The Hunt for Monster Red Abalone

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Diving for Red Abalone in Northern California. California Dept. Fish Game photo by Patrick Foy

Twenty feet down, murky, dark, swarming with kelp, surge pulling me back and forth, fighting to stay in place. Feeling my oxygen slipping away with my arms buried deep in a crevice as I try to reach a huge abalone. I look up and there is even larger ab just inches away. Still time. Re-position, slip the iron in, and try to yank him off. He clamps down, hard. Fighting as my lungs start to burn, running out of time. Finally, he breaks loose, swim to the surface, my biggest one yet! Stoked!!

Red CFG photo

Red Abalone in its Natural habitat. Photo CDFW.

The hunt for monster, or trophy red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) is a thrill, a passion, an obsession, a deadly pursuit, and the holy grail of free diving on the Northern California coast. Dinucci, Johnson, Pepper, Centoni, Spinale, Buller, Likins, Powers, Owen, Wandel… the statistics of the most successful trophy abalone divers reads like the line up for a major-league baseball team; and to those that hunt the “big reds” they are just as famous. All of these divers have hunted and collected over 100 ten inch reds, which are rare and difficult to find. They also have the distinction of collecting at least one eleven inch abalone (some, like Dinucci, have collected over 20!), but only one has caught a twelve inch red:  John Pepper, who holds the world’s record red abalone at 12.32 inches, taken in southern Oregon in 1993. Pepper’s story is legendary as recounted in the Kelp Forest Newsletter in 1994:

John’s adventure began two hours before dark “somewhere north of Del Norte County” while free diving in 12 feet of water. John first found and removed a 11.25 inch male red abalone from a deep hole. Behind this abalone, but unreachable to an ab-bar of conventional length, was what looked like the father of all abalone. Fortunately for John (and less so for the abalone) John’s diving partner had brought along a 35.5-inch long abalone bar (36 in. is the legal maximum length, see Abalone Regulations). Over the next two hours and innumerable dives John finally pried the abalone loose just before dusk. Once freed the abalone was poised precariously, at risk of falling beyond his reach. Again fortune was on John’s side and the abalone chose to attach to his ab-bar and was thus extracted “like a giant popsicle.”

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World Record Red Abalone, 12.32″, collected by John Pepper in 1993. Photo B. Owen.

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Hall of Fame for record Red Abalone.  Photo courtesy of Geiger & Owen, 2012.

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Photo courtesy of Buzz Owen.

Reds are the largest species of the approximately 75 species and subspecies of abalone and they have the glory of setting size records for all abalone. But how do you measure the “largest” abalone? Length, weight, glory at the dinner table, sheer impressiveness? When I first discovered abalone in the 1960s I was immediately impressed by their great size and musculature; they are truly a giant among snails. Officially, the California Dept of Fish & Wildlife (formerly Cal Fish & Game) uses maximum length but they are also records for the overall heaviest abalone (shell plus meat). That distinction belongs to a 10.9 inch, 14 lbs 9 oz monster collected by P. McReynolds (Pepper’s world record weighed a bit over 12 lbs). That’s an abalone dinner for at least twelve people! For the sheer weight of the meat (“trimmed weight”) Randy Jones has the record for a 7.5 lbs yield, which provide enough to feed 15 people and more.

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Of course, nothing worthwhile is easy (nor should be!) and the pursuit of monster reds can be a dangerous endeavor. Although all of the record holders mentioned here are veteran, highly experienced free divers, since 1993 at least 54 people have lost their lives pursuing abalone in northern California, including 15 in 2007-2008, and at least one diver perishes in the cold and rough waters off the North Coast every year. Most don’t drown but the sport is vigorous and problems arise due to exhaustion or other underlying factors, such as heart attacks. The water can be rough and it is exhausting climbing down cliffs, pulling on a wetsuit and weight belt, swimming out through the surf, and submerging into 55-47 degree water for a couple of hours of free diving (Scuba diving for reds is illegal). Then there are the sharks. Since 1960 there have 13 shark attacks on abalone divers on the north coast (N. of SF) including one fatal attack in 2004 (SharkAttackFile.info). Although the red abalone fishery is large, with about 35,000-40,000 licensed fishers per year, the relatively small number of attacks isn’t very comforting when you’re the one in the water. Two attacks stand out: while free diving for abalone off Bodega Rock in 1968 Frank Logan was astonished to find himself suddenly being carried through the water in the jaws of a great white shark which had him gripped from back to chest in its mouth and was shaking him violently. He survived but suffered a 1.5 ft. wound from 18 tooth punctures. The other, a fatal attack by a 16-18 ft Great White on Randy Fry off Fort Bragg witnessed by his dive buddy, still haunts the north coast abalone community; he was a tireless advocate for recreational fishers and the Sonoma County Abalone Network (SCAN) holds an annual memorial tournament for Randy.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that trophy reds are very rare and difficult to find. To give you an idea of the rarity consider this: between 2002-2012 an average of 256,000 reds per year were taken by sport divers with perhaps 100 being 10 inch abs and a handful greater than 11 inches taken each year. What about the monster reds, those greater than 12 inches? In an article written by Buzz Owen and Dwayne Dinucci (2005) they describe a story of Buzz talking to Andy Sorensen, a 97 year old long time abalone collector and the name sake for the white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni), about the 12 inch reds:

Many years before 1959, he had made a public offer of $100 [early Japanese divers at this time made $1/ dozen] to anyone who would bring him a 12-inch red abalone shell – just to measure and confirm that it was that size! “Andy” was very outspoken with this offer, and certainly all the Japanese fishermen had known about it for years. The day I met him, he told me that in the many years that had passed since he had first made that offer, NO one had ever brought him “the mythical 12-inch red” and he had come to believe the species simply didn’t get that large.

1920 Postcard - abalone

Abalone shell pile in 1920 in Santa Barbara.

Because the early Japanese divers were working a “virgin” fishery in the early 1900’s, this event seemed to suggest 12″ reds either didn’t exist or were not present in the central California area. To appreciate the massive number of abalone harvested in those days you just need to examine the size of the many shells piles that existed back then along the California coast. In those days 2-4 million pounds of (mostly red) abalone per year were being harvested (1-2 million abalone) so clearly a very large number of abalone had been examined but no 12″ reds were found. So where do the monster reds live? Of course this is information best keep secret but some general principles are of interest.

reds in NorCal

Percent of Red Abalone Catch by County, 2002-2010. Total = 1,352,353 abalone. Source: CDFW.

Bergmann’s rule is an ecological concept which states that animals get larger as they range into colder waters. Although it was originally developed for warm blooded animals it has been found to hold true for some marine invertebrates as well. One reason is that in colder climates invertebrates generally grow slower, live longer and get larger. Among red abalone populations it is generally true that the average size of individuals tends to increase the further north you go. Moreover, the 13 top-ranked trophy reds are all from the northernmost counties in California and southern Oregon. However, it is unlikely that temperature alone is the culprit. First, red abalone are a cold water species and grow faster in relatively cold water (48-53 F). Second, perhaps as a consequence, red abalone occur in deeper, cooler water in the southern areas of their range and shift into shallow water, and even the intertidal zone, as they range north. According to Buzz Owen, eleven inch reds have been taken from Baja and Southern California, in several places in the channel islands, and at Morro Bay, and are not just limited to the north coast and  Oregon. The species will probably thrive, and grow large, anywhere the water is close to their optimal temperature AND other conditions for optimal growth exist, such as great circulation, abundant kelp, and low population density. This last parameter, population density, may be one of the key factors influencing where monster abalone are found. As reds range into the very northern end of California and into southern Oregon adult densities decline and recruitment of small abalone is less frequent. Thus, as a consequence the number of abalone drops off in Humboldt and Del Norte counties (see CDFW Data) and into southern Oregon. Owen & Dinucci (2005) speculate about this area and Pepper’s monster red which was likely 25-30 years old in 1993:

This is interesting, as severe flooding from rivers had occurred throughout coastal areas in extreme northern California during the winter of 1964-1965. This flooding had destroyed very large numbers of red abalones in the near-shore extreme northern parts of the species range (Dale Snow, Oregon Fish and Wildlife, pers. comm.; Ed Samuels, pers. comm.). Haliotis rufescens is very sensitive to lowered salinity, and massive flooding from rivers can cause large, though infrequent, mortalities. We believe that most of Pepper’s huge abalones found in this area, including the 313 mm world record, represent animals that resulted from “recruitment events” that occurred after the winter of 1964-’65. 

Of course the most important factors for finding a trophy red are the knowledge gained from experience, in addition to skill and luck. Even for those that have spent most of their lives pursing the big reds finding an 11″ abalone is an extremely rare event. Will we ever find one larger than John Pepper’s 12.32″ monster? Who knows? But remember: a big part of the thrill is in the hunt.

Here’s a great video by Matt Mattison which captures the thrill of Trophy Abalone Diving on the North Coast.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Buzz Owen for comments on this article and for providing me with pictures and information on hunting the big reds.

References and Further Reading:

  6 comments for “The Hunt for Monster Red Abalone

  1. January 4, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    Epic article—I can’t wait for April. A couple of questions about Abs-as you move further north, do you believe that the weight (amount of meat) decreases with size? It seems that the big ones I have found north of Mendo, have big shells, but thin bodies. Is this lack of food or need to be ‘skinny’ to fit in to tight spots to survive more exposure to swell?
    Also, what conditions are necessary for reproduction in the northern range? I was told that they need a warm ocean period/ cycle (el nino) which is why it seems that the size range I find are all similar in size, than a few huge outliers?

    Thank you for the well written articles!

    Grant

    • March 31, 2016 at 8:15 pm

      These are great questions Grant. From what I have seen you are right: the biggest abs are not as high spired, more flat, than smaller abs further south, which may be a response to their faster growth rate in colder water. Of course we don’t really know so defiantly an area for future research

  2. Carson Maxstadt
    March 24, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    I’ve heard there’s a short film by the same name as this article… is it a myth?!?! does it exist in any place other than some obscure dive shop in Novato ca? can you post a map and a huge red X at EXACTLY where I can go to take all these giant abs? I eagerly await your reply!?!
    regards,
    Carson

    • March 31, 2016 at 8:21 pm

      Hey Carson. I have not seen a movie with the same title but there are a few that cover trophy red abalone on YouTube. I don’t have a map but there are some general clues in the article that might help. Beyond that, secret fishing spots are best left secret for those that took the time to find them so I wish you luck!

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