Abalone Diving on the Sonoma Coast

Red Abalone

Free-diving for abalone on Sonoma Coast is one of the most rugged — yet beautiful and richly rewarding — sports around.

Holding your breath, you plunge into the Pacific’s dark greenish-blue waters and make your way past thick strands of kelp and the occasional school of fish. You’re on the lookout for rocks, the abode of the red abalone. The largest of all edible sea snails found along California’s northern coast, the red abalone can be found from the intertidal zone to a depth of 100 feet, where it thrives on kelp and algae.

Abalone attach themselves to rocks with a broad and muscular “foot,” and if they feel endangered they clamp that foot down with extreme force. Still holding your breath, you’ll need to measure the abalone with calipers to ensure it meets minimum size requirements (seven inches) and then pry it loose with a crowbar-like device known as an abalone iron. Whether you succeed or not, by then you’ll need to return to the surface to breathe.

Floating and resting atop the water, you may spot seals or seabirds nearby — or, for that matter, other free-divers. Waves make their way past you to the shore, where other divers have congregated in a small, sandy cove; they’re preparing for, or recovering from, a bout of diving in extremely cold water. On either side of the cove, and as far as you can see north and south, are those high, rocky, sea-edging cliffs that symbolize California’s northern coast.

Free-diving is the only legal method for hunting red abalone in Sonoma County and other parts of Northern California. It’s only through careful regulating that red abalone still exists here at all. Regulations concerning where and when to hunt abalone — and how many can be legally taken — are not only precise but strictly enforced by California’s Department of Fish and Game. Fines for violators are steep and conviction can involve jail time.

And abalone hunting isn’t easy. Not only must divers hold their breath — no SCUBA gear or surface-air piping allowed — but the cold water requires climbing into a full wetsuit (and carrying accompanying gear like a weight belt, mask, snorkel fins, a dive knife, abalone iron, measuring calipers and more).

Nonetheless, hunting for abalone is a hugely popular activity in Sonoma County, where popular dive access spots include Stillwater Cove Regional Park, Salt Point State Park, and the area around Fort Ross.

If you’re interested in Sonoma County’s abalone diving, here are some things you should know:

  • California’s abalone season runs from April through November. However, in 2013 the area around Fort Ross will be closed to diving until June, and then closed again in July (open months are thus June and August-November). Diving times are from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. You can download a map of the closed areas.
  • The strictly-enforced bag limit is three red abalone per day. No other abalone species may be taken. No person can take more than 24 abalone during an entire calendar year.
  • Abalone can only be taken when it has reached a minimum seven or greater inches measured along the longest shell diameter. It takes about 12 years for a red abalone to grow to that seven-inch size (they begin breeding at around age 6).
  • Abalone can only be taken by hand or by abalone irons between 18 and 36 inches in length.
  • All abalone divers must have a “report card” in their possession at all times; they are required to tag each abalone taken and record the catch on the report card immediately after exiting the water. Watch a video that explains the tagging requirements and has some cool underwater diving scenes.
  • To see the complete list and explanation of abalone regulations, download the PDF, “2013-2014 Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations,” from the website of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
  • Check out this in-depth FAQ about red abalone from California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Want to give it a try but need some help getting started? Sonoma Coast Divers in Rohnert Park offers abalone diving classes.

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