Little River Inn looks to bring accessibility to abalone diving
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.
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.