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RAGING SURF GREETS ABALONE SEASON: WEATHER SERVICE PREDICTS WAVES AS HIGH AS 20 FEET THROUGHOUT WEEKEND ON NORTH COAST

Raging waves are expected to bear down on the North Coast this weekend, making for an ominous beginning to the opening of abalone season Sunday.

The National Weather Service has issued a high-surf advisory for area beaches from this afternoon through Monday morning with swells expected as high as 20 feet and breakers predicted to crest even higher.

"That's huge," said Eric Anderson, 70, who has been diving for abalone for five decades. "Only a fool would go out in those conditions."

But if history is a guide, some divers won't be able to resist the call of the hunt, especially if they've come from a distance on trips planned long ago.

The North Coast is the only area of California where abalone fishing is allowed.

The last opening day with truly dire conditions was in 1995, said Roger Rude, who was then a sergeant on Henry 1, Sonoma County Sheriff's rescue helicopter, and is now an avid abalone diver.

The forecast that day had been mild, but the weather turned foul with deadly consequences despite official warnings not to go out. One person drowned, many others nearly did.

"Before noon, we probably performed 10 rescues with the helicopter and the lifeguards performed an additional 10 rescues," Rude said.

He plans to head to the coast on Sunday, but only to collect video for an instructional documentary he's working on about abalone diving. The footage will likely be used to illustrate when not to go out, he said.

"I wouldn't get in the water on a day like that unless I'm hanging under a helicopter -- and those days are behind me," he said.

In response to opening day, the Henry 1 flight crew probably will relocate along the coast, said Deputy Debbie Little, a tactical flight officer on the helicopter.

The crew will patrol areas popular with abalone divers, Little said. But she cautioned that divers are not the only ones who can get in trouble during high surf. People taking in the waves from the apparent safety of the shore also can get sucked in by large waves that take them unaware, she said.

"It's a treacherous coastline," she said. "You've just got to be careful and not turn your back on it for one second."

Wardens also will be out on the coast Sunday to make sure divers and waders who brave the conditions follow new restrictions on abalone fishing in the Fort Ross area, the most popular site for the sport.

Last year, the Fish and Game Commission voted to close the area to abalone hunters until June 1 after a mysterious die-off killed hundreds of thousands of abalone and other invertebrates along the Sonoma Coast, with the heaviest destruction at Fort Ross.

Scientists believe a Red Tide algae bloom, containing a species rarely seen locally, poisoned the shellfish.

The two-month delay will protect the mollusks during some of the lowest tides of the year, a favorite time for abalone pickers to go out.

"We'll have people out there educating people, letting them know the areas are closed," Fish and Game Capt. Steve Riske said.

If the ocean Sunday is as rough as predicted, leaders in the local dive community hope that wardens won't encounter anyone to warn.

"Stay home, let the conditions pass," said Matt Mattison, an abalone diver from Monte Rio who runs Northern California Underwater Hunters, an online divers forum. "No abalone is worth your life."

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