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If You Go

Abalone season re-opens: Aug. 1 through Oct. 31

Training courses are available at: The 2018 Abalone Camp at Little River Inn, 7901 N. Highway 1, Little River, 95456. For reservations and additional information, call 707-937-5942 or visit www.littleriverinn.com. The next camp is scheduled for June 24 to 26, 2018.

Other classes, supplies and resources

Freedive Shop: 2500 Del Monte St. Suite 110, West Sacramento, www.freediveshop.com

Red Triangle: 409 Petaluma Blvd. S., Suite C, Petaluma, www.redtrianglespearfishing.com

Sonoma Coast Divers: 5702 Commerce Blvd. Rohnert Park, www.sonomacoastdivers.com

Licensing requirements: Sport Fishing License (annual fee $47.01) and an Abalone Report card ($22.42 per person) can be purchased at any Big 5 Sporting Goods store or other stores searchable here

Current state regulations: wildlife.ca.gov/conservation/marine/invertebrates/abalone

One of the tragedies of the abalone is that in order to fully behold its beauty, it must first be dead. And died they have, in untold millions over the course of the 20th century to the point where it is now illegal to sell their prized wild flesh.

But in the sheltered water off Van Damme Beach on the Mendocino Coast a shallow dive —just 10 feet below the surface — brings into view dozens of the large sea snails attached to the rocky floor.

In their habitat the abalone’s beauty is obscured. They look like large stones rounded by the endless movement of the sea. When undisturbed, antennae and two small eyes pop out of the front of their shell to take in the world around them. When agitated abalone clamp their shells down onto their rocky perches with suction cups larger than two fists holding their bodies in place.

After they are pried from a rock with a steel shive and the flesh removed from the shell, the underside of an abalone shell displays a glossy patina ranging from white and gold to turquoise and blue.

On the hill above Van Damme Beach sits the picturesque Little River Inn made up of more than a dozen bright white buildings and cottages overlooking the Pacific. The inn was built, in large part, on the shells of abalone. Over the decades of past eras, hundreds of abalone a day were harvested, breaded, fried and served to tourists seeking the local delicacy in the inn’s restaurant.

“Times have changed, and right now we’re paying for the sins of our fathers,” said Cally Dym, the owner and general manager of the Little River Inn.

For Dym, a fifth generation innkeeper, it was literally her father. Over beer, wine and hors d’oeuvres of rock cod ceviche, crab cakes and kimchi grilled cheese sandwiches she told guests about her father collecting 200 to 300 abalone at a time while scuba diving.

“It was illegal, but you couldn’t find a judge or jury who hadn’t eaten abalone at the Little River Inn,” Dym said with a coy smile.

Today’s regulation limits people to three mollusks a day, a total of 12 a year and prohibits the use of scuba tanks by divers. Harvester’s dives are bound by the air they can hold in their lungs from a single breath on the surface. California law also limits people to possessing just three abalone at any given time. If someone collects their limit of three one day, they can’t harvest another three the following day unless they have a non-diving buddy to claim the three additional snails.

Dym’s dozen or so guests, sitting in a banquet hall aptly named the Abalone Room, were participating in the Little River Inn’s third annual Abalone Camp. Attendees, ranging in age from 33- to 72-years-old, came to the rustic inn 12 miles south of Fort Bragg to learn how to freedive, prepare and cook abalone. But Dym went to lengths to makes sure guests were also exposed to the history, culture and ecology of the prized catch.

On the Sunday before the abalone season closed for the month of July, the campers went down to Van Damme Beach and put on tight fitting wetsuits and weight belts to make their first dives with every two campers having a guide to coach them. Skill levels ranged from complete novices to divers with some experience but were looking to refine their skill.

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Two people’s lives have been lost so far this year to abalone diving on the North Coast. In 2016, abalone diving claimed the lives of at least four people, making the pursuit one of the deadliest activities in the state.

But that fact didn’t deters the hundreds of divers and rock pickers on the beach that day taking advantage of the minus tide and a sheltered cove just off Highway 1.

For Vanessa and Greg Fonts, a married couple who are both competitive spear fisherman and help run the Abalone Camp, the sport can be safe with the proper equipment, planning and preparation. Preparation that includes physical fitness.

“A lot of people might have gone abalone diving every year for decades, but if it’s their only physical activity of the year and their equipment is old, they could have some problems,” said Vanessa Fonts.

Greg Fonts and three other guides took campers into the water to adjust their weight belts, needed to equalize the buoyancy of the wetsuit, and practice “duck diving.” The technique is straight forward: while swimming in the water with a mask, fins and a snorkel, bend at a 90-degree at the waist, then lift feet in the air. The weight of legs above the water will then push the diver deeper so their fins will finally gain traction in the water.

The water wasn’t clear enough to see the features of the ocean floor from the surface, but a dive down ten feet or so revealed rocks, clumps of kelp, sea stars, sea urchins and abalone. While the environment looked healthy enough with the naked eye, the ecosystem has proven challenging for abalone populations.

The number of sea stars on the North Coast have been decimated since 2013 from sea star wasting disease, a condition thought to be brought on by warmer water temperatures that causes lesions and tissue decay. This has led to a surge in the population of invasive purple sea urchins who spend their days munching on kelp forests. So much so, kelp forests on the North Coast have been seriously diminished.

Abalone are herbivores and kelp forests provide the mollusk most of their sustenance. Now abalone are starving and are reproducing in numbers below what is thought to be sustainable.

But off Van Damme Beach the ecological challenges weren’t so obvious. Armed with 7-inch gauges to determine if abalone are large enough to keep and abalone bars to pry the strong creatures off the rock, attendees of Abalone Camp gave hunting a go with their guides helping them spot the sea snails on the ocean floor.

When diving guides kept coaching students on heart rate and breath control. A racing heart will suck oxygen out of the blood stream, depriving divers of needed seconds below the ocean surface.

For newbies, it takes four duck dives to get a single abalone. Dive, look around the sea floor for the prize. By the time one is spotted it’s typically time for another breath. Come up, then dive again, and the newbie has to remember which rock they found the abalone attached to. Time for another breath.

Third dive, gauge the abalone to make sure it’s larger than 7 inches. Fourth dive, shove the pry bar underneath the abalone and remove it from the rock. If the abalone slips out of the diver’s hands, it might take another breath and dive to retrieve the catch.

At the end of two days of diving, some had caught their two-day limit. Some discovered abalone diving wasn’t for them. But with ample food and drink and a stay at a rustic inn on the rugged Mendocino Coast, most were satisfied. Each attendee had to also donate an abalone for the Monday night dinner and help prepare it beforehand.

On a cleaning table outside, with post-dive beers in hand, campers pried out the meat with the abalone bar revealing the silky mother-of-pearl interior of the shell. Dark outer membrane of the meat was removed with knives resulting in a firm hunk of meat around the size of a softball.

But Dym noticed that the meat from some of the large shells was much smaller than she would expect.

“I think this one might have been starving,” Dym said looking at a piece of cleaned abalone with some concern.

Abalone Camp attendees then sliced the abalone in three half-inch thick circular piece and were then pounded with a meat tenderizer. Without proper tenderizing a bite of abalone would be like chewing on a rubber band.

After the abalone were clean and pounded, Marc Dym, chef at the Little River Inn and husband of Cally Dym, gave demonstration of how best to prepare abalone. Flour, egg wash, seasoned bread crumbs, fired in clarified butter with a touch of canola oil.

“You want to keep it simple, and let yourself taste the abalone,” Marc Dym said.

For the Dyms, the purpose of Abalone Camp is more than atoning for past family sins or even giving business a boost, it’s about bringing accessibility to abalone diving and to the rare food that’s typically only available to consumers in farmed varieties.

The diving season opens again on August 1 and runs through October 31. The status of the 2018 season is up in the air. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has warned it might close the fishery entirely if current trends continue in underwater surveys this August and September. Undeterred, the Dyms have still schedule an Abalone Camp for next June.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nrahaim.

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