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louis martin
cns news & features

"ABS," ABALONE, SEA SNAILS. Out of sight, out of mind most of the year. Come April 1st, however, they become a lot of things to a lot of people.

To some they become the excuse to turn into a primitive food hunter and gatherer--to move down the food chain from man's lofty position at the top. To others they become the reason for buying gear: wet suit, weight belt, mask, snorkel, fins, ab iron, and gauge. To others they become the reason to scale down the side of a cliff past Indian Paint Brush and Lupine to the rocky cove below. To others they become the reason behind the danger and excitement of crashing through big foamy waves on the way to deeper waters. Still to others they become the excuse for entering an alien world and exploring it--looking under rocks, admiring the colors of the rainbow perch, observing the expression of the wolf eel, getting rushed by a playful harbor seal, first thoughts being that it's a shark--knowing you are in "their" world and being alert and on edge. And sure, to some, to the dull ones, they become an excuse to escape and party.

On April 1st, abs become a lot of things to a lot of people.

But all who come to the coast to pay homage to the abalone are enthusiasts of one kind or another. Explains Steve Acker, a professional diver in Elk, "It's a strange environment and it's scary until you get yourself used to it." Without enthusiasm, no one would bother.

But enthusiasm, like any virtue pushed to excess, can become a vice. Like alcohol and driving, enthusiasm and diving can be a deadly combination. Each year divers come to the coast stoked on diving for abalone and drown. Some say it's a tragedy that doesn't need to happen.

Untrained Divers

Says Will Borgeson, an "aquaculturist" at the Bodega Bay Marine Lab on the south coast of Sonoma county, "Abalone divers are not required to be trained at all. You can borrow cousin Joe's wet suit and get an ab iron and buy a fishing license, and without any training or an idea of what you are doing, you can go out there and risk your life."

Borgeson believes that some form of training should be required for divers. Most accidents occur along the Mendocino and Sonoma coast.

One thing that makes abalone diving so dangerous in this area is that only free diving is allowed. Free diving is without the assistance of breathing apparatus; a diver goes down on a single held breath. In fact, north of Yankee Point in Monterey only this type of diving is allowed. As Borgeson points out, anyone can do it and most divers have little or no training.

Although no training is required of scuba divers, in fact most scuba divers have some training. The reason? Dive shops have agreed among themselves that they won't fully compress tanks of divers who are not certified. Why? Too many accidents.

Free diving is inherently safer than scuba diving, but not when done by untrained divers in a rough ocean along the rocky seashore--the environment in which abalones are taken on the North Coast. Says Borgeson, an abalone diver himself, "Free diving for abalones is definitely more dangerous than scuba diving for whatever purpose; people aren't dying of scuba diving, they are dying of free diving."

In a swimming pool, free diving is pretty safe. Not so in the ocean. The problem with free diving for abalones is that a diver is stuck with a single breath, and when a problem occurs there is little time to solve it. Panic often results.

Some problems are getting tangled in kelp or stuck in rock crevices. Borgeson warns about the dangers of attaching a "goodie" bag to the weight belt. "It's a real common error," he says. "Unless somebody has had some training, they're not going to know not to do it." He knows. When he was younger he did it himself. Had he lacked the strength to tear the fabric of the bag apart and free himself, he would not be offering advice today.

Going out alone is chancy and most divers "know better." But Borgeson warns about another danger--relying too much on the buddy system. Says Borgeson, "When you are down there on a breath hold, you are basically on your own. If something happens, the odds are that your buddy isn't going to be able to do a damn thing for you, because he's not going to be able to find you." That's because free divers, unlike scuba divers, don't blow bubbles; and chances are it's going to be murky.

Another problem is poorly estimating ocean and weather conditions. "You're up on a cliff looking down at the ocean," says Borgeson, "and visually what you are doing is foreshortening the waves so they look much smaller." How beautiful the ocean can look from the edge of cliff in the early morning. Add hot coffee and the sun warming your back. What more could you want? But the result is a perceptual error that can be fatal.

Pattern for Disaster

Steve Tellyer is the safety director for the Central California Council of Dive clubs. He's an Emergency Medical Technician and a hyperbaric chamber technician. He's snatched a few divers back from death's doors.

The most common pattern for an accident, says Tellyer, is a diver going out and getting exhausted in a rough ocean, typically with too much lead on the weight belt. Divers panic, do not release their weight belts--the first thing taught in a certification class--and drown. Says Tellyer: "Most of the victims we recover still have their weight belts on."

Belts are used to counterbalance the buoyancy of wet suits--not to help a diver go down. By releasing the weight belt a diver in distress can gain extra buoyancy, the wet suit acting like a life preserver.

Another problem, though less common, is "shallow water blackout" which can occur on the trip back to the surface. As the lungs expand, due to reduced pressure, and oxygen is depleted, a diver may lose consciousness. When that happens, breathing becomes automatic--fine in the atmosphere, disaster under water.

Sacramento Syndrome

There is another problem that is based in human nature and psychology. It has come to be called the "Sacramento Syndrome." Says George Lawrence, a diver and member of a Mendocino rescue team, "People come from the Valley when abalone season opens April 1st, and they're going to get their abs no matter what. Common sense goes out the window between there and here."

But April is the worst month to be stubborn and aggressive, as ocean conditions can be treacherous in April. The month has already claimed one diver this year.

Also, ocean conditions can change rapidly, as they did this year. On March 31st the ocean appeared like a placid, high-altitude lake; the next day it was like angry soup. Says Borgeson, "If people had listened carefully to the Noah weather reports the day before, they would have known they were predicting the strong winds and swells."

Lawrence says there is a "macho element" in the sport that encourages divers to go out and always get their limit--4 per day. Both Lawrence and Borgeson say they only take one each time they go out.

Borgeson says he'd like to see the limit lowered to 2 per day--in part to protect the resource, and in part to "protect divers from their own stupidity." He believes there are many deaths and rescues due to divers feeling that they have to get their limit.

"One abalone," says Borgeson, "feeds our family really well." But he says he's had people make "snide remarks" when he takes only one.

Another factor in the high death rate may be simply the number of people going out. According to Konstantine Karpov, a biologist with Fish & Game's Marine Resource Lab in Fort Bragg, there's been a ten-fold increase in the number of divers over the last two decades. Harolde Searles, another diver and rescue team member, drubs abalone diving a "growth industry." He says dive shops now rent all the required equipment, and "it's easy for someone to get beyond his limits."

Karpov of Fish & Game also suggests that an aging "baby boomer" population of divers may not be exercising reasonable caution in the water. Some deaths of older divers have been due to heart attacks.

Time for Diver Ed?

The number of abalone diving accidents makes some wonder if diver education should not be required. It was the number of hunting fatalities prior to 1955 that led to a mandatory hunter education program.

In 1954 31 hunters shot each other dead, and 101 were wounded; in 1994, none were killed and 14 were wounded. According to Jack Edwards, Deputy Chief of Fish & Game, the education program, which is run by volunteers, made a "dramatic difference."

But it wasn't just humans who suffered. Farmers lost cows, and even logs were mistaken for the broad side of a buck.

Borgeson says he's tried to convince Fish & Game and State Parks that "a 'hunters safety course' for abalone divers might save lives and even generate some revenue for the department." But so far he hasn't succeeded.

For one thing, there is difference between hunter safety and diver safety. Hunters kill other hunters, whereas divers kill only themselves.

Tellyer calls diving a "self-regulating sport" and says his club would like to keep it that way. Dive clubs offer classes and certification for scuba divers, even though certification is not legally required of divers. But for abalone divers, Tellyer admits, no such certification is available.

So far this year 1 diver has drowned on the North Coast, and on opening day in Sonoma County 17 rescues were required. Sonoma County has a lifeguard program that often saves lives. In Mendocino County there is no such program. Rescues are more often body recoveries.

No official records are kept of the number of abalone divers who drown, but a half dozen a year is a reasonable estimate for Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Based on statistics provided by California Health Services' Vital Statistics Division, over the last 8 years an average of 10.62 people have drowned per year while engaged in "recreational diving." Thus it would seem that abalone diving accidents in Mendocino and Sonoma counties make up half or more of all such deaths in the state.

The abalone season is two-part: April through June and August through October. Since most accidents occur in the first part of the season when conditions are the roughest, that narrows the range of accidents to 2 or 3 months in 2 counties.

But John Duffy, senior marine biologist with Fish & Game in Sacramento, says no diver safety program is being considered by the department. Fish & Game's job is to "protect resources," he says. "No one questions the need to protect diver's safety," but he says the department has neither the expertise nor the budget to offer classes. Karpov says that if money were spent for classes, he'd rather see it spent on teaching divers how to properly remove and return abalone.

Countless scores of abalone bleed to death each year when they are improperly removed, measured and found to be under sized, then left in the water. They are supposed to be measured before removal.

Could two sad fates be prevented with diver and abalone safety combined? No one is talking about it yet.