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For divers, quest for succulent snail is highly hazardous

MENDOCINO, Calif. – Shaun Stratton pulled on his wetsuit, grabbed his inner tube, and headed to the beach to take part in one of California’s riskiest pastimes: hunting for abalone.

DEADLY DIVE Ron Long wiped away tears as he recalled his struggle to save his friend, Richard Baer, an abalone diver.

DEADLY DIVE Ron Long wiped away tears as he recalled his struggle to save his friend, Richard Baer, an abalone diver.

It’s not that abalone is an elusive quarry. The giant snail inches its way across the rocks in relatively shallow water. Even so, diving for abalone has become one of California’s most hazardous recreational activities.

At least seven abalone hunters have died so far this year along the rugged coast of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, authorities say. Last year, seven died in Mendocino County alone.

“When you throw yourself into the food chain, there are a lot of factors,” said Stratton, 54, a general contractor from Chico. “You lose your advantages. You can’t just pull yourself out if you get in trouble.”

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Some divers say the danger is compounded by a ban on the use of air tanks by abalone divers and a lack of education about the hazards divers face.

One recent casualty was Richard Baer, a former US Coast Guard rescue crewman and California Highway Patrol officer. An experienced diver, the 57-year-old businessman drowned Sept. 12 near Sea Ranch in Sonoma County after he became tangled in thick kelp.

“I spent a lot of time training for this kind of thing, and I have dealt with a lot of death,” said Ron Long, a certified diving instructor who tried to save Baer. “But there was nothing that prepared me to go down in 12 feet of water and stare at the face of my best friend who was drowned.”

Long added: “I am not ever going abalone diving again.”

The quest for abalone brings thousands of people to the Northern California coast during the season, which runs from April 1 to Nov. 30 with a monthlong break in July. The free divers swim down and pry the abalone off rocks in water as deep as 15 feet.

Abalone aficionados rave about the slow-growing mollusks’ velvety tenderness and succulent flavor. Divers often come to the coast in groups – renting a house or camping out – and cook their catch at the end of the day. Some friends, like Baer and Long, return year after year.

As the numbers of abalone have declined over the years, the state has banned commercial harvesting and imposed ever stricter regulations on recreational hunters.

Abalone divers must have a license and can take only one species, the red abalone, north of San Francisco. Divers are limited to three abalone a day and 24 a year. Each one must be at least 7 inches in diameter.

Divers are allowed to use a mask, snorkel, and flippers. Typically, they also wear a weight belt and take along a covered inner tube to hold their gear.

Statistics indicate that abalone diving is more dangerous than some other activities commonly held to be risky.

Of about 40,000 licensed abalone divers, at least 23 have died since 2004 in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, according to official records and news reports.

Officials acknowledge that some fatalities may go uncounted because no agency is responsible for recording them.

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