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How to Dive for Abalone - Diving for Abalone and Abalone Diving Lessons and Tips
How to Dive for Abalone – A beginner’s Lesson
Learning how to dive for abalone is not as hard as most beginning divers make it out to be. In fact, most first time divers have such a bad experience that they often give up abalone diving before they have enough experience to see how simple it is and how fun it can be. Surely, when you don’t shoot par on your first round of golf, or even in your entire life, you don’t throw in the towel! Just as in any sport, you must persevere the learning curve when learning to abalone dive until you master just a few techniques that will make your diving experience both pleasureful and productive. Best yet, when you lay that abalone dinner on the table, you will be known as a true snorkeling pro and a culinary genius! This article along with the in depth spear fishing article I mentioned will be all you need to learn to abalone dive and to become good at abalone diving.
The first trick to making your abalone venture one that you would want to repeat is to pick the right day and if you are teaching someone to dive for their first time, why ruin that first time diver’s experience by subjecting them to adverse conditions that you, the experienced diver, can be successful in but wish it were better conditions even for yourself. By this, I mean avoid days when the ocean is rough and overly murky. Nothing is worse to the new abalone diver than putting on a bunch of bulky, restrictive, foreign and awkward gear and jumping into water that heaves you here and yon, dislodges your mask, while the whole time never seeing anything but the top of a piece of bull kelp that startles you by coming in view in one second in the ocean’s surge. Everything changes for the new diver when the sea is calm and the visibility is such that he or she can see the bottom while gently floating on the surface. After all, the biggest obstacle that the novice abalone diver must overcome is learning to relax so they can focus on learning how to find the abalone, how to tolerate and address the inevitable water in the mask and snorkel, getting used to the feel of the equipment, and the use of the snorkel so that its essential benefit can be reaped as abalone can only be taken by “free diving”, that is without the use of scuba equipment.
Relaxation cannot be stressed enough, as it is the key to both being a successful ab diver and actually enjoying the sport of ab diving along with spear fishing that almost every devoted abalone diver eventually takes up as it is much more active and exciting. I have written an excellent article on how to spear fish for the beginner which is posted in the forum on Fishnfools.com that is a must read, even for the novice abalone diver reading this article. Now, becoming relaxed is not something that you meditate into before your dive, it comes mostly from becoming familiar with the ocean, your diving gear, and mostly your actual time spent in the water actually enjoying the sport. Relaxing allows you the benefits of focusing on your diving techniques, causes you to work much less than the inexperienced diver, which then allows you to breath much easier and calmly that in turn allows you to dive longer and deeper. Not that diving deep is mandatory to get abalone as some of the biggest abalone I have ever gotten were taken rock picking in my Levis above the water level at low tide.
The first part of relaxing is by realizing that the ocean is not something to be feared, just respected. By that I mean that every diver’s imagination of being eaten by a shark needs to be put into context. For instance, your odds of getting killed in a car wreck on your way to the local grocery store is thousands of times more probable to happen. I have been diving for forty years and I have yet to even personally meet a fellow diver that has even seen a great white shark. So, face the fact that your odds of being bit by a shark are less than your odds of winning the lottery and forget about it! Plus, if you ever do see one, I will share the avoidance technique with you that I will most likely use and that is turning the water brown all around me! Secondly is that there are scads of seals that are curious and that will swim right up to you, often surprising you. This you eventually get used to and once you stare into their eyes with their long eyelashes and see their curious and friendly demeanor, you kind of enjoy the interaction. This may not be so true spear fishing as the hungry little buggers will grab your fish stringer or snag the fish on your spear and get into a tug of war with you but I have never heard of an actual seal attack. Also, it is hard to relax when you are throwing up. When you are snorkel diving, you will swallow sea water – period. You will also be going up and down and back and forth and the sea weed and kelp will be washing side to side and up and down at a different pace than you are. A lot of movement. If you have ever gotten car sick or air sick, you will be susceptible to getting sea sick when you are diving. I know, I get sick real easy! For those that suffer this inherited pitfall there are a couple of drugs that can help a lot. One is over the counter medicine like the popular Dramamine, which comes in a non-drowsy formula as well as the regular, another called Bonine, but the best that I have found takes a doctors’ visit and comes in the form of a little band-aid type patch that you place behind your ear called “Trans-derm Scope” or “Scopamine”. Trust me, it is worth the cost of the doctor’s visit and you can get enough to take you through the season on that visit. While you are there at the pharmacy, pick up some antihistamine as well as it is handy to keep your sinuses open so you can “clear your ears” when you are diving so the pressure from the water as you dive deeper doesn’t break or harm your ear drums.
Let’s speak about this ear clearing issue for a moment now that you brought it up! Clearing your ears is essential. Not doing so can cause serious ear damage and immense pain. Here is the jist of it. The water weighs a lot and as you dive deeper, it weighs more. At 33 feet it weighs 14.7 pounds more than the 14.7 pounds that was already pushing in on your ear drums from the earth’s atmosphere when you were standing on the shore. Your ear drums are only a little piece of skin type membrane that is not made to hold the weight of a gallon or two of milk sitting on it. So luckily, your body has these little tubes (estuation tubes) that run from the back of your throat to your inner ear, behind the ear drum, so you can push air out on your ear drum equal to the weight of the water pushing in on it, leaving it in a “neutral weight” state as though nothing were pushing in on it. Without doing this, your ear drum has all that pressure pushing in and is stretching abnormally and will eventually tear open. Not good! So, as you descend on your dive, whether scuba or free diving, every few feet you should be “equalizing” this pressure by holding your nose and blowing out to “pop” your ears just like you do when you are coming down or going up into the mountains. If you cannot clear due to chronic problems or because your sinuses are clogged from allergies or a cold, you should not dive over about 5 feet in depth. When I dive, I have my hand pushing the rubber of my mask against my nostrils to block them and I clear my ears about ever 4 or 5 feet and once again at the bottom before I begin to work on finding and taking my abalone. Remember, this is not optional, it is essential.
The dangers in the ocean are usually self-inflicted by not using your head. For instance, almost all of the divers that drown, which is the primary cause of death when diving, chose to dive on a day that the ocean conditions were not fit to dive for their experience levels. Typically the diver gets rolled and beaten upon the rocks upon entry or exit from the ocean and knocked unconscious, then drowning. When the ocean is raging rough, find something else fun to do. Go sea shell hunting with the kids, hit the local pub, or take a nice stroll and leave diving out. Just because you came to the ocean for the weekend or week doesn’t mean you should plan to dive no matter what. This is when the respect for the ocean comes into play. Without this respect, you are taking a huge and unacceptable, foolish, risk. One thing that I see a lot is that the newer divers were introduced to a particular diving spot and insist on using it when it is rough when right around the corner is another cove that is calm that day due to the direction of the surf, loaded with just as many abalone, and has just as easy access. Scouting such spots is a great way to spend a day when the ocean is rough. Also, another hint is to look at certain areas at low tide. Many times when the tide goes out, rock formations are exposed further seaward of the cove that act as a jetty, breaking the surf outside and leaving the cove calm and very divable even when the ocean is somewhat rough. But know one thing, the ocean has many days that you just cannot safely dive it. One of those days is when it is dead calm and you have a third degree hangover or are sick or tired for any reason. Wait until you feel better. The coast is a beautiful place and made to enjoy, so why take the risk. If in doubt at all, hit the pub or the bowling alley!
One mistake that is probably the most common that the new abalone diver makes is diving in too shallow of water. The ocean almost always has some surge to it that sweeps you around like a washing machine. When you dive down in 6 or 8 feet of water, by the time you fine an abalone, you are ten feet away from it or out of air from fighting and kicking to stay in one place long enough to pry the ab off. You also run the risk of bumping your head which we spoke of above along with becoming more sea sick than you can imagine. When you get in a little deeper water, there is little or no noticeable surge. When I am diving, I like about 15 to 20 feet of sea below me. Here, I don’t kick or swim at all while waiting for a dive which lets me relax and rest and breath to build the oxygen in my blood for the next dive. Many new divers feel that they don’t have the “air” to dive this deep when in fact this takes much less air than what is used fighting the surge in the shallow water. This is something that every diver that continues this sport will learn as they become more relaxed and comfortable in the ocean environment. Here again, learning this is best done on a day when the water is clearer so the diver can see the bottom. Later, you will become so relaxed and comfortable that you will leave the surface into a grey-ness and become fine with the bottom coming into focus once you have reached a depth of 10 or more feet. You will then come to recognize that the ocean floor is still the same old ocean bottom as when it was clear and the abalone are still under the same old rocks as always. Nothing new!
Another too often mistake made by the diver is improperly weighting themselves. To explain briefly, weights are required when diving to offset the buoyancy of your wet suit. Face it, the wet suit is a layer of highly buoyant foam rubber to keep you warm. It will not allow you to sink unless you are weighted down to counteract its floatation characteristics. Hence, you must wear a weight belt that is somewhat awkward and heavy for certain, which you will soon learn when you are hiking up a steep ocean bluff with your dive tube full of abalone and fish and this 20 pound plus or minus burden. So, what is the right weight? The answer is, that amount of weight that makes you feel like you would diving in a pool with nothing but your swim suit on. Lets’ call this “neutral buoyancy” as it is known in the diving world. Sounds easy in theory but it may be 18 pounds or 25 pounds like I wear (more if I have scuba tanks on). Well, the answer depends on things like the thickness of your wet suit, how big your love handles are, and your personal preference for weighting as you become more experienced. But, I learned a trick that works for everyone when I was in the Navy Seals diving school in Subic Bay, Philippines (Yes I did to all you that have been there!). When you are choosing your weighting amount, which will stick with you for most of your diving career unless you change to a much heavier or lighter wet suit, take the following little amount of time so as to begin your diving on the proper note. Start with about 20 pounds of weight and go in the salt water, not freshwater as the buoyancy is different, and float with your hands to your sides. Then, you either add or subtract weight so that when floating idle, in a straight up and down position, the water level is such that when you are looking out of your mask, you are looking at half above the water and half below. Put another way, the water level is half way up your mask when you are floating without moving. This is perfect. This will allow you to float with ease on the water as you rest between dives but allow you to descend easily without fighting the buoyancy and using your precious oxygen for no reason. Again, it is another factor in your overall relaxation.
When you dive, use a dive tube. It is an inner tube covered with a canvas covering with zippers and straps so you can transport your gear to and fro the diving spot on your back. It is a place for you to keep your abalone and most importantly it is your best pal if you get a cramp, get sea sick, tired, or need to rest. It is also a great place to take a break and shoot the breeze with your fellow divers! If you are also spear fishing or gathering urchins and crab for your sushi feed at the campground, take a dive bag for those and clip it to your tube as the fish fins and urchin spines will puncture your tube and you will be spending money for another. Also, don’t over inflate your tube. It makes it have less room to put stuff and it makes you work harder to reach over it to put stuff in and take stuff out when you’re diving and also more difficult to climb on for your resting or B.S. session with your buddies. Put in just enough air to keep it above water so your game doesn’t fall out when your grab it while you are swimming around.
Finding the abalone seems tricky to some beginning divers but very soon they stand out like a sore thumb. They are the color of the sea bottom and many have the corals and kelp just like the rocks but once you become relaxed, you can see them as though they were on your picnic table. And, they are on the rocks, not in the sand. Just give yourself time and diving on a clear day with an experienced friend helps as many times I will dive down in ten feet of water and look up to my “student” and point with my finger while looking up at him or her. But, to get the nicest abalone, you have to look under the rocks. The abalone are sought after delicacies by every predator in the ocean. They like to hide upside down under rocks, in crevasses, and in beds of seaweed. When you dive down plan to look upside down, which is about impossible in shallow water due to the surges that we talked about earlier. When you find one, try to ascertain if it is legal in size before you start to take in as these gastropods are very fragile and will die easily if you damage them in any way, so try to avoid touching them unless you truly believe they are “keepers” so we can preserve the resource. I don’t mean to measure it with your abalone gage that every diver is required to carry, I just mean that your should overcome your lust and excitement long enough to assess the size visually, knowing that your mask works as a “magnifier”. If your do take a small one, take the time to place it back on the rocks where it is safe from predators as it takes it some time to re-attach and get re oriented to protect itself. Putting it back where it came from is best but if you can’t do that at least put it in a crevasse or somewhere protected. Many new divers just measure them and drop them from the surface if they are too small, which is very poor sportsmanship. I will mention here too that it is important, and legally required that the tip of your abalone bar be dull (1/8th) inch in thickness so as to not cut the abalone that you are taking so it may live on if it is undersized. I have had game wardens enter the campground and inspect every diver’s bar!
The abalone are snails, gastropods if you will. They attach themselves to the rocks with their “foot”. Your job is to slide your abalone bar between this foot and the rock so as to be able to pry them from the rock. In deeper waters where the water is calm or on calmer days, they relax as they don’t have the worry about getting torn from the rocks by the water surge and their shell is an inch or two above their foot and the rock. If they sense movement in their area, or get touched, they immediately close their shell tightly to the rock to protect themselves. So, it is key that you “sneak” up on them and methodically place your bar between them and the rock and insert it and then pry them off if needed. Many times just this insert is enough to free them from the rock. If you find one closed to the rock and clinging on for dear life, go to another one (unless it is that record one you are after and willing to spend some time on) as that one has already been pried on and there is a good chance of not getting it but causing it lethal damage. Don’t worry, there are plenty more.
Remember, you are only down a few feet, a second or two, from the surface and there is no need to rush and tense up. Relax and take your time. When you dive, just flip over and lift one leg into the air and let its weight push you down and when that foot enters the water, give it one kick and what do you know, you are already down over 10 feet! Don’t use your arms as they are of little help, just kick slowly and evenly with your fins and you will have all the power you need. When you ascend, look up for kelp or other obstacles so you can avoid them and you will be fine. Always take a friend or two with you for safety. If the water gets rough or you begin to cramp or tire, swim in immediately. Watch for boats and watercraft and use a bright dive tube for this reason. If you are ever caught in a rip tide, just relax and go with it and swim sideways to it, not against it. It will let you go soon and not suck you down and you can go to shore another route. And always remember, as a last resort, you can pull the quick release on your weight belt and let it drop to the bottom and you couldn’t sink if you tried to! This greatly reduces your maneuverability and rules out any further diving but it is a lifeboat that you have at your fingertips. Now, relax, have fun, and be safe!
Now you know how to abalone dive and more about abalone diving than many intermediate abalone divers. Get out and practice how to use a snorkel and how to dive for abalone and learn to enjoy the sport.
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