A Very Northern California Thing to Do

On this early holiday morning, even the Golden Gate Bridge is swept clean of traffic. I’m meeting the jeweler at his house at 5:30 a.m. to participate in an annual ritual: abalone diving on Thanksgiving day.

The jeweler, Jay Cresalia, is a fifth-generation San Franciscan and an avid abalone diver, having chased Haliotis rufescens for the past 36 years. The term “chasing abalone” is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as this shellfish is not known for speed.

As I pull up in front of his house, Jay is digging out gear. You could outfit a large adventure travel business with the equipment in Jay’s garage: 14 mountain bikes, surfboards, basketballs, nets, a vintage pickup, one ski boat, kayaks and enough dive gear to launch a flotilla of outdoor enthusiasts, which is what Jay and his wife Mary Anne do on the weekends (they have 9 children). As we creep around the house, waking up family members, Jay looks down at his youngest, Stephen, fast asleep. A gentle shake and the 9-year-old awakens, rubbing his eyes and crawling from under his blanket and into the family van for the hour-long ride up the coast.

As we float above the kelp bed, the 52-degree water trickling down the zipper line of my wetsuit, the water below presents a bonafide, non-pharmaceutical hallucination: large fronds of emerald green bull kelp undulate like hula dancers, intensely colored fish — dark purple, light green, red — flit about and the current sends me flying like an astronaut in zero gravity.

Today the visibility is 10-12 feet. We knew conditions would be good when we first caught sight of the water next to the mouth of the Russian River. The Pacific is pacific. “Sweet,” came the verdict from the backseat. “It’s a lake out there,” says Jay as we speed to our secret spot. For people unfamiliar with the reasons why you would get up at 5 a.m., drive 90 minutes up the California coast, wiggle into thick wetsuits, clap on weight belts, snorkels, masks and flippers and crawl into the ocean in order to “catch” a large underwater snail, the reason is complicated. The truth is, abalone diving is a very Northern California thing to do: It’s eccentric, not for everyone and a little dangerous. But it’s also a grandioso supremo culinary delicacy, prized by sushi chefs and “old stoves” in North Beach.

Now, there is nothing left for me to do but take a lungful of air, flip-turn downward and let the weight belt speed me 12 feet toward the bottom. As I descend it occurs to me that diving for abalone is like trying to find a contact lens within the frothing chambers of a very soapy car wash.

Of course anywhere a delicacy is to be found, poachers are on the edge of the scene. The market for abalone in Asia is reportedly big, (fetching between $50-$100 per pound). “I’ve heard they use scuba tanks to dive for them off the coast. Then they Fed Ex them across the Pacific that afternoon,” Jay says. The California Department of Fish and Game takes the threat seriously, frequently checking the 35,000 abalone cards issued annually. Because they are slow growers, even a 7-inch abalone is 10 to 12 years old. And the largest ever retrieved from California waters — 121/3 inches — could easily have been 40 years old. The penalty for selling poached abalone is three years in state prison and a $20,000 to $40,000 fine.

But that’s not what someone who has never tasted the exotic pleasures of abalone diving wants to talk about. They want to talk about “The Man in the Gray Suit,” i.e., sharks. There are tales of gruesome encounters between abalone divers and TMITGS, but like all stories about this Pacific native, they aren’t statistically as worrisome as getting dashed against the rocks, or getting carried out to sea by a wicked rip current or, because you’ve driven all the way from Stockton with your buddies and don’t want to turn around empty-handed, going out in conditions that are far too rough for safe diving.

I’m still swimming downward through the angled columns of light, until I’ve reached the rocky bottom. Almost as soon as I touch bottom, I am out of air. As my eyes adjust, I scramble to locate the camouflaged shell of a legal size abalone. Seeing one, I quickly slip my ab bar between the gastropod and its perch, pop it free, grab it and swim to the surface.

As our group begins to climb out of the water, I think of Charles Darwin. There is nothing quite as comic as grown men, wearing skintight neoprene suits, crawling out of the Pacific wearing flippers as if on the cusp of an evolutionary leap. We slip and slide on the rocks, dragging our limit — three per person — up the beach and toward the pile of clothes. “Have you seen the meatslicer?” Jay asks as a swirl of excited children appear in his kitchen, including relatives from Boston. The kitchen is a study in volume: an industrial strength disposal and enormous stove. I count 8 gallons of milk in the refrigerator.

Suddenly the meatslicer appears. The griddle is heated up. A cooking crew is organized. A pounding crew, made up mostly of little boys, works out on the deck. The grown-ups begin to clean the abalone, leaving the mother-of-pearl shells sitting in the sink like calcified treasure. Jay, in his role as abalone ambassador, begins handing out the first slivers of abalone, sprinkled with garlic and lemon juice, on thinly sliced baguettes. The taste is somewhere between lobster and calamari. The jeweler has been going abalone diving on Thanksgiving Day for the past 23 years. Today makes the 24th.

“California is so awesome,” says 7-year-old Rose, a visiting cousin, as she hangs around the sink, studying the abalone. “Massachusetts can be so boring.”

Originally published Sunday, November 19, 2006

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