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How to Abalone Dive, Spearfish, or Learn to Snorkel for Fun – An In Depth Article Not To Miss!
Diving for abalone is a sport enjoyed by many on the north coast of California. Using scuba tanks or any other underwater breathing apparatus is not allowed and you must get them by diving while holding your breath. Not to say that you can’t go out at very low tides and “rock pick” them without entering the water, but this article is about diving for them, which is the primary method of taking them.
First of all, an abalone is a huge snail that lives on the rocks in the shallows of the ocean. Although there are several types, the one sought after here in northern California is a Red Abalone. This abalone must be 7 inches across the shell at any point in order to be “legal” under California law and rarely grows to over 11 inches in its life. The typical one taken by the sport diver is usually between 7 and 9 inches. By law, every diver must carry their own measuring device while diving which are wide “U shaped” tools with an inside width of 7 inches. The abalone are firmly attached to the rocks by their “foot” and are pried off with a flat bar, which also must meet certain criteria legally to avoid damage to undersized abalone and those that are unable to be pried off. It must not be sharp or not wide enough so the abalone are not cut with it. Every diver should read and familiarize themselves with the regulations each year for taking abalone, as regulations change from time to time and violations of them usually result in fines of at least $1500 and can result in jail time and the confiscation of your diving equipment due to the protected status of these creatures. For instance, every abalone taken must be logged properly both on a tag and on the report card immediately upon exiting the ocean, without exception. At this time, you may possess only three abalone at one time, no matter if they are in your freezer at home or in your dive bag at the ocean, and you may take only 24 in any one year. You may not obtain another diver’s abalone and hand them to him or her when in the ocean or “trade up” for larger ones after you have removed a legal one from the rocks. Again, other regulations apply so it is important that you read the regulations prior to diving.
The water on the north coast of California is cold. You will need a full wet suit, including a hood, gloves, and booties. The other gear that you will need will be a mask, snorkel, fins, weight belt, abalone bar, abalone gage, and something to keep your abalone in as they must be kept separate from other divers’. I highly recommend that each diver have and use a “dive tube” to keep their abalone in as this also doubles as an indispensable safety device, if needed. Sea sickness, cramps, exhaustion, and injuries do occur and such a floatation device can save your life. It also can offer a place to float and rest or just to float and shoot the breeze with your friends and enjoy the views. The dive tube also has the added feature of having shoulder straps so it can be used as a backpack for your gear when hiking to and from the ocean. The bag is basically a canvas covering with a zipper that encloses the inner tube of a car. It has rings attached to it so you can tie things to it such as your measuring device, fish bags if you are a spear fisher as well, and clips to hold your spear gun when not in use. I highly recommend using a separate bag for your fish or sea urchins as the sharp fins and quills will puncture your tube and they are not cheap.
The wet suit is neoprene which is a foam type material and the wet suits come in various thicknesses. This material is very buoyant and the weight belt’s purpose is to offset this buoyancy so that you can submerge. Without this weight, diving is virtually impossible. Each weight belt has a quick release buckle on it so that the diver can, if needed and as a last resort, shed this belt and float with ease. Once you lose or shed your belt, either someone else dives down to get it or your dive is over! Shedding your weight belt also causes you to lose some of your maneuverability as your lower body and legs want to float instead of stay underwater to give you “traction” in the water. The amount of weight that each diver uses is critical to that diver’s ease of diving. Too much weight and you tend to sink and the ascent is more difficult, and too little causes you to have to struggle to reach the bottom. A happy medium is needed and this medium varies with each diver depending on their wetsuit’s thickness and their body mass and height. A more portly person may need a little more weight and a thin person a little less given the same height, but a taller person may need more as they have more suit to counterweight.
There is a simple method that should be used by the diver to ascertain the proper amount of weight to be used. The diver should dawn all gear to be dove with and enter the water somewhere calm and close to shore where he can freely float. A dock in a harbor or a launching ramp are good spots for this and make sure it is in the salt water that you plan to dive in, not fresh water as the buoyancy is much different. Start with about 20 pounds of weight on your belt and use a couple pounds more if you are taller or more robust than the next guy or girl. Float still while you are straight up and down with your hands to your side and your feet still. The water level should such that your dive mask is half under the water and half above so you can look either under or over the water. Adjust the weight to your belt until you reach this equilibrium we call “neutral Buoyancy”. Once you do this, remember this weight as it may very well stick with you your entire dive career and you will want to know this if you lose your belt or rent equipment.
It is important that you recognize your snorkel as your best friend. This breathing apparatus allows you to keep your head in the water and float easily and let you view under the water with your mask while still breathing normally. Your head is very heavy – 15 to 20 pounds- and if you insist on not using your snorkel and holding it up out of the water so you can breathe through your mouth and nose normally, you will be kicking your rear end off in order to do so. Practice with a mask and snorkel in a pool or river or even in the hot tub so you get used to it. Every dive it fills with water to your mouth where it is stopped by you shoving your tongue into the hole, preventing it from entering your mouth. Then when you come up to the surface, you remove your tongue and blow quick and hard to “clear” it of water so you can again use it. Much of the time this one hard blow gets 90% of the water out of it and a huge mistake that new divers make is to assume that all of it is out and they take a huge gasp for that needed air and intake that last 10 percent and choke on it. It is important that you breathe softly and get a nice refreshing breath of air so that you suck the air over the water that remains in the snorkel’s bottom and then clear it once again to rid of that last 10% of water. This seems like quite a task, but it begins to become habit with experience as does much of proper free diving technique, which then allows the diver a degree of comfort that transcends him or her from the novice to the experienced diver. I can’t stress enough how much practicing with your snorkel will improve your abalone diving, spear fishing, or snorkeling experience.
Diving on the north coast of California isn’t like the clear ocean waters of Florida, Texas, Mexico, or Hawaii. The water here is not only cold, but usually quite rough and almost always murky where the visibility underwater is only 5 to 15 feet. Although the abalone is found from the mean low tide level of the ocean to depths of 50 feet or more, diving in waters that are shallow can be both dangerous and exhausting. The ocean’s waves come in and out with great force and sweep the diver where ever it decides to, which can include putting his or her head up against a rock! Even if you do find an abalone, trying to stay in one place long enough to get it off the rock can be nearly impossible and requires that you kick like a maniac and hold on for dear life. Diving in over 15 feet of water eliminates most of these issues as the waves are just swells that gently take you up and down on the surface and have nearly no effect once you are submerged. When you go down and find an abalone, you are in still water where you can relax and concentrate. The novice diver tends to see the shallow water as easier and safer, but once they relax enough to give the deeper seas a try, they soon learn that their oxygen and strength lasts much longer and that the deeper ocean is a much easier diving experience.
Part of diving deeper involves the essential function of what is known as “clearing your ears”. Learning how to clear your ears when diving is an absolute must in order for you to prevent breaking or damaging your ear drum. Perhaps you or someone you know that has tried diving to the bottom of a deep pool or tried to scuba dive has experienced severe pain in their ears. This is because water weighs a lot. Pick up a five gallon bucket of it if you don’t believe me! The weight of all the air in earth’s atmosphere at sea level is 14.7 pounds per square inch. There is less of it in the high mountains and it weighs less there so your ears “pop” to let your ear drums adjust for that difference when you head up or come down from them. Water, as you know, is much heavier than air. Matter of fact, when you go down 33 feet, that water weighs 14.7 pounds that is pushing in on your ear drums along with the other 14.7 pounds that the air already was pushing on them. Your ear drums stretch under this weight and this is the cause of the pain. Luckily, your body has little channels that go from your throat to behind your ear drum that are there to either let air out if the pressure on the outside is less like in the mountains, or push air in if there is more pressure on the outside such as when the weight of the water is pushing in as you dive. Part of diving, without exception, involves you controlling the pressure on your ear drum. By holding your nose, or pushing up on your mask, you can force air into your inner ear to equalize the pressure from the water’s weight as you dive down. Typically, the air will escape on its own as you ascend but at times you may want to move your jaw some if you do feel pressure as you come up. Every time you feel pain on your ear drum, you are doing damage that can cause scar tissue which will affect your hearing. Furthermore, inside your ear are your organ of balance and your organ of hearing which are sensitive to cold water and breaking an ear drum, along with the possible infection, can really cause problems when you are diving. There are stories of scuba divers that have drown due to the disorientation caused by the trauma to the organ of balance and shock of the cold water caused by the ear drum breaking. Allergies, colds, and some medical issues can all cause an inability to clear your ears and you should not dive at all if this is the case. When you do dive, clear your ears several times on the dive, perhaps every 5 or 6 feet, and stop descending if you feel pressure that you cannot relieve by clearing. Here again, a little practice in the pool is not a bad idea.
The ocean water here, as I said, is murky. Many times you are diving to the bottom that you cannot see until you are well on your way from the surface. This is not the way for novice divers to learn to dive. It is important that the novice diver begin on calmer days with good visibility so that the ocean’s floor, and even the abalone in some cases, are visible from the surface. This allows the novice to become familiar with the ocean’s bottom and how the abalone and fish live upon so there is no huge surprise when diving in poorer visibility. After all, the beginner free diver already has the “getting used to the gear” issue going on and adding another challenge to them is not desirable. Bad experiences due to the beginning diver being taken along to learn how to snorkel or abalone dive when the ocean conditions are poor is probably the main reason that the beginners give up diving before they can become proficient and relaxed enough to enjoy themselves and take up the sport as a hobby they love. And usually this is the fault of the friend that takes them along who should know better.
When you make a dive for abalone, or any dive whether you are spearing fish or just snorkeling for fun, rest a minute on the surface while floating still so your body can build up oxygen in its cells and you are relaxed. After all, what’s the hurry! Then, turn your body downward smoothly and lift your entire leg straight into the air so that it’s substantial weight will propel you downward until your fin enters the water and you can further propel yourself with it as you kick. With this motion you will be surprised to see that you have already descended about 10 feet with one kick. Many people that are just learning how to dive will try to swim down by kicking sideways to the surface or thrashing their fins in the air, which don’t accomplish much besides using your oxygen. This smooth entry will truly help with your diving abilities and success. Once under water, relax. You are only a few bath tub’s depths deep when you think about it! Kick smooth and think about the abalone on the bottom and how you plan to look on the undersides of the rocks where the big ones hang out or maybe about that huge ling cod or other bottom fish that you plan to show off at the dive shop or camp ground. Look at the colors of the corals and the other sea life that you pass and make it a point to enjoy the experience instead of rushing. Pay attention to your surrounding as you are going down and coming up for safety, but also for the opportunity to view the ocean creatures in their habitat. Keep your eye out for lost dive gear that some unfortunate diver lost that you can salvage. Catch a nice rock crab, sea urchins, or scallops to enhance that seafood meal for you and the gang later. Mostly, what I am saying is relax, as this is the key to learning to dive for abalone.
When you do spot and abalone, you will have your pry bar in your hand and attached to your wrist with a rubber noose that frees easily if it were to become entangled. You will “sneak” up on the abalone by not swirling the water around it or touching it as they will clamp their shell tightly to the rocks and you may not even be able to slip your bar under the shell at that point. Slide your bar quickly between the abalone and the rock as far as you can and pry it off. Grab it and you are done, but many times I will pull a couple or even my whole limit of three off of one rock or in the same area as they are big and I am biting at the bit to break out my spear gun and start fishing for that record fish or octopus! Swim up and measure the ab with your gage that hangs off of your dive tube while floating and breathing through your snorkel and looking through your mask. Then throw that lunker in your tube! Make sure that you always try to only pry legal abalone off as this process can damage their bodies and they are almost then certain to die. Try not to get too excited and to remember that everything looks bigger than it is when seen through the mask. If you do take one that is too small to be legal, take care and replace it firmly on the rock that you got it from if you can as this is the law, but at least put it somewhere safe as the fish and other creatures will swarm the poor thing immediately and you won’t be able to get it later when it grows up. These are a fragile creature and we all should have the respect for them to make every effort to protect and preserve them for our children.
Most of the time I grab my abalone and start spear fishing. I will often bring abalone guts or squid and put them within sight of the surface in several places in a couple hundred yard area and swim back and forth between them waiting for a fish to appear as they are mostly hidden in the kelp beds, sea weed, or rocks. I typically will shoot ling cod, kelp greenling, Cabazon, china cod, black or blue rock fish, and perch. Once in a while I will get an octopus, which out here are Giant Pacific Octopus that can grow over 25 feet and can drown you if you are not careful. We also have a large eel called a Wolf eel, which is our version of the moray eel, and there are a lot of rock crab and Dungeness if the bottom is sandy. I love to dive warm clear water and I also love to dive with tanks but they are bulky and your dive time is limited due to breathing compressed air. Free diving (holding one’ breath) is my favorite way to spear fish and enjoy the ocean. Now, with these lessons and instruction by the old man of the sea (me) perhaps you can join me in enjoying the great seas of our planet. Before I let you go though, I want to include the top 10 safety rules below so you can be safe at all times when you are diving and snorkeling.
10 Best Safety Tips For Free Divers and Spear Fishers
1. Go with a Buddy. Matter of fact, the more buddies, the safer you are, and stay close
2. Bring a Dive Tube or other floatation device- Dropping your weight belt is a last resort.
3. Check your gear before diving – fin straps, mask straps, hook up and test your regulator
4. Do not dive if you are tired, ill, or hung over, or impaired from medication or drugs
5. Do not underestimate the ocean’s conditions – It can always get rougher quick
6. Do not enter the water where it is too rough and can slam you against the rocks
7. Pay attention when you are descending and ascending, watch for snags and traps
8. Return to the shore if you become tired, cramped, or seasick
9. Swim sideways to rip tides – they will let you loose soon and you can get in elsewhere
10. Pay attention to the ocean’s incoming waves when you’re are exiting or entering the ocean
Now, go out and enjoy yourselves!
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