3 Abalone Divers Killed: What Are The Dangers Of Abalone Diving In California?

By Philip Ross on April 29, 2013 4:00 PM EDT

three abalone divers killed
Three abalone divers were killed over the weekend in Northern California. Abalone diving is popular in the area, where red abalone thrive in the kelp forests of the Pacific Ocean; but the perils of abalone diving are something to consider before getting in the water. (Photo: Flickr/Katrina “Tina” Ramser)

Three abalone divers in California were killed over the weekend in three separate incidences. Two of the abalone divers were found in Sonoma County and one was discovered near Fort Bragg, just north of San Francisco.

According to AP, the body of a 66-year-old retired firefighter was discovered off Sonoma County's Shell Beach on Saturday afternoon. Less than 24 hours later, divers hauled a 36-year-old man, who had gotten caught in a riptide, to shore near Salt Point State Park, an area of kelp-filled coves famous for their red abalone. Just a few hours later, a diver near Fort Bragg was found drowned and still submerged under water; investigators believe the man had gotten stuck to the rocks.

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A Deadly Start To California's Abalone Season

Abalone season in California began April 1 and, depending on the area, runs through the summer and into November. Abalones are prized mostly for their taste, but are also used for jewelry and decorative items.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife prohibits abalone divers from using SCUBA gear while hunting for the sea snail. Divers must obtain a fishing license before going in the water, and are permitted to take home three abalone a day, and a total of 24 per season. Only abalone that are 7 inches in diameter or larger can be kept.

Press Democrat reports that an extremely low tide Sunday morning attracted throngs of abalone divers to the beaches and coves along the coast of northern California.

"It's a busy season out on the coast, it's abalone season. We've got a lot of people out here today," Sonoma County sheriff Sgt. Ed Hoener told Press Democrat. "But it's very dangerous along our coast ... People may be underestimating the force of the ocean and their ability to stay safe."

How dangerous is abalone diving?

Abalone Hunting Deadlier Than Shark Attacks

According to Smithsonian magazine, as of April 12 of last year, 54 people have died while hunting abalone off of California's coast since 1993. In comparison, only 10 people have been killed in shark attacks off the west coast of the U.S. since 1926.

Kelp, which grows almost a foot per day and forms thick underwater forests, poses the biggest danger to abalone divers. Divers can get tangled in the seaweed and, without the aid of SCUBA or breathing gear, drown.

Others die of exhaustion and heart attack. The currents off the northern coast of California can be strong, and rip tides can drag divers far out to sea, where they can quickly become fatigued and unable to reach the shore.

Read more from iScience Times:

2 Navy Divers Drowned: How Did James Reyher And Ryan Harris Die?

Unexpected Crustacean Diversity Discovered in Northern Freshwater Ecosystems

Microbes Found In Deepest Oceanic Trench On Earth

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