RANDY FRY SLIPPED off the side of the boat and into the Pacific Ocean off Fort Bragg, California one August afternoon in 2004. What happened next had probably flitted across his mind at some point during his three decades or so of diving this rugged, unforgiving coast.
On the hunt for red abalone, a hardy snail-like creature that clings to rocks close to shore, 50-year-old Fry was at the apex of the “Red Triangle”, a region that accounts for almost 40 % of all reported shark attacks in the USA.
The thousands who freedive each year for the red abalone, or “ab”, know these waters are alive with sharks but take the chance anyway, ducking down as deep as the air in their lungs will sustain them, hoping today won’t be the day they get taken.
“It was like a submarine,” said Cliff Zimmerman, Fry’s buddy that day, of the great white that dragged Fry away, turning the water red less than two minutes after he had entered.
Fry’s torso was recovered a few days later by a Coast Guard search team; his head found by a beachcomber walking his dog three weeks after that.
Zimmerman and Fry were 30m from shore in less than 5m of water when the attack happened.
Zimmerman was back diving the same stretch for abs under a month after watching his friend die. All for a creature that if seen crawling around the back garden the owner might hit with a spade.
The red abalone (Haliotus rufescens), a relative of the garden snail, is found from Baja California, Mexico all the way up the Pacific coast to Oregon. Adults can grow to 30cm in diameter and weigh 6kg, but these are rare, and most abs harvested or “taken” measure 17-20cm.
Long a staple food-source of the native Americans who once lived on California’s coast, the 20th century saw millions of tonnes of abs taken annually for everything from cheap nutrition for Chinese immigrants to prettifying the outside of seaside restaurants.
There came a point when the species was, according to marine wildlife experts, close to extinction.
This declaration of imminent gastropodic Armageddon is still disputed by many divers (“there’s millions of them out there”, one tells me), but it began a slow, grinding process of regulation that saw the taking of the sea-snail banned entirely from southern California, and permitted only from a stretch of coastline north of the San Francisco Bay to the Oregon border.
The quota dropped from all you could carry to what it is now – 18 a year, all tagged and later registered, and only three to be taken on any given day.
The 18 can be taken only between April and September, and with August off to give the mollusc time to gird its loins and breed.
That’s just topside – once under water, more rules kicks in. It’s freediving only, and the abalone iron, the long thin chisel-like implement used to pry the snail off the rock, must be no longer than 91cm and have an edge no thinner than 2cm.
Most importantly, no ab with a shell diameter smaller than 18cm, commonly thought to denote maturity, can ever be taken, and divers are required to carry a measuring gauge to ensure that they don’t undersize.
What this Byzantine system, which costs a diver more than $50 on average in licence fees, didn’t do was remove the unalloyed joy divers get from taking the kelp-eating mollusc.
EACH SEASON THOUSANDS of ab divers descend on the small towns of the north coast, filling the hotels and bars and bringing in millions of tourist dollars.
“You never stop thinking about the sharks,” says Eric Anderson who, with nearly 50 years of experience, is one of the world’s leading abalone divers.
The white-haired former computer programmer, now in his 70s, is showing me around the museum he’s built in the basement of his Gualala, California home dedicated to the pursuit.
He has also kept a long record of shark attacks in the area, though he has never been attacked himself.
As I admire the dinner-plate-sized ab shells that line the wall, he tells me that deaths occur “because to the shark an ab-diver floating in the sea looks like a seal and whoosh, they come from underneath and that’s that.
“People think we’re crazy to get in the water, but that’s what picking abs does to you – you become obsessed.”
Eric is what is known in the ab community as a “trophy” diver, one who won’t take an ab if its shell is less than 23cm in size.
The largest he has ever taken was 28cm, the largest ever taken being fractionally bigger at 31cm.
Eric dives almost daily during the season, admitting that it’s an obsession, and has agreed to take us out this morning. “Sea could be rough today, though, and weather passing through, so we might not get a chance,” he warns us.
Driving down Highway 1, after picking up Eric’s dive-buddy Gary, he explains that the secret to getting trophy abs is knowing where to look. Every good diver, he says, will have spots only he and his buddy will know. It could be a cave or a rocky outcrop that can be seen only at certain times of day, or the place where the kelp grows thick (“abs love the kelp”).
“I know guys who get in their kayaks and go up for the coast for miles. They’ll never tell you where they’ve been.” Eric smiles: “Never.”
As we pass other cars loaded with dive-gear, it’s clear that most of the divers are in their 50s and older. Gualala is part tourist town, part retirement community, so it’s to be expected, but I ask Eric if his seniority has taken its toll over the years.
“I can’t stay down as long as I used to but I’m still in fairly good shape,” he says. Gary, a retired building contractor so addicted to table-tennis that he takes long ocean cruises just to pit his skills against fellow-passengers, is blunter, “I’m 77 and still f***ing, so I guess I’m pretty fit.
“And you need to be, think about it – we’re going straight down wearing all this weight, and then when we get down there we have to find an abalone.
“I’d say we’re in the top 5% of divers. Eric definitely is. He’ll have to slow down one day, but not yet.”
WE PULL INTO A CAR PARK above a cove, and Eric scans the horizon, looking for other divers. It has quickly become apparent that he’s super-hot on the subject of ab poaching.
Because their numbers are so tightly regulated, abs can fetch $100-150 apiece in restaurants across the USA and Far East. The demand, especially in the Asian community, is partly driven by the belief that the gonad or “guts” of the snail is a potent aphrodisiac for women, and with the ab-rich North Coast a relatively short drive from the cities of the Bay Area, a lucrative black market has sprung up.
It can’t be for the taste, as even after being assaulted at length with a mallet to soften it up, it can’t escape its rubbery consistency.
“Poachers see $100 bills just lying on the ocean floor,” Eric tells me as we wheel a converted baby-stroller packed with dive-gear down the beach.
“They come up here from the Bay Area and think it’s easy pickings. If you get 10 abs, which isn’t that hard, that’s a thousand dollars right there.”
There are no hard numbers on the amount of abalone taken illegally, but Fish & Game reckon it’s more than 100% of the annual legal take of around 250,000, making the black market worth at least $25m a year.
Putting on his wetsuit, Eric thumbs over his shoulder to the cliffs behind us and tells me that officers from Fish & Game regularly hide in the undergrowth with binoculars to check out the morning divers. It sounds vaguely ridiculous that someone should be lurking in the bushes watching Eric, Gary and I watch the seals, but in the past members of the special operations department have started fake seafood businesses to lure in poachers, and attached telescopes to boats to spy the shoreline from far out at sea.
So a few hours rolling around in the brambles probably qualifies as taking it easy for them.
“I’m not dying of Sacramento Syndrome today,” says Eric, as he notes another wave crashing in against the cove. We’ve been watching the water for nearly half an hour and Eric has judged it too rough. He doesn’t want to fall into the trap a few unlucky or stupid (depending on your viewpoint) ab-divers do.
The six or seven fatalities a season are attributed mostly to weekenders from San Francisco or Sacramento who, having driven four or five hours to get there and paid for hotel rooms, ignore the conditions, wade in and wash out dead. “I get caught in that and I’m going to end up knocked out in the water,” says Eric. He calls it, and we head back to the car.
NEXT MORNING WE RUN into Jack Linkins and his friends Ken and Pat on a secluded beach, preparing to push out in kayaks for a dive.
Jack, a grizzled retired sales executive, has been diving since his teens and is, though both he and Eric would deny it till they were blue in the face (and these guys can hold a breath), a trophy-diver rival of the man with the museum. “If I see anything less than 10 inches, I leave it,” he says. “It’s not worth my time.”
Today, Jack is taking out Chris Ostrom, a one-time high-school champion swimmer, to teach him the ropes. Chris, in his early 60s, is nervous, being only too aware of the pitfalls of ab-diving. As a child, he and his brother were out picking when a giant wave swept them up and deposited them on a beach. “We must have been 30 feet in the air. Scariest moment of my life,” he says. “I’ve never done it since.”
Today conditions are perfect, with a calm sea lapping back and forth like gently disturbed bath water beneath a warm blue sky. Near the horizon, an occasional spray of water marks the passage of a grey whale migrating north.
Seals pop their heads above the water to watch as Jack and the kayaks paddle out and stop about 90m from shore, next to a small group of rocks that emerge from the ocean.
Jack dives to place a guideline for the others to follow. He’s down for what seems like an age, then emerges in a boil of water and beckons the others in.
Chris goes first and is up and out quick, empty-handed. Jack instructs him to push a big breath out before he takes his dive breath in. He does so, and is under and out in around 30 seconds.
We’re diving shallow today, and while 30 seconds might sound short, underneath it’s a lung-searing eternity.
We hit paydirt. “There’s a canyon down there just full of them. They’re lining each side.” Chris is clearly excited as he readies himself for another dive and slips off, ab iron and gauge hanging from the side.
He’s under slightly longer this time, and when he emerges, it’s with an ab.
It’s around 17cm long, and is slowly moving as if in a futile attempt to find another rock to cling to.
Chris is almost ecstatic, but with that inner serenity you get from wanting something, working for it and then achieving a hard task.
Jack looks on. There are no 10s down there but there will be other days, other coves and kelp fields where the trophies await.
ERIC CALLS LATER that afternoon, inviting us to his house for a “couple of drinks”. He’s talking about taking us for another dive the next day – I get the feeling he might be a bit pissed with us for going out with Jack.
A few hours and a lot of vodkas later, all that is out the window, and Eric has turned to poetry.
He recites one he’s written about his bond with ab-diving, a bond he shares with all those who dive this coast and return day after day despite the dangers and the tightening regulations – all to get their hands on a sea snail:
When I’m done and in my grave
No more ab will I crave
On my tombstone will be seen
Here’s lies the body of a diving machine
On the other side shall be wrote
A lot of saltwater went down this diver’s throat
At my funeral the preacher will say
If it hadn’t been for the north coast he’d be alive today
When my friends and family walk by,
They’ll stop and look and ponder why
Deep down I think I know
Because I’ve found God’s favourite abalone hole.
“I just hope it’s not from a shark.”
He laughs, and wanders into the kitchen to get a refill.