MENDOCINO -- A San Leandro man died Monday after being swept into frigid ocean waters while scouring coastal rock formations for abalone, Mendocino County sheriff's deputies said.

Leo Chen, 39, was with a group of friends about 9:30 a.m. near the mouth of Jack Peters Creek north of town when he disappeared into the pounding surf.

Sheriff Lt. Rusty Noe said Chen's body was later found floating in water about 200 yards from where he was last seen. Chen's drowning was the first this year since abalone season opened April 1.

Noe said the seasonal quest for a shellfish long considered a delicacy by aficionados typically attracts a large influx of visitors to the Mendocino and Sonoma coasts.

Many, Noe said, are not aware of how dangerous surf conditions can be along the North Coast.

Last year eight people died along the Mendocino Coast, either while diving for or picking abalone from rocks.

Chen's family members and friends raced to notify nearby state park rangers of his disappearance. Rangers in turn summoned a Coast Guard rescue crew from Noyo Harbor at Fort Bragg.

By the time his body was found about 30 minutes later, Chen was unresponsive and subsequent efforts to revive him failed, said Noe. Chen was pronounced dead when the Coast Guard cutter returned to its dock at Noyo.

Noe said the official cause of death is pending an autopsy.

You can reach Staff Writer Mike Geniella at 462-6470 or