They came off the ocean floor by the hundreds, spiky purple spheres scraped into canvas bags by divers from around the North Bay compelled to try to preserve what remains of the North Coast’s ravaged kelp forest and the red abalone fishery it once supported.
About 7,100 pounds of kelp-gobbling purple urchins — an estimated 56,800 individual organisms — were collected over a two-day cull that drew 100 sport divers to the rocky Ocean Cove on the Sonoma Coast to vent long pent-up frustration and angst over the state of their diving grounds.
“This is a day I’ve waited four years for,” Timber Cove diver Jason O’Donnell, 45, said as he paddled ashore with a pile of bulging urchin bags aboard his kayak. “I don’t want to watch the whole ocean die and do nothing.”
Participants came from all over Sonoma County and as far away as Sacramento, San Jose and Hayward to take part in the Memorial Day weekend effort which, at its peak, had more than 85 divers deployed simultaneously in the waters just south of Salt Point State Park.
Among them were Bodega Bay rancher Che Casul, 32, who arrived with two friends to pitch in after years of watching the kelp die off, putting all kinds of sea life at risk. Casul, accompanied by Joel Franceschi, 32, of Forestville, and Gene Davis, 34, of Bodega, said he was alarmed by the state of the ocean but also by the limited awareness of the changes taking place under the its surface.
“We’re pretty excited to do whatever measures we can,” Davis said.
Both free divers and scuba divers participated, collecting as many urchins as possible from the underwater rocks and storing them in floats on the surface until support crews in kayaks could make a pickup and deliver them to shore.
There, other volunteers dumped the spiny critters into 5-gallon buckets, where the urchins — mostly starving and filled with salt water — were crushed and transferred to refuse bins for use as soil amendment at the private campground on the bluff overhead.
“We were pulling some out that were softball size,” said Matt Warren, 59, of Alameda, whose companion, Debra Lynne Popplewell, said she learned to dive largely so she could help.
The event was organized by the Watermen’s Alliance consortium of California spearfishing clubs in response to shifting ocean conditions that over the past seven years have transformed the North Coast’s once lush bull kelp forest into an urchin- covered wasteland, bereft of most other marine life.
Many of those gathered for the weekend might have been hunting abalone in another time.
But this year’s abalone season was canceled months ago, a casualty of the domination of the small purple urchins, which in recent years have out-grazed diminishing numbers of abalone and razed the North Coast’s iconic bull kelp forests so thoroughly that scientists estimate more than 90 percent of it has been lost.
It remains to be seen whether the well- coordinated clearing will have an impact on the ecology in Ocean Cove, one of several coastal locations targeted for urchin removal by recreational divers. In addition to planning their own eradication efforts, recreational groups have raised more than $100,000 to pay commercial divers for large-scale clearings at several other coves on the North Coast.