Why You Can’t Go Home Again (But Don’t Need To)

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
My great grandparents, Bill and Lola Rehkopf at their farm house in Chino, CA in 1913. My paternal grandmother was born in the house.

Home. The eternal quest of our lives. But what does it really mean? We all know the sayings. Home is where the heart is. Home is where you make it. There’s no place like home. And the ultimate dodge, home is home. You may picture it as a house, your hometown, or perhaps where your family and friends live.

To me, growing up in a nomadic Navy family and 21 different houses, home was where my mother made it. When I was young I used to lay in my bed at night and picture each and every bedroom I had lived in; the memories of those spaces flashing through my mind. That was home. But when I left for college, I sought a new home, one of my own. But it eluded me until I had my own family. Ah, this is it. So, for many years I thought, home is where you make it.

However, following the recent death of my father, as my brother and I spent a week cleaning out our parent’s house, a new meaning of home emerged. It hit me like a freight train. Bam! Paradigm shift. Sorting through the endless remnants of my parent’s lives: there it was. Home on a historic platter. There was photos, books, bills, letters, financial papers, plaques, trinkets, you name it. There was stuff from my kids, my brothers kids, us as kids, my parents as kids, even my grand- and great- grandparents as kids; precious pieces of my families lives stretching back over a hundred years.

But as the week wore on home began to feel different, something bigger. In touching, smelling, and reminiscing on the remnants of my ancestors lives, it took on a new meaning. A big part of my home was the long arc of my parent’s lives, both together and apart. I experienced my mom’s grade school and my dad’s high school; I read letters they wrote to each other during the Korean war before they were married; I remembered conversations listening to reel-to-reel tapes from my father during the Vietnam War. Each item connected me to a person, a time, and a place; some in my memory, but many not.

My great-aunt Gaby (back) with Swiss Relative In Valangin, Switzerland, in 1919 during WWI.

In one small folder I found letters and telegrams from my great-aunt Gaby, who immigrated from Switzerland to Nebraska as a child. As a nurse in France in WWI she pushed through war, borders, and bureaucracy to visit her Swiss cousins in 1919. Almost a hundred years later we visited our Swiss cousins, the descendants from that day, and they still remembered stories of Gaby and her visit. Family endures over time.

But I still felt something deeper, a growing concept of home that remained elusive. Because buried in my parent’s belongings were a few of their parents possessions, and among those were older items from their parents. What lay before me was the sorting and sifting of mementoes from generations of my family; items from my ancestors stretching back five generations or more. As I held these precious possessions–faded photos, intimate notes, scribbled family trees, and scraps of needlepoint–I felt the eternal winds of time. I could see and feel the memories of their homes as brief moments of their lives flashed before me.

They called it paradise, I don’t know why.
You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.

Eagles, The Last Resort

In the end I decided that home is what I hold in my heart. Home is the collective memories of my parents and my immemorial connections to my ancestors. But time moves backward and forward, so it’s also the dreams I hold for my children and their futures. Home has an eternal meaning and never ends. As my children go out into the world and create their own families, my home will go with them.

Now I know, as Wolfe so eloquently wrote, home is something you can’t grasp and hold onto. You can’t go home again because what we remember–the permanent and unchanging memory of a place–is swept away by the tides of time. But we can hold home in our hearts and let it resonate in our souls because it is our eternal connections to the past and the future. Home is within us and always will be. All you have to do is imagine it.

We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch-we are going back from whence we came

John F. Kennedy

I have always been drawn to the sea. We are all children of the ocean: born of the sea, live by the sea, will return to the sea. And like our families, past and present, and our memories of place and time, the sea is home to us all.

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Aim For The Moon: The Space Program That Inspired a Generation of Scientists

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

— President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

“Houston, this is Alpha II, we are good for launch,” I said, moving away from my rocket. “4, 3, 2, 1. Launch!” As my Estes rocket blasted high into the sky I followed the parachute until I found it lying on the ground, payload intact: a plastic army man. Like Homer Hickam in October Sky, I learned to design, build, and launch small rockets, including mastering the physics of flight, the engineering of rocket ships, and the chemistry of rocket fuel. All inspired by America’s race to land on the moon. I was 12 years old and those experiences propelled me into a career as a scientist years later.

The day we landed on the moon was epic. It was after 10pm on a balmy summer night in Virginia in 1969 and I sat glued to my small black and white TV.  For 15 agonizing minutes, I watched as Neil Armstrong slowly made his way down the lunar ladder towards the surface of the moon. I ran between my TV and my telescope aimed at the moon, imagining what it was like. Finally, the moment arrived as Armstrong placed his foot on the surface and I screamed in joy. The next day I designed and launched more rockets.

My career, and my broad interests in science, were inspired by America’s race to the moon. Between 1961 and 1972, I grew up watching the space missions of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. The astronauts were my heroes and I loved the technology. As a kid, those were magical times and they taught me to believe in the impossible. I’ve been a scientist now for 40 years and it’s hard to underestimate the power of those heady days to inspire my career trajectory. I can clearly trace the roots of my interests in science to those spectacular years when we trained the astronauts and developed the technology to land on the moon. Indeed, as I recently watched original footage from the Apollo 11 mission I shuddered once again at America’s amazing scientific achievement.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Kennedy’s challenge to congress in 1961 to walk on the moon by the end of the decade was audacious. At that time the first astronaut, Alan Shepard in Mercury 3, had only spent 15 minutes in space, launched using a modified Cold War ICBM. Nobody had orbited the Earth, there were no multistage rockets, no space walks, and no docking maneuvers. The idea of landing on the moon so quickly was fraught with risks. NASA flight director Chris Kraft had doubts about successfully landing on the moon, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong put the odds at 50/50, and and President Nixon had a letter prepared in case the astronauts died on the moon. But despite the tragedies of Apollo 1, or perhaps because of it, men walked on the moon in the summer of 1969. And for one bright brilliant moment the world was one and everyone basked in human’s ability to accomplish the impossible.

By today’s standards, the technology was simple and largely untested. A modern cellphone has a million times the power of the computers on the mission and everything was double-checked by hand using slide rules ( I used them until the late 1970s). The book Digital Apollo chronicles the prolonged struggles of computer designers, software engineers, and test pilots to successfully integrate test pilots with the new and complex integrated circuits needed for the lunar landings. At that time most computers were the size of a room. So NASA — working with MIT and Fairchild Semiconductor — created the purse-sized Apollo Guidance Computer that operated on just 72KB of memory (most cell phones have at least 64GB, where 1 GB = 1 million KB).

Yet by sheer will and the technological prowess of over 400,000 scientists and engineers, NASA designed, built, tested, and ran the space program and was able to complete 21 manned space missions including five lunar explorations (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15 and 16). The pace was furious and in the late 1960s, the Apollo program was launching humans into space every 2-3 months. Although the vast majority of the people that helped make Apollo a reality were men, women played key roles in the mathematics, physics, and on mission control staff, but their roles were hidden and underplayed.

Men in white shirts and skinny ties largely ran the Apollo program. Photo: NASA.
Engineer Poppy Northcutt at NASA mission control in Houston, Texas, in 1969. Photo: NASA.
Katherine Johnson doing the math that made Apollo possible. Photos; NASA.

And although I was extremely disappointed when we pulled back from further manned missions to the moon after Apollo, (I thought we’d be on Mars by the 1970s), I’ve cheered for NASA as they continued their amazing scientific achievements using 450 Robotic spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station. Since Apollo, they have landed on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and several comets and asteroids including fly-bys of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. And what we have learned about the Earth and our solar system since the 1970s has been stunning.

In all, the US spent $25 billion on Apollo and an average of $8.3 billion a year for space-based piloted spacecraft, <1% of the federal budget. Today, NASA’s budget is < 0.5% of the budget. Looking back, what price can you put on launching an entire generation of scientists ? Personally, the recent resurgence in manned missions to the Moon and Mars have reinvigorated my passion for spaceflight and astronomy and have inspired me to write a science fiction novel. I believe we need another Moonshot, or a similar and ongoing challenge in America, to stimulate interest in science, math, and engineering to inspire present and future generations.

“[S]cientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to government. Without scientific progress the national health would deteriorate; without scientific progress, we could not hope for improvement in our standard of living or for an increased number of jobs for our citizens; and without scientific progress we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny.

Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, 1945.

For the last decades America has underestimated, and subsequently not supported, the role of science in our modern society. As a result, there has been a decline in scientific education and a decline in interest in the sciences. Instead of being a leader as we were in the 1960s, America now lags behind other countries in math and science, testing out in the middle of the pack. We have lost our global leadership. As the generation inspired by the Apollo missions moves into retirement, who will step up to keep the USA’s edge in our rapidly changing technological world?

The dichotomy that we need to spend more on domestic programs, or focus our efforts on climate change, not on space exploration, is a false one as the value of strong science in our democracy is pervasive. The truth is that every dollar spent on space programs is paid back and generates multi-fold returns to our economy every year (anyone use digital cameras, GPS, or eat freeze-dried food?). Sure, climate change is a major threat that deserves substantial economic attention with support from a global coalition, but our country can easily afford to sustain both efforts as we take care of our home planet and reach for the stars. Maybe humans need to leave the Earth to save it.

So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first walk on the moon, let’s aim higher and create another Moonshot goal, such as mission to Mars. Through more investments in space, we can inspire a new generation of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers and regain America’s preeminence in technology. Right now there are 12-year-old kids staring at the stars and dreaming of space travel just like I did in 1969. What do we want for their future?


Dawn Patrols and Paper Routes: Swept Away by the Tides of Time

The smell of the crisp, cool dawn triggers memories of the paper routes and dawn patrols of my youth. Those dark, quiet times before first light were special; a time when life shone brightly. Before dawn’s light, anything was possible and the day was promising. Would the surf be big? What’s happening in the world? For a few years, I lived in those mysteries; the unknowns delivered in daily parcels. There was no predicting either and in that space, I lived for the day and life was simple. But those days are gone, swept away by the tides of time.

846-02792031It started with the Pacific Beach Sentinel. As a nine-year-old in 1966, getting paid to ride my Sting-Ray bike up and down the steep hills of Pacific Beach (PB), California was a dream. Up at 4AM, I folded, banded, packed, and delivered papers in total darkness on my bicycle. On Sundays I had inserts and I bagged them on rainy days. Monthly, I went door-to-door and collected my fee: a few bucks for the paper and 50 cents for me. Tips for on-time, front-door delivery were gravy. 2019-07-26 16.44.17When I switched to the San Diego Union, I made $1/customer and I was stoked; $30-50 a month was a small fortune for a kid in those days. But I would have done it for free: I loved the quiet time — no cars, home lights out, no one in sight. It was my own world and I loved the freedom and peace before the day began.

But life moved on. I lived in a Navy family, and over the next three years I moved to Virginia, then Idaho, then miraculously, back to PB in 1970. As a newly sprouted teenager, I resumed my paper route with the Union. It was then that my pre-dawn existence meshed with my newfound passion in my life: enter surfing and the dawn patrol.

As a  beginning surfer, I quickly became obsessed with finding and riding good waves. Early on I learned the good spots were packed in the morning and wind-blown by the afternoon. Where to go? Dawn patrol! And the early-to-rise lifestyle fit perfectly with my paper route. Here’s how it worked: up at 3:30am, 2½ miles down the hill on my bike to my 50  Union customers in De Anza trailer park; band, pack, and deliver papers; done by 5:00am. Power back up the hill, meet my surfing buddy Neal, grab my board, down the hill again carrying my board and towel on my bike, and 11 blocks (2 miles) straight down Diamond St. to the beach; we’d surf, then head to school (PB Junior High), arriving just before class (or on good days, late). I remember having unkempt wet hair in class, my nose dripping with water, our boards stashed in the bushes. During the summers we surfed all day. It was a totally awesome life!


Crystal Pier PB at sunrise. From the movie: Jewel of the Pacific, directed by Eladio Arvelo.

Dawn patrol was bitchin’. Staring into the darkness, we could hear the surf and guess about the wave potential. Loud = big waves. But we hoped it wasn’t too loud; that was scary. Over time, we became tuned to Mother Ocean’s moods and learned to predict the quality of the waves looming out of the darkness under different combination of swell size, direction, wind, and tides. The Crystal Pier lights helped. If we saw white foam peeling left and right emerging out of the blackness we’d scramble down to the beach and stand at water’s edge until it was light enough to paddle out. Most times, the waves were small and mushy, but on rare days, we were rewarded with perfect waves. 

tumblr_nm1pj587N01s79rl8o1_1280I live in the moments of those days. They were pure gold. Sliding down a glassy, tubular wave face with the early sun’s rays beaming across the water was Nirvana. The only ones out, we hooted and cheered at each ride, then paddled back to the lineup at top speed with our hearts pulsing in excitement and anticipation of the next wave. It was the pure spirit of surfing. But our sunrise rewards were short-lived. Within an hour, other surfers would appear on the shore, paddle out, and flood the line-up. Even in the early 1970s, PB was crowded as surfing started in the 1950s

Golden moments in life are rare but they last a lifetime. I remember the days when we were rewarded by our diligence and determination to beat the crowds; the triumph of our dawn patrols. But those simple days — paper routes and dawn patrols — are long gone. As with many aspects of life, the relentless march of time has erased the days when the early bird got the worm; they were swept away by the cultural and demographic tides of the burgeoning masses, fears for children, and advances of technology. 

Why? One reason is demographics. San Diego was at the forefront of urban development in California and between the 1950s and 1970s, the population doubled and then doubled again during the next three decades to 1.4 million. When I visit PB now I’m shocked by the crowds swarming the cliffs, beach, and in the surf. I imagine surfers are still enjoying the waves, after all the crowded scene is what they’re used to — it’s the shifting baseline of surfing — but there’s little room for private surf sessions.

And there’s no escape to the dawn patrol, or even to the once remote depths of Baja, as the adoption and use of modern technology has elevated the “luck” of the dawn patrol to a scientific model. Now, due to the superb science of Sean Collins and the advent of Surfline, we know days, sometimes weeks, ahead of time when and where the next perfect swell will arrive with a high level of certainty. These days it’s common to arrive at dawn only to see the beach full of surfers, everyone alerted to a new swell in advance. Today, I can check the surf at PB on two live videocams along with swell, wind, and tide data for the day with predictions for the week ahead. In many ways it’s awesome, but we’ve lost the mystery. Instead of laying in bed dreaming about waves, I pull up the forecast and videocam on my phone. There’s little possibility of finding a swell to yourself by being an adventurous early riser, at least in southern California. The dawn patrol I knew is dead.

Screenshot 2019-05-01 08.27.54

Image of my Surline feed for PB including two webcams and swell, tide, and wind predictions for the day and week.

Simarily, a suite of cultural shifts eliminated paper routes for kids: primarily, declining readership (50% drop nationally between 1970 and 2017) and the advent of adult delivery in cars. Like many recent jobs, adults squeezed out kids to add extra income. Plus, routes are now huge. When I was a kid, about half of the houses got a paper. Now readership is so low that newspaper routes can have 35-700 customers; too much ground to cover by a kid on a bike. 

Also, many parents pulled their kids off pre-dawn routes due to publicity around child abductions. As the abduction data shows, bike-ridden dawn routes by pre-teenage kids in their local neighborhood is the most common age, time, and place for abductions.  However, the horror of experiencing a missing kid is more perception, than reality. The risk, according to the Washington Post, is that children in 2015 were “…being killed less. … hit by cars less. And they’re going missing less frequently…” than the previous generation. The likelihood of childhood abductions in 2015 was both historically low and infinitesimally small. The article concludes: “Truth is, if it was safe enough for you to play unsupervised outside when you were a kid, it’s even safer for your own children to do so today.” Even so, it’s rare to see a kid on a per route these days. I don’t think I would have allowed my kids on a route either, but it never came up.


But I don’t lament the past too much. The Earth spins around the sun and time marches on — it’s the way of the world. We can’t go back, only forward. And like my parents growing up in the 1930s, and my grandparents in the 1910s, the tides of time are strong and sweep away old traditions then surge back with the new. Although I deplore the loss of dawn’s mysteries — the daily doses of the world’s news and the rare clean surf session with my friends — there are so many great dimensions to our shiny-new tech-driven world I can’t complain.

67482._uy630_sr1200630_-1.jpgIn 1980, fresh out of college, I read Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave. It was prophetic: “Change is not merely necessary to life – it is life.” Moreover, he said, the advancing wave of a technological society doesn’t break smoothly but clashes with previous waves to create a turbulent world. We’re living in that world now. And in many ways, life is better. But the constant bombardment of horrific crises and the 24-hour spin of politically-divided news channels is dispiriting and a far cry from the slow pace of dawn’s front pages in the 1960s and 1970s. Sure, I can turn it off, but the effects permeate society. To truly escape, I retreat deep into nature and seek days of solitude to slow the march of time. If we’re not careful, we may lose access to the wilderness and have no refuge at all.


PB, fall 1970, in my first wetsuit, purchased by wages from my newspaper route.

Those days live in my head and the memories are imprinted in my soul. I can feel my strong legs chugging up the hill on my bike, board in arm, dripping wet, happy. And now, 50 years later, when I’m up at dawn and experience the quiet moments before the day explodes in complexity, I rejoice in the smell and feel of the crisp cool air;  I recall the bright promise of my youthful days delivering the news and hitting the surf before first light. Like many simple things in life, at the time I took them for granted. And before I could place those days in the context of my life and the flow of time, they were swept away by the surging tides of life.


Sugar Beaches and Stout Oaks: A Navy Life in Monterey

Oak_beach2The recent passing of my father caused me to reflect on my life with my parents. My father devoted his life to the Navy, and unwittingly, so did my mother. In honor of Memorial Day and my father’s service, here’s a piece I wrote for his funeral. Please read through to the end.

In many ways my life began and ended in Monterey, book-ended by the lives of my parents. As a child, I walked the sugar-white beaches of Carmel holding my mother’s hand. On those crystalline sands, I learned to share my mother’s hopes and sweet dreams. We lived in Camelot and sang Puff the Magic Dragon. In the late 1950s, my mother Millie was a young housewife and had high aspirations for herself and her young family. She met my father, Gene, during the Korean war before his six-month deployment on the USS Princeton. After flying 50 combat missions he returned, they were married, and had two boys, my older brother Craig and me. In Carmel, they were enjoying the peacetime while my father completed his MS degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School. The times were changing and my mother had thoughts of a career after raising us boys and a life outside of the grueling Navy lifestyle my father loved. Like the white sands under our feet, the future was bright. 


The Tissot family, early 1960s.

But the Vietnam War pulled us away from those bright beaches and my mother’s dreams as my father began his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Navy. As an aviator his duties grew to include squadron XO, then CO, then CAG (Commander Air Group). As the air war escalated in the mid-1960s he flew over 259 combat missions in Vietnam before moving into aviation command.

As a young boy, I knew little of those missions but was acutely aware that my father was gone for most of my childhood. To stay connected we exchanged audio tape “letters” and played chess in an attempt to bridge the vast gulf between us. There were exciting moments, like when he flew in on his plane and we ran out to meet him; and high points, like when he became the Captain of the USS Enterprise. But during the rare times he was home and we were together he carried an officer’s edge and his exacting standards cut deep into my fragile soul. For most of my life, he was more figure than father; he was hard, distant, and tough. At times I felt like Ben in the The Great Santini, who experienced stern military discipline from his father with no room for his sensitive nature.

Meanwhile, my mother dragged us around from one home to another; 11 places in 21 years. After Carmel it was Norfolk, Lemoore, San Diego, McLean, Idaho Falls, San Diego, Alameda, Alexandria, San Diego, Subic Bay, Pearl Harbor. I remember great times and devastating moments as our nomadic Naval life took a long-term toll on my mother. Although she rejoiced in my father’s stellar accomplishments, and her son’s burgeoning lives, she paid a heavy price for holding down the fort and trying to make each new house special. And she was amazing. But my mother suffered the most from the emotional stress of his absence while he served our country.


Our family in 1966 during the height of the Vietnam air war.

On top of that, as my father’s responsibilities grew, so did my mother’s, and she faced the reality of watching for the Navy car with the chaplain in the back. We lost many friends in those days and it was her job to console those who lost their husbands while carrying her own fears about my father. For decades she carried the banner for MIAs and POWs; the ultimate horror for military families. Navy families are tight and supportive, connected by a crisscrossing of moves and overlapping lives. But those were long difficult years. 


During those turbulent times we returned to Carmel, searching for those sugar sands. But the beach had changed, much like my mother’s troubled life. I recall walking down one winter’s storm-ravaged beach with kelp piled high on the shore, forcing us to traverse unearthed cobbles. The cold, raw beach hurt our feet and chilled us to the bone, but my mother put her head into the wind and forged ahead, dragging my small body through the squall. Another time, between deployments, we walked the beach in the summer with my father, a rare experience. The sands were bright again, like the promise of a beach full of pristine sand, and our future looked promising. But as time marched on and my mother rode the seasons of our family’s Naval life in the 1960s and 1970s, she lost her own dreams and placed all her hopes and ambitions in her husband and two sons.

Fifty years after those first Carmel days, following my father’s retirement as a Rear Admiral with three major command posts and a distinguished appointment to the Golden Eagles, my parents returned to Monterey to live in the hills of Corral De Tierra; a stunningly beautiful area that John Steinbeck called the Pastures of Heaven. Their well-earned home was surrounded by bright yellow-green meadows and groves of majestic oaks that  touched their windows. At Corral De Tierra, they enjoyed their golden years with friends and family and watched my brother and I raise our five kids. In that house, and on the beaches of Carmel and Monterey Bay, my mother made peace with the unexpected arc of her life. As she watched her grandchildren grow she delighted in the stable homes of her son’s families; the one she always wanted but never had. During her last years, I realized she had sacrificed her dreams so we could live our lives as we wanted. My mother’s hopes had passed to me. She was truly the wind beneath our wings.


Corral De Tierra, the Pastures of Heaven, outside Monterey, California.

After she passed away I realized I really didn’t know my father, at least not in a personal sense. For most of my life, he was gone or absent and had become a stoic figure in my mind, like the lone stout oak on the top of a hill: rough, rigid, and surrounded by thorny leaves. He was impenetrable and unapproachable. He’d didn’t talk about the war unless asked, his phone calls set records for brevity, and it was difficult to find common ground for a discussion. Sports were neutral ground but the trials of our naval life were off limits. He was from another generation, old school, and he still maintained order and a military crispness to everything in his life.

But…he was always devoted to his family. He rarely forgot a birthday, he attended the graduation of every grandchild, and he cherished his family’s accomplishments with an ever expanding array of photos on his office walls. When I needed a kidney he stepped up without hesitation and gifted me a part of himself which I hold to this day. He was a strong presence in my life but remained distant.


In the years following my mother’s death, as we began to soften towards each other, I developed a new relationship with my father. Slowly, he opened up and I began to see the man inside. The metaphor of a stout oak — rough and tough on the outside — still rang true, but I had missed the inside. He appeared rough because he was strong and proud of who he was and what he had accomplished. He had held on to the discipline that had ensured his success.  I realized that he was the one who had spent years running missions while pilots under his command died or were taken captive. He was the one who had spent years at sea defending his country while missing his family. He had watched as his beautiful wife suffered through each new deployment. But he had held it all in — for us — because that’s what he was taught to do. For he was from the Greatest Generation and he was taught to support his family, the Navy, and his country — without complaint. And that’s what he did and that’s who he was.

Poppies, lupine, and oaks, near El Portal, CA, USA

Photo: Michael Frye.

I realized he had been there for me all along; his shining career a beacon to follow. Just by example, he pushed all of us to achieve great things. He cherished every accomplishment and loved all of us. Far from absent, he was a strong presence throughout my life, but one I didn’t see.

He was like a dark oak on the hillside in dawn’s fog-shrouded moments with nourishing water falling off its thorny leaves. He was the oak that stood strong with sturdy pillars through fierce winter storms. Standing all alone he helped bring forth the spring into our lives like the bright yellow poppies and blue lupines erupting in a celebration of life under an oak’s long limbs. I finally saw that inside that stout oak was a heart of gold. Inside I saw a man standing proud, tall, and strong for his family and his country.

And this week, after his funeral, as I walked the white beaches with my children and slept in my parent’s house among the oaks, I realized that I now hold the hopes for my children’s future. They live their own dreams because my parents dedicated their lives to giving us our freedom. My parents absorbed the brunt of our turbulent life, and the constant shifting of our homes, while living with the reality that every military family faces: that one day my father might not come home. Thanks to them, and their service in the Navy, my life is my own and I live in a free country. Like the sugar beaches of Carmel and the stout oaks of Monterey, their dreams are forever a part of the landscape of my life.


Sixteen Places that Honor our Connections to the Universe: the Earth, Moon, Mars Challenge


Dr. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on Mars. From The Martian, 20th Century Fox.

Today is Earth Day, 2019: a moment when we should honor the importance of the Earth in our lives.

Let’s swim to the moon, uh huh
Let’s climb through the tide
Surrender to the waiting worlds
That lap against our side
— Moonlight Drive, The Doors

In 2016, in honor of Earth Day, I  wrote Eight Experiences that Honor the Forces of the Ocean,  based on Point Break and the concept of the Ozaki Eight. Since then, major ventures into the remote depths of our oceans and solar system reminded me of our rapidly changing future. As we probe new unknowns and carry the ethics of our planet’s destructive culture with us, we first need to pause and bask in the raw beauty of our unspoiled places: our mountain tops, deep ocean, and solar neighbors For as we have learned, once discovered these precious habitats are irrevocably changed. As a preface, I examine how far we have come before I look to where we are going.


Thrill of the Mountain

Humanities repeated diasporas out of our African birthplace underscore our basic adventurous nature. But extreme accomplishments, such as climbing the highest mountains in the world, are in another category.  What’s the attraction? Here’s one answer by Thomas Olde Heuvelt on the Thrill of the Mountain:

When I am on a mountain summit, I can experience the full extent of this life. The meaning of birth, life, and death over this unimaginable, unmeasurable space of time, and I put my own life against it like a pebble in the palm of my hand. This experience is purely overwhelming. It’s exhilarating and terrifying and transcending and life-changing at the same time.

As a culture, we’ve been seeking experiences at the ends of the earth for a long time. In 1366, before we fully understood the reaches of the known world, Francesco Petrarca was reported to be the first to climb a mountain (Mont Ventoux 1912 m (6,273 ft), the highest in France) just for the view.” So began challenges to climb the highest peaks on the planet, driven by a multitude of desires: scientific achievement, a spirit of curiosity, a lifelong dream, or spiritual enlightenment. Early explorers simply wanted to be “closer to God.” Subsequently, the highest peak in western Europe, Mont Blanc (4807 m, 15,770 ft), was summited in 1786, the treacherous Matterhorn (4478m, 14,692 ft) in 1865, the impossible north face of the Eiger (1800m, 5,900 ft) in 1935, and after 30 years of attempts, the highest peak on the planet, Mt. Everest (8848 m; 29,029), was reached in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Today 300-400 people a year climb Mt. Everest, and the death-defying achievement is now almost passé (although 1.3% die, about 4-5/ year). Conquests of these mountains gave rise to the next challenge, the Seven Summits Challenge, a mountaineering ordeal that requires summiting the highest mountains in each of the seven continents.  First achieved by Richard Bass in 1985, since then over 118 have met the challenge with 17 adding an arduous trek to the North and South poles to complete the Explorers Grand Slam. Clearly, the spirit of adventure and drive to explore our physical extremes is alive and well and humans are seeking new places to venture. Enter the ocean.

Voyage to Inner Space

This year explorer Victor Vescovo is seeking a new accomplishment: after completing the Seven Summits, he’s aiming to reach the deepest reaches of the five oceans with the Five Deeps Expedition. In a TEDx presentation, Vescovo compares mountaineering to deep diving:

“… diving is the opposite of mountain climbing, but both require “calculated risks.” In mountain climbing “… you are completely subjected to the weather and you feel freer because you’re surrounded by a lot of open space. You feel the biting cold and you feel the wind.” But deep-sea diving is a “far more technical mission [It’s] “kind of like the SpaceX of ocean exploration, but I pilot my own vehicles.”

From my own experiences in submersibles, which can be both terrifying and exhilarating,  the deep sea is sublime. Drifting through pitch black water feels like outer space until a beautiful creature swims by and reminds me I’m surrounded by tons of water and in a new dimension — inner space. The deep sea comprises 65% of our planet yet it is a frontier of largely unexplored terrain known to harbor forms of life hundreds or even thousands of years old. It’s a place where the number of species is so high it rivals the diversity of coral reefs but remains an ecological enigma. As Vescovo has pushed into uncharted depths of our planet, the fact that he has discovered 3-4 new species on every dive reminds us that our oceans remain our biggest unknown, and will be far into the future, even as we venture into outer space.

Magnificent Desolation

The other unknown is space, a rapidly expanding frontier. It’s evitable that as we explore our nearest solar neighbors, future explorers will seek similar challenges and experiences. Walking on new worlds, we’ll marvel at pristine places with a newfound appreciation. As Buzz Aldrin said after stepping onto the lunar surface, we’ll come to appreciate a new kind of beauty, one of “magnificent desolation.”


Sputnik I, the first artificial earth satellite in space on October 4, 1957. Sputnik began the space race culminating in Apollo’s 11 moon landing. Photo: Getty.

My lifetime is literally defined by our progress in space. I was five months old when Sputnik, Earth’s first satellite, was launched into orbit. As a child, I grew up watching the heady days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions on TV. In 1969, only 11 years after NASA was created, I was riveted and inspired watching humans on the moon. After that, I believed, like many, that we would be on Mars within the next decade. Despite my disappointment, I now see renewed interest in the moon and Mars with human landings are on the near horizon.

In recent years, the world had made remarkable progress: the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, the advances of private space corporations like SpaceX, the international expansion of space programs (there are 72), and lunar landings by China and Israel. Once the technological doors to these worlds are open, intrepid explorers are sure to follow; the Hillary and Shakelton of this and the next generation.

The Earth-Moon-Mars Challenge


Thus, looking forward, I created sixteen extreme adventures for now and the next century, the Earth, Moon, Mars Challenge. The task is to complete each adventure and finish standing on Olympus Mons — a massive Martian volcano  (21,287 m, 69,841 ft) and the highest volcano in the solar system.  In the spirit of my earlier post, these experiences are physically and technologically challenging. They represent a broad range of physical skills and economic abilities and a way to experience the stunning beauty of our planet and nearby worlds. The goal of each accomplishment is to stand in splendor before our magnificent universe. Ultimately, it is my wish that these ordeals will motivate individuals to protect these pristine habitats for future generations.

Earth Challenge: The Seven Summits and Five Deeps


Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on earth and the greatest climbing challenge.


Comparison of the seven summits

Seven Summits

Although there are several possible definitions of the Seven Summits Challenge, I choose the Pacific Plate version to begin the journey to honor the significance of Mauna Kea. There is a large amount of information available for each mountain, and a classification system for difficulty,  Here I summarize their essential challenges and rewards. They are listed in descending order of difficulty.

  • Pacific Plate – Mauna Kea: 4207 m (13,803 ft).  An easy, non-technical climb that can be accomplished in a single day. As you bask in the spectacular Pacific view, you are standing on the planet’s largest volcano — it’s 10,000 m (33,000 ft) above the seafloor — the world’s greatest astronomical observatory, and a mountain sacred to native Hawaiian areas. Be respectful.
  • African PlateMount Kilimanjaro: 5895 m (19,341 ft). A major trekking destination. Requires 5-8 days. Easy – mostly on well-worn trails but the altitude can be difficult
  • Australian PlatePuncak Jaya: 4884m (16,024 ft). The highest summit of Mount Jayawijaya in New Guinea. A 5-day hike but the politics can be challenging..
  • South American PlateAconcagua: 6960 m (22,837 ft). Located in the Andes in Argentina, it is the highest non-technical climb in the world.
  • Antarctic Plate – Mount Vinson: 4892 m (16,050 ft). The climb offers little technical difficulty beyond the remoteness and severe weather hazards of Antarctica
  • North American Plate – Denali: 6190m (20,310 ft). Major challenges are the long trudge through cold, furious weather. A proving ground for the Himalayas. Generally takes 2-4 weeks to be climbed.
  • Eurasian Plate – Mount Everest: 8848 m( 29,029 ft).  The greatest challenge of the seven summits. For highly experienced climbers only.

Five Deeps

Next, we move on to plummeting to the deepest recesses of the worlds’ five oceans: the pitch-black oceanic trenches of our planet. All five are steep trenches, volcanic in origin, that extend far below the common ocean seafloor. Few have adventured to these depths (three have never been explored) so they represent new frontiers and challenges.

As undersea technology advances, the availability of deep-water submersibles will make it easier to visit these amazing places. As a reference, diving tours to the remains of the S.S. Titanic (3800 m, 12,500 ft) are set to begin this year for $105,129, so commercial technology is advancing. To accomplish the Five Deeps, Vescovo custom built a $48 million dollar submersible plus bore the cost of a supporting research vessel. By the end of the expedition, the sub will have descended through at least 72,000 m (236,220 ft) of water. The Deeps’ sites, in order of increasing depth, are summarized below:

  • Arctic — Molloy Deep.  5669 m (18,600 ft). In the Greenland Sea.
  • Indian — Java Trench: 7725 m (25,344 ft).
  • Southern Ocean — South Sandwich Trench: 8266 m (27,119 ft), 62 miles east of the South Sandwich Islands in the south Atlantic.
  • AtlanticPuerto Rico Trench. 8376 m (27,480 ft).
  • PacificChallenger Deep (Marianas Trench): 10,994 m (36,070 ft). The deepest point on Earth. Fewer people have reached these depths (3) than have walked on the moon (12).

Luna Challenge: Highest Mountain and Deepest Crater


Destinations on the moon to fulfill the Lunar Challenge.

The Moon may seem out of reach for now but access is rapidly changing. From SpaceX’s reusable rockets to NASA’s announcement of a lunar colony by 2022, the day when explorers will be hiking our satellite will happen this in this generation. Space Adventures announced you can visit the Moon (but not walk — yet) for $150 million. Over time, these costs will significantly drop. Once on the moon and jamming across the lunar surface in a rover, you can pull on your space suit and set records for the extreme elevations on the Moon. Since the gravity is only 17% of Earth (200 lbs = 34 lbs), you can bunny hop your way across the landscape, just like the Apollo astronauts.

Highest Lunar Mountain — Mons Huygens: 5,500 m (18,000 ft). While not technically the highest point on the moon (that’s a 10,786 meters [35,387 ft] flat plain near the lunar south pole), it’s the Moon’s tallest mountain in the Montes Apenninus mountain range near Mare Imbrium and near Apollo 15’s landing site. In contrast to Mt. Everest, which is 60 million years old, and Mauna Kea, at 1 million years, Mare Imbrium is 3.9 billion years old (!) and created by a collision from a massive object, perhaps a proto-planet, up to 402 km (250 mi) in diameter. Mons Hugens was created by the event.

Deepest Crater — in Antoniadi Crater9,178 m (30,111 ft) below the average lunar surface. The lowest point is on the far side of the moon in a small unnamed crater (about 8km, 5 mi diameter) on the floor of Antoniadi crater (140 km, 87 mi diameter), which in turn is on the massive South Pole–Aitken (SPA) basin (2,500 km, 1554 mi diameter). Thus, you have to trek to a small hole in a big hole in an enormous hole half the width of the US. The SPA crater is one of the largest, and oldest in the solar system and likely formed by an enormous asteroid impact. The low point in Antoiadi crater has been unofficially named “Point Trieste” after the Bathyscaphe Trieste, the first vehicle to descend to the Earth’s deepest trench.  

Mars Challenge: Highest Volcano and Deepest Crater

Mars arrows

Locations for the Mars challenge

Access to Mars is further in the future than the Moon but commercial space ventures, especially tourism, are pushing the timeline sooner. NASA has developed plans to land on Mars in 2033 but those are considered unfeasible until the late 2030s. SpaceX has more ambitious plans for a Mars’ cargo system by 2021-22 with colonies shortly thereafter, so the wait to visit the red planet may be 10-20 years in our future. Costs will be prohibitive at first but eventually it will be common to visit and go trekking. Here are two spots you must visit to complete the final challenge. Like the moon, Mars is smaller than Earth so the gravity is less (38%) so you can bounce around in a spacesuit with ease.


Comparison between Olympus Mons, Mt. Everest, and Mauna Kea.

Highest VolcanoOlympus Mons: 21,229 meters (69,649 feet) above the average Martian surface. The highest and largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons is massive and 2.5 times higher than Mt. Everest. Moreover, it is 374 miles (624 km) wide, roughly the size of France. Even the caldera at the top is 50 miles wide. The volcano began erupting 1-2 billion years ago and may still be active. Once you climb up the steep 4-mile high escarpment, transgressing the 180 miles long gentle slope (5°) of the massive mountain will be a long, tedious journey. From the summit (the edge of the caldera), you won’t see much as the shorter curvature of Mars places most of the mountain and the planet below the horizon. The view of space, however, will be spectacular.

Lowest CraterHellas Impact Crater: 8,200 meters (26,902 feet) below the average Martian surface. As on the moon, the honor for the lowest point on Mars goes to Badwater crater, a small crater (about 24 km, 15 mi diameter) located within the larger Hellas Plain (2,300 km, 1,400 mi diameter). Thus, like the moon, the destination is a crater within a much larger impact crater in Mars’s Southern Hemisphere. The Hellas basin floor itself is about 7,152 m (23,465 ft) deep, almost 1,000 ft deeper than the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken basin. Badwater crater is located in the north edge of the basin. It’s named after Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California which is the lowest point in North America. Hopefully, Earth’s namesake isn’t an ominous portent.  

Although not part of the challenge, while on Mars you may be tempted to plunge into the Grand Canyon of Mars, the Valles Marineris,  gcvsvm which offer a 36,000-foot (almost 7 miles!) drop from the surrounding areas (the Grand Canyon has a 1-mile drop). However, since the atmospheric pressure of Mars is <1% of Earth, paragliding Valles Marineris will entail serious technological advances.


The Pale, Blue Dot

Many ask that since many of Earths’ challenges are currently beyond all but the wealthy, why bother? To me, it’s because we need something to dream about, to strive for. Fifty years ago the Seven Summits were just a dream but today hundreds have completed the challenge once thought impossible. Clearly, the sprint of adventure is strong on our planet and as technology marches along the ocean deeps, and the extreme reaches of the Moon and Mars will emerge as new places to explore and gain experience.

But why, you still ask? Why strive for these seemingly meaningless accomplishments when there are so many other critical and worthwhile issues facing the planet? To me, it’s the same question we’ve always asked about going into space. Part of the answer is that’s it’s what humans have done and always will do. We push the limits of the possible. We are driven to explore and experience new perspectives. We push ourselves and our technology to the limits because we believe it’s our destiny. Maybe it’s only because when you are standing on these distant worlds and see Earth as a pale blue dot, you’ll remember that our homeworld is precious, rare, and fragile. Maybe then we’ll commit to a better ethic towards Earth and all of its inhabitants.


Earth as soon from Moon during Apollo 8.

The Apollo astronauts gained a new awareness of how fragile our planet is to the touch of humanity:

As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.”

— James B. Irwin, Apollo Astronaut

Earth from mars2 Earth from Mars as seen by NASA’s Opportunity Rover. Can you see us? Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU

And if you don’t believe in those arguments, think about this: imagine completing the Earth, Moon, Mars Challenge and standing on Olympus Mons, the highest and largest volcano in our solar system. As you look at the sky and feel you can’t get any closer to heaven, the beckoning stars tell you our journey into space is only beginning.


Related Dr. Abalone posts:

The Fight for Gender Equality in Surfing


Keala Kennelly, charging at Teahupoo. Photo: Thouard

Surfing is one of the biggest inspirations of my life. It has changed me in ways I can’t begin to understand. And yet — and this is its charm — it is amazingly free; a pure sport dependent only the wind blowing across the sea and my ability to paddle out and catch waves. It’s just me and the waves and the ocean treats everyone the same. So when I am reminded of the long history of discrimination against women in professional surfing I know this has nothing to do about riding waves. Rather it is about some people believing they can control the rights to those who can compete and make a living as a professional surfer. Unfortunately, even now professional women athletes around the world receive very little notoriety or pay compared to men.

A depiction of women surfers over time: from left: Playboy models and wetsuits ads; Margo Oberg, first woman surfer on the cover (1981) and the first all-woman magazine issue (2018).

Sexism isn’t new in surfing and was rampant in the 1960s when big wave surfer Buzzy Trent famously summarized his opinion: “One thing I can’t stand is girls riding, or attempting to ride, big waves…girls are much more emotional than men and therefore have a greater tendency to panic…” (Warshaw, 2010). Indeed, it wasn’t until 1981 that a woman, Margo Oberg, made the cover of Surfer magazine, despite winning world championship competitions in 1968, 1977, 1980 and 1981. Meanwhile, Surfing magazine followed with a Playboy model on the cover in 1981 and debuted an annual bikini issue shortly after that. Woman surfers were depicted as cute beach bunnies but marginalized as athletes. Up until the 1900s, magazines and filmmakers largely ignored female surfers; there were no wetsuits or swimsuits designed for women and prize money was a small fraction of men’s.

If they were being derogatory towards women, it was other women not me. Then it slowly dawned on me [that I was not really part of their world]. It’s like a family you’re not allowed to belong to.” – Pam Burridge, 1990 World Champion

Given this treatment, it’s no wonder that women only made up 3% of the worldwide surfing population. This situation changed in the 1990s when the male-based surfing industry realized female-targeted magazines, clothing, and films could be lucrative (Warsaw, 2010). Lauren Hill describes the shift in Surfing World magazine :

By 1999, the industry was in full swing again, women’s boardshorts were in production by all of the big brands, longboards were back, women’s surf magazines existed, all-girls surf contest circuits ruled, and Hollywood was in the process of making Blue Crush to show the world the struggles and joys of growing up as a girl surfer. In 1999, the year I started surfing, I had the privilege of blossoming in a golden age of women’s surfing. A renaissance. I could rip ten photos of women surfing out of women’s surf magazines and tape them to my wall. It changed the way I saw myself, other women, and what “normal” looked like for a girl.

The increased attention to woman surfers, along with powerhouses such as Lisa Andersen, Layne Beachley, and Rochelle Ballard, helped motivate other women to start surfing and by the late 1990s women made up 15-20% of the surfing world (Warshaw, 2010). It was a new era, and in the early 2000s, surfers such as Keala Kennedy began challenging men by riding big waves at Teahupoʻo, Tahiti.


Layne Beachley won seven World Titles from the tail end of the 90s through to the mid-2000s and never once scored the cover of a national Aussie surf mag. Photo: Servais

But, despite these gains men pushed back when it came to big wave events. And the invitation-only all-men Titans of Mavericks event, which began in 1999, soon became a focal point for inclusion and equity issues for women surfers. The controversy, remarkably, echoed Buzzy Trent’s age-old arguments: women aren’t capable of surfing big waves and will get hurt or die.  Along with that was the self-fulling prophecy that there weren’t enough women to invite to the event. As was seen in the past, lack of female role models impedes the inclusion of women in sports, so this was just another example of the men holding women back for arbitrary reasons. Arguments about ruining the sport and diluting the talent pool are also ridiculous and only weaken surfing in my eyes. It is sad to see how such a free and pure sport has been taken over by corporate interests with a narrow interpretation of how competitions and endorsements should look like. What is even sadder is the successful male surfers that support these injustices.

Sure, some woman will get hurt and may even die in these contests. But so do men. It’s a choice everyone makes for themselves. Anyone that decides to surf in big wave competitions deserves respect. Sure, as with men, women need to be competent to surf competitively in big waves, but saying that experienced big wave chargers like Bianca Valenti, Keala Kennelly, Andrea Moller, and Paige Alms are not qualified is absurd. Together these women, along with San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan and founding counsel Karen Tynan co-founded the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS). And CEWS has been instrumental in advancing the equity issue in professional surfing at Maverick’s, one of the most challenging big waves in the world.

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Center for Equity in Woman co-founders (from left) Andrea Moller, Bianca Valenti, Keala Kennelly, and Paige Alms. Photos: NY Times.

Because the Titans event required a permit from the California Coastal Commission, CEWS, along with many supporters, such as SurfRider, used that venue to push hard against Cartel Management, the company behind the Titans of Mavericks event since 2014, to include women (see videos below).  In 2017, these efforts were rewarded when two women were invited along with 10 men to Titans. It was a good start, but far short of CEWS goals of parity with the men in contest heat format, the composition of the selection committee, and prize money.


The all-male lineup for the Titans of Maverick’s contest in 2009. Women were not invited to the contest until 2017. And only often strong efforts by CEWS and its supporters. Photo: Mavericks Surf Ventures/Seth Migdail .

To everyone’s disappointment, the 2017 event was canceled when Cartel management filed for bankruptcy as they faced a variety of unrelated lawsuits. In 2018, the World Surf League picked up the event and again, after pressure by advocates who worked for decades to help advance women’s surfing, created the Maverick’s Challenge, which created equity in format and prize money between men and women.  In fact, the victory was much broader as the WSL now has equal prize money for men and women surfers in all of its worldwide events.

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Photo from WSL’s press announcement on equity for men an women prize money in all its events. Photo: WSL.

Like the roles of equity, inclusion, and diversity in our society and institutions, engaging in these principles will only enhance surfing. I have always welcomed the rare woman in the lineup and enjoying watching them surf. Yes, they may surf differently than men but why should they be the same? Each of us brings our own personal experiences and intuitions to riding waves. That’s what’s it all about. So let’s not make arbitrary judgments and create discrimination in our pure sport.


Rell Sunn, one of the most smooth and graceful surfers on the planet. In the 1960s, with virtually no competition for women, Rell entered men’s events, almost always making the finals. By 1975, she and other pioneers had inspired women to take up the sport and found the Women’s Professional Surfing Association and establish the first professional tour for women. Photo: Jim Russi

I feel compelled to address this issue because although the World Surf League has made a major step forward, many issues remain. Challenges include changing the attitudes of sponsors, judging, media coverage, and promoting more women of color into the sport. Organizations like Brown Girl Surf, work to “build a more diverse, environmentally reverent, and joyful women’s surf culture by increasing access to surfing, cultivating community, amplifying the voices of women of color surfers, and taking care of the earth.” The world is changing and surfing, with its transformative and healing abilities, needs to open its doors to everyone.

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The future of surfing: participants in the 42nd Annual Rell Sunn Menehune Surf Contest. Photo: http://koolina.com/events/42nd-annual-rell-sunn-menehune-surf-contest/

The obvious truth is that women that ride big waves are strong, fierce, courageous professional athletes. They deserve the respect than men receive for being exactly the same. But instead of listening to my voice, listen to the woman who stepped up in defense of equity against insurmountable odds. And although they have created a huge step forward they very fact that it proved so difficult shows that much work remains.

And if we care to listen, the all mighty ocean is teaching us a lesson here. We are all helpless against its power and surfing teaches us to go with the flow. The waves don’t care about our gender, sexual orientation, or the color of our skin so why should we? Institutions built around surfing should honor that, not create barriers to those that want to make a life built around loving the sea.

Testimony at the California Coastal Commission regarding gender equality for the Titans of Maverick Permit, Nov. 2, 2016.

Sabrina Brennan, San Mateo Harbor Commissioner,  discussing inequity in surfing at Mavericks.

Trailer for It Ain’t Pretty, A documentary about the challenges and triumphs of female big wave surfers fighting sexism in the water, in competition, in the media, and in the surf industry with the support of a closely-knit community of like-minded

Keala Kennedy’s TEDx talk on inequity in surfing and facing the fear of big waves.


Sailing Through Life’s Waves: My Second Pass Through Dialysis


I could see the dark wave. As my kidneys failed, toxins made me sick while my body filled with fluid. At night, wracked with pain, I felt the dark abyss: this is what death looks like. Surprisingly, my mind grew sharp and for the first time in my life, I composed a song in my head. I felt my brain digging deep into my soul. The next day I went on dialysis.

I have Alport Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that affects 30,000-60,000 people in the US. Among males, Alport’s results in kidney failure. As a result, I lost my kidneys when I was 35 and went on dialysis. A year later my father gifted me one of his kidneys and I enjoyed a second life for 26 years. But I knew it wouldn’t last forever.

Surrendering my life to the medical community was scary. But the experience was like free-falling into a warm blanket. Everyone was warm, supportive, and competent. I was reminded that people in the medical community have dedicated their lives to helping me and others like me. Their support gave me an unexpected comforting feeling.

I'm with you no matter whatStill, despite having gone through it once before, the experience was jarring. In a flash, my old life was gone and now I’m strapped to a machine three days a week,  three hours a day. It’s a different state of being. It’s like my body is going: “Whoa, what the heck happened?” But amazingly it adjusts. I can feel it trying to teach a new equilibrium and it’s not a pleasant feeling. But adjust it does and now I live in a new state of existence. And just like my first life after kidney loss, I’ve forgotten what I felt like before.

Walking into the hemodialysis dialysis clinic for the first time in 26 years was surreal. Opening the door I was met with a familiar strong chemical smell. Sitting under bright fluorescents lights I saw a tattered sign on the wall: Every Day Counts. A reminder that my life hangs by a fragile technological thread. As they connected me and injected saline into the lines filtering my blood, my mouth was flooded with a salty taste, ironically invoking my carefree days in the sea.

Looking around I see a range of behaviors in other patients. Some in obvious pain, others asleep or watching tv, most with a blank stare as the toxins and fluids are scrubbed out of our blood. But I am lucky and am able to stay productive during my time on the machine. Others start before me and are still on when I leave and many older patients arrive and depart in a van from a nursing home. Despite the stark reality, the staff is wonderful: cheerful, compassionate, and they conduct their work with a comforting precision.

nw life old life AR-160629709

Still, the experience is dispiriting. During the first week, I could see it: a black hole of despair. Just lean in a bit and live forever in misery; my whole world sucked away in an instant. But instead of looking at what I’ve lost in life I choose to cherish what I have. I am alive. And I am humbled by so many others that cope with far worse situations. In my dark moments, I am strengthened by the many years my courageous mother suffered on dialysis and in hospitals, yet remained a beautiful and wise soul. I am humbled by the indomitable spirit of my friend Chris, who somehow lived a cheerful life with cerebral palsy. And I am even inspired by the strong will of our little cat Momo: born with severe disabilities he still managed to be an incredibly cool cat. Thus, a gift from my suffering is more compassion for others. Compassion has set me free from despair. How much is that worth?

So live in gratitude. I am so grateful to my father and the second gift of life he gave me with his kidney almost 26 years ago. I can’t begin to describe how amazing it felt to have a piece of my father inside me, keeping me alive. It was an intimate connection and truly a miraculous gift.  I am incredibly grateful to my wonderful wife, who supports me despite the uncertainty it creates in our lives. I am so fortunate to have loving, wonderful children that make me proud to be a parent. And I have many supportive friends and co-workers that have stepped up to help. I am incredibly thankful for the amazing doctors, nurses, physician assistants, lab techs, social workers, staff, receptionists, and many others, that have supported me. I am astounded by those that have immediately stepped forward, without even asking, to offer me a kidney. The outpouring of love and support is humbling.


I don’t write this to throw a pity party or draw attention to myself. I’m good, and I have a terrific job. But rather I want you to know what’s it’s like to start and live on dialysis. I want you to have compassion for those on dialysis and to support the medical community in ways they know best. I also want to highlight the need for living organ donation, which is an incredible gift.

I’m blessed with willing family and friends. But not everyone is so fortunate and the wait list for a kidney transplant is long and many individuals will die before ever receiving a kidney. There are nearly 100,000 people on the waitlist. Living donor transplants, which are the most successful and last longer, make a substantial contribution to the number of transplants each year. In 2018, one-third of kidney transplants were from living donors. For more information about donating a kidney see the links below.   It is also important to support legislation that supports donors, such as the Living Donor Protection Act, which protects donors and recipients from insurance and job discrimination.

beach_cloud_formation_clouds_dawn_dramatic_dusk_evening_golden_sunset-1511275Today, at home in Trinidad, I went outside during a break in a raging storm and stood facing the sun as it broke through the clouds. Closing my eyes I felt its brillance warming my body. I could smell the sea, hear the waves and the wind, and I felt my body tingling as these sensations flooded through me. Despite everything that has happened, I am very much alive. And I’m determined to make every day count.

Further Reading:

The Vanishing Canyons of My Youth

The smell of the sage and chaparral always takes me back. It was the Grand Canyon of my youth. It was deep, dark, and scary as hell. Like a game, it pulled me in: small and simple at the start but complex and mysterious at the end. One of its secrets was a crevice, scoured by the 1966 floods, that started a few feet deep surrounded by lizards and birds and ended hundreds of yards later in a 20-foot deep narrow crevasse with snakes. It took me and my 8-10-year old friends years to conquer our fear of that place, to fully discover the wilderness in our backyard. By then I was an experienced explorer, and it set me on a path in life that serves me to this day. They were the canyons of my youth but they are long gone.


Pacific Beach, 1967, on my 10th birthday with my neighborhood buddies (me, far left). Amity street dead-ended in two amazing canyons seen behind us, but they were filled with homes and roads in 1970-71.

The suburbanization of rural lands is a familiar story for those growing up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. It was a consequence of the post-WWII baby boom and the development of the suburbs across America. Prior to that time, most people lived in cities with farmland occupying flat, open space. But those involved in the war married and sought, and deserved, the American dream: owning a new home. The ensuing population boom and housing crisis was met by our country’s newly burgeoning industrial might and ingenuity and the suburbs arose as a solution. Through that process, mass-produced homes — the tract home — were developed as they could be built efficiently with minimal waste. It was a good solution for is its time, and continues today, but it had a cost that would only be realized later: significant impacts to the environment and the loss of open spaces.

As Adam Rome discusses in his seminal book The Bulldozer in the Countryside, poor planning led to new and undiscovered impacts on water, soils, and wildlife due to the construction of septic systems, destruction of wetlands, building on floodplains and earthquake faults, and the loss of virgin land. Adding to that was the search for the “perfect turf” surrounding our homes. The synergy created by these issues helped build the 1960s environmental movement, culminating in Earth Day, and many of our existing environmental laws.  Truth is, many cities and counties still struggle with these issues today, a casualty of poor environmental planning in the past.

But to me, it was all about my playground, the canyons. I wasn’t alone. As Rome writes: “In new subdivisions, children were often able to play in undeveloped land nearby — then one day the bulldozers would come to turn those playgrounds into lots for new houses, and people of all ages reacted with shock and outrage. In 1962, for example, a seven-year-old boy from California made national news when he sought the help of President Kennedy after discovering that development was destroying his favorite place to hunt for lizards.

Dear Mr. President,
we Have no Place to go when we want to go out in the canyon Because they are going to Build houses So can you setaside some land where we can Play? thank you four listening love scott.”

That letter could have been written by my 10-year old self from my experiences in Pacific Beach.


Pacific Beach (PB) in 1946. The rugged NE corner of PB on Soledad Mountain had yet to be developed. Our canyon is indicated by the yellow arrow. Photo: Whitehouse51.com

San Diego was at the forefront of urban development. Between the 1950s and 70s, the population doubled and then doubled again in the following three decades. Where I grew up, in Pacific Beach, most of the city was located on flat land near the beach which had been established in the late 1880s from railroad transportation. For almost a century after that, the rugged hills with sweeping views of Mission Bay sat empty. Then in the early 1960s, the Pacifica Drive area, despite steep inclines and a rugged landscape was rapidly developed. My former home on Amity Street, where I Iived from 1966-1968, was built in 1964, the first phase of several. Over a hundred homes were built in that area from 1961-64. Our canyon, as I was to discover later, was smake dab in the middle of the “straightening” of Soledad Mountain Road — a project to reduce the transit time from PB to La Jolla. Although I didn’t make the connection at the time the dozen dead-end roads leading into the canyons now seem ominous.


NE Pacific Beach in 1966 showing the first phase of home development. Red dot = my former house; blue outline = my canyon playground; yellow arrows = incomplete sections of Soledad Mountain Road


NE Pacific Beach in 2004 showing final home development completed in the early 1970s. Red dot = where my former childhood house was located; blue outline = my canyon playground, now graded and filled with homes; yellow arrows = former dead-end sections of Soledad Mountain Road.


NE Pacific Beach in 1960 before home development. Red dot = where my childhood house would be built in 1964; blue outline = my canyon playground; yellow arrows = future sections of the “straightening” of Soledad Mountain Road

But for three years in the mid-1960s, my friends and I explored the amazing canyons at the end of our street. In those days my mom would kick me out of the house after breakfast (my father was in Vietnam at the time) and call me and my brother in at dinner time. So we had the whole day to explore, at least during the summer. I remember tree forts, rock fights, playing army, and walking around making discoveries.  As I wandered the rugged sage-chaparral landscape I saw hawks soaring in the canyon thermals, quail running with their young across the trail, and found lizards sunning themselves on rocks. I’ll never forget discovering fossil scallops which sparked a lifelong interest in paleontology. Our nemesis, the western rattlesnake, was mostly heard but unseen, a constant reminder of the dangers we faced. I remember them coming up onto the roads of our dead-end street in the evening and scaring the hell out of my mother. But now I understand they were probably just following their ancestral paths up the hills, now covered by asphalt.

Treasures of Pacific Beach canyons (clockwise from upper left): rattlesnakes, hawks, lizards, quail, and fossil scallops.

After conquering the canyons and the crevasse we moved on to the storm drain at the southern dead end of Soledad Mountain Road and explored underneath the streets of PB. Exploring the huge, dry pipes with a flashlight, I remember popping up in street drains and under manhole covers as our world grew with our newfound courage. By then my spirit of adventure was set.


Me (left) and my friend and neighbor Donald Utley preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail in Virginia as a Boy Scout in 1969.

But my father was in the Navy so we moved away in 1968 to McLean, Virginia then Idaho Falls in 1969. As an experienced explorer, at 11 I hiked the Appalachian Trail and at 12 I snowshoed into the Grand Tetons as a Boy Scout. I returned to PB in 1970 and lived on Olney street near Kate Sessions Elementary, my former school in the 1960s. I recall riding my bike up to my old house and being disoriented by the roads, which I knew well from my newspaper routes, and was astounded to see that my canyon was gone. Somehow, the rugged landscape had been graded and filled with homes and roads. These days, Soledad Mountain Road, which runs right through my old proving grounds,  serves 10,000 vehicles a day and shortens their trip to La Jolla from PB by a few minutes. I hope the time saved is appreciated.

Thankfully, due to the efforts of others, part of that undeveloped area remains as Kate Session Park. The namesake for my elementary school, Kate Sessions (1857-1940), the founder of Balboa Park in San Diego, was a remarkable woman that appreciated open spaces and native plants.  She moved to Pacific Beach in 1912 and it made it her mission to preserve open space and restore native vegetation. Now, through her pioneering vision and efforts, many can still enjoy part of the area I used to explore as a child.

Looking back I realize I was part of the suburbanization of those hills and our canyons were a treasure to be enjoyed but not held. Now they are just a deep memory. But one where I often retreat to for solace as time marches on.


Enemies of the Planet: Earth Day redux


2018: Pipes along the Kanawha funnel the John E. Amos Power Plant’s waste to a treatment facility. The plant has discharged arsenic, mercury, and other toxic heavy metals into waterways. Photo: New York Times.

We have always prided ourselves on being not only the America of the strong and the America of the free, but America of the beautiful — today that beauty is in danger.   

President Lyndon Johnson, May 1964

Earth Day: The Dawn of Environmentalism

We once lived in a world where, despite our great prosperity, skies were covered in brown smog, suds came into our sinks, trash carpeted our landscape, and poisons permeated our streets and our foods. It was a world where the noted philosopher Albert Schweitzer once said, “Man can hardly even recognize the devils of is own creation.”

But yet, despite insurmountable odds, we changed all of that. Somehow, through slow, hard work over decades — and without the benefits of the modern tools of communication — politicians, scientists, middle-class women, young Americans, and conservationists simultaneously focused on environmental issues. And through their efforts, through Earth Day, they – we – changed the world.


The Cuyahoga River was once one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. It has caught fire a total of 13 times since 1868, including this blaze in 1952. Photo: Cleveland State University Library

It was a profound change and one that almost 50 years later, as Adam Rome’s excellent book The Genius of Earth Day illustrates, still resonates throughout America. Politically, it led to the bi-partisan establishment of most of our environmental laws. From the creation of the EPA, to the establishment of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, to the all-encompassing National Environmental Policy Act  (NEPA), it led to the broad foundations of environmental law that protect the common interests of our country. At that time, and arguably today, these were not partisan issues. For who doesn’t want clean water to drink, clean air to breath, uncluttered landscapes, and countrysides in which to enjoy nature’s bounty?

In the 1960s it was part of the “good life,” first espoused by President Kennedy as part of the good society and later Johnson’s “Great Society” on par with civil rights and the abolition of poverty. It happened because they imagined a better future.

And perhaps because of epic battles over civil rights and the Vietnam war, environmental issues coalesced in 1970 to inspire Earth Day, an event that sparked a paradigm shift in America’s thinking about the environment. The effects were lasting and profound and spawned the first green generation. Universities added departments of ecology and environmental studies that inspired students into environmental activism and motivated faculty to address environmental concerns that exist to this day, including me; others were compelled to enter politics and effect change through state and federal policy; while yet others committed themselves to non-profit causes, filing lawsuits to stop environmentally damaging projects and advocated through public education to remember Rachel Carson’s — and others — calls for action against the chemical industry and nuclear fallout.

Given our history, and our previous actions and momentum, one might believe America to be a country with long-standing commitments to the environment directed towards protecting the “beauty” of our country.  The truth is that nothing could be further from the truth and we are now, in the late 2010s, faced with attitudes and changes in policy that are returning us to the brown skies and dirty waters of the 1950s. For then, as now, we were faced with unprecedented prosperity, at least for a few, yet our life, as President Kennedy stated,

“…falls short of the opportunity to share in economic success; when economic progress means crowded cities, abandoned farms, technological unemployment, polluted air and water, and littered parks and countryside; when those too young to earn are denied their chance to learn; when those no longer earning live out their lives in lonely degradation.”

Indeed, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I imagined a future country so prosperous, so enlightened through ethical growth, that it would spread its wealth amongst the growing world population with the utmost respect for the environment and join its global brothers and sisters in celebrating the richness of the planet. I still believe in that ideal. Indeed, given all the living creatures on which we depend, to think otherwise seems illogical, as resources are finite. For we are clearly connected to nature and depend on the land, air, and water for our personal health and well-being. It is a part of who we are and essential for a full life. Something every American should share in. As President Johnson’s speechwriter Richard Goodwin recognized:

“…private income, no matter how widely distributed, was only a foundation; that private affluence, no matter how widely distributed, could not remedy many of the public conditions that diminished the possibilities of American life.”

Those public conditions include the things we share in common, including the future for our children, our children’s children, and beyond: our air, water, public parks, the coasts and landscapes, our incredible diversity of plants and animals; indeed we share our connections to the planet and are all tied to its future, in this life or in the next. This harkens back to Rachel Carson who reminded us of our innately destructive nature:

“… man is a part of nature and his war against nature is inevitability a war against himself. “

Earth Day Today

So today, nearly 60 years later, I find myself paradoxically amazed that we struggle with the same issues. In many ways, we seem further from these goals than we were in the 1960s. How we lost the wisdom acquired during the history of our great country? Were our forebears more enlightened than ourselves? Are we that narrowly focused on making the rich richer in this country that we have forgotten what’s really important?

No, I believe this is more a matter of form than substance. For our links and dependence on the natural world have not changed, only the players and priorities. And although many would link this with our current leadership and the increasing tribalism of our county, I don’t believe anyone doesn’t care about the natural world we all share. I can’t. For indeed, private income, no matter how big and widely distributed, still serves as only a foundation of American life. Many common resources — our air, our water, our national parks, still serve as common sources of basic health and enjoyment for us all, and always will be. Everyone should be able to go fishing and hunting; should be able to enjoy the fresh air we breathe and the clean water we drink; should enjoy biking and hiking into the wilderness. These are common goods, and there are no arguments about their importance to a healthy and happy life.

Indeed, the only thing that has changed is the priorities and source of the problems. Today, we face air pollution of unprecedented magnitude but from unchecked forest fires resulting from long-term climate change. Although we still suffer from unclean water (Flint, Michigan is an example), and are suffering from the pesticide pollution of our past, we are also altering the temperature and chemistry of our oceans in unprecedented ways. Along temperate coasts, as the ocean warms and becomes more acidic, cold water species are disappearing and coastal fisheries are in peril due to urchin barrens and harmful algal blooms. These, of course, are just a few examples of the widespread problems on our planet.


Red tides along Florida’s coast. August 2018. Source: Algae World News.

Meanwhile, policy reversals are opening up parks, monuments, and previously protected areas to new levels of exploitation to special interests that threaten the common good. We are also removing protections from endangered species and NEPA which provide benefits to everyone. Are we looking at a future where only those with money can enjoy the splendors of our planet? Is that the justice we fought for in the 1960s? I don’t believe that.

The New York Times recently ran a story that reminds us how far things have swung back in 2018. In California, farm workers suffer pesticide pollution that was in the process of being banned; in Texas coal-burning plants that were being phased out are once again belching sulfur dioxide across the state; in West Virginia, a “chemical valley” has been allowed to persist that discharges hundreds of pounds of heavy metals into the Kanawha River; and in North Dakota, natural gas fouls the air and leaks cancer-causing chemical into the ground. All of these represent regulatory roll-backs in the last few years that have specifically benefited polluters at the expense of the health of millions of people. Sound familiar? Aren’t these the very issues we fought for, and won, in the 60s and 70s that Earth Day personifies?

Meanwhile, lack of a political consensus, driven by economic interests in a narrow sect of American society, are preventing long-term changes in carbon emissions and climate change supported by a broad scientific consensus that clearly predicts the devastating effects of sea level rise and increasing frequency of destructive storms. As powerful business interests successfully fight limitations on carbon emissions, many of us suffer from their actions from extreme storms, hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. Is this fair, is this justice? When we will wake up to the reality which people realized in the 1960s that most large corporations only care about their own bottom line, not those of the people?

2019-03-30 09.22.14

Students demanding climate action in a rally in Berlin, March 29, 2019. Momentum for a new Earth Day is building.

A New Global Coalition

ecotactics (e-ko tak’ tiks) n. pl. The science of arranging and maneuvering all available forces in action against enemies of the earth.

— Editor’s Note in Ecotactics: The Sierra Club Handbook for Environmental Activists, 1970. (long considered the handbook for Earth Day)

However, despite heroic efforts on numerous fronts to address environmental issues in our current times, I believe we are falling short. This is not a critique of a lack of passion or drive or effort but from the fragmented nature of our approach relative to the scale of the problems we face. For if we have learned anything from Earth Day, as The Genius of Earth Day illustrates, is that its global success was somewhat of an accident:  it’s top-down and bottom-up genesis tapped key issues long-simmering in the hearts of average Americans.

Rome Earth day Book

Earth Day mobilized homemakers that experienced newfound freedoms in the era of Women’s rights and saw brown water in their sinks and used their powerful voices to protect their families, neighborhoods, and communities; politicians, that developed an agenda where the environment was an essential component of an affluent society; scientists that stepped out of their ivory towers to address problems facing our nation and inspired a new generation of curriculum and activism in our universities; the young who grew up with the joys of hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping while burgeoning suburbs ate away at their playgrounds in the fields and forests of their youth; and conservationists and their organizations that grew in scope and scale and the focus as families flocked to the great outdoors in the prosperous post-war years.

Not only did these groups eventually set the environmental agenda for the country but they educated the public and spread their message to Congress, PTAs, community halls, college campuses, scientific conferences, and to political leaders across the world. In fact, many of these same people became political leaders themselves and through their actions pursued major polluters and changed policies that exist today.

Earth Day is now observed in 192 countries and is the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year. Despite that, it is evident that we need a new approach. We need a broad-based strategy that captures broad concerns, as we did in the 1960s. Back then people went up against major polluters and won; we created laws to protect common resources that were being subverted; scientists stepped up to the plate to inform policy makers to make sound decisions; the free press tested its limits by courageously standing up to big power.

But then, like now, we all have a stake in the future of our environment; in the 1960s we realized these were our fundamental environmental rights. But nothing has changed. Back then, they built on the momentum of civil rights and the Vietnam war; now we have a pervasive, global, and transformative issue that is impacting our planet: climate change.

What we face now is no less important and less urgent than we did in the 1960s. Now, we face a challenge of such magnitude and scale that it dwarfs (and includes) our early concerns about clean air and water, endangered species, and trash on the land and water. Now we are faced with no less than a slow, insidious extermination of many key ecosystems. So slow, perhaps, that most people are immune to seeing it for what it is: a planet-level extinction event.


Coral reefs in American Samoa before, during and after a coral bleaching event. In 2016 bleaching destroyed 39-50% of the coral reefs on the Great Barrier Reef.

From coral reefs to the polar seas, from dead zones to harmful algal blooms, from thundering wildfires to monster hurricanes, from rapidly rising seas to eroding shorelines, we are inextricably and irrevocably altering the future of our planet, one that will remain changed for millennia. One that our great-great-great-grandchildren will face and ask: Why do they do this to us? Where is the pristine and productive planet promised their generation? For although many still think of the “environment” as something external to our daily lives, with a massive disruption of our food supply system, we are all just days away from a major, lights-out, starvation-based, disease-driven future. All the energy powering your lights, computers, and cars, and all the food in the store under plastic and in cans and boxes still comes from the Earth. It is folly to think otherwise.


Global Climate change is the biggest threat to the planet.

So how do we move forward, how do we combat the largest threat our planet has ever faced? First, we must learn from the past and unite around the common challenge we face. Very importantly, we need to put partisanship aside and collaborate on maintaining a healthy world. For like it or not, we are just days away from our last meal, our last tank of gas, our last hike into the wilderness or camp at a park.

Then, as now, our future depends on working together to defend the Earth from the few that make huge profits at the expense of the rest of us. It is time to stand up in a united voice and say “Stop! No more!” as they did in 1970.

We can do it for the people ultimately have all the power. We need to come together in what the Hawaiians call a Ho‘olōkahi — a coming together in harmony and unity of purpose — but now we need a collective action of epic proportions. The time is now!

A reminder of why our environmental past can’t become our future…..

References and Further Readings:

Dr. Abalone Blog Posts:

Abalone: the Chase, the Lore, the Future


Freediving for Red Abalone. Photo: Ken Bailey.

From the surface, I see a vague shape deep below me. Is it a rock or the curve of a big snail? I take a deep breath and submerge. It is dark, numbingly cold, and the air is burning in my lungs. I’m 20 feet down, hanging on to the edge of a crevice trying to reach the prize inside: a red abalone. It’s just inches away from the reach of my abalone iron, a long flat blade used to pry the strong creatures from their foothold on the bottom. The kelp pelts me as the current whips me back and forth, almost as if it is protecting the animal. Between wave surges, and with a herculean kick, I thrust my iron forward and slip it gently under the animal. I’m relieved to find that it’s above legal size. I swim to the surface and take a deep breath. A few hours and dozens of dives later, I reach my three-abalone limit and head to the beach, exhausted but stoked. A feast!


Heading down to the water to look for abalone at Salt Point State Park in Northern California. Photo: Brian Heifferon

If you’re wondering why somebody would work so hard to catch what, to a biologist, is a large snail, I’ll start by saying that abalone is one of the most exquisite things to eat from the sea. They occur worldwide in every ocean and their 56 species are highly prized for their colorful shells and delicious taste. They range from the tiny and rare “most beautiful abalone” (Haliotis pulcherrima ) in French Polynesia, which is less than an inch in size, to the giant red abalone (Haliotis rufescens ) along the California coast which ranges up to 12 inches and 14 lbs. It’s buttery and slightly salty and tastes like a cross between scallop and calamari. But it’s not just the flavor: the challenge of collecting wild abalones is just as much part of the draw. They fight you from the moment you find them until they enter your mouth. Once you get to shore you still have to shell, trim, fillet, and then pound the abalone into submission. But after all that, the paradoxically soft, firm, and slightly chewy texture is worth it. Beyond the culinary appeal and the thrill of the chase, abalone has a more personal significance for me: It’s why I became a marine biologist in the first place.


The California Red Abalone. Photo: Derek Stein.

I first saw an abalone in the 1960s in San Diego when my brother caught a few and brought them home to eat. Although I was initially repulsed by the slimy, smelling creature, I became strangely fascinated as it twisted and turned and attempted to escape our sink. Later, in college, my fascination was rekindled when I found them in the cracks and crevices along the shores of Shell Beach in California after surfing, and a lifetime pursuit began.

ab face

The adorable face of the white abalone. Photo: UC Davis, Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory.

At first, I’d observe them hiding in cracks along the shore at low tides, but as my obsession grew I needed to learn more about them, so I turned to snorkeling, which became a gateway to Scuba diving. I started studying them in a homemade laboratory –instead of eating them — much to my friends’ consternation. Slowly, I began to appreciate their cute little faces — black eyes on a small head framed by twin tentacles. Plus, the shell was amazing! Their round ear-like shell lined with iridescent mother-of-pearl is coveted the world over, and my growing shell collection became a growing reminder of all my adventures as a biologist. At that point, there was no turning back. Now, as a Professor of Marine Biology and Director of Humboldt State Universities Marine Laboratory, I can reflect on 40 years of chasing wild abalone.


Dr. Abalone surveying black abalone on Año Nuevo Island in 1987. Photo: Susan Tissot

What makes studying abalone truly adventurous is finding relatively undisturbed populations to study; which is quite a challenge given their popularity as food. Ultimately, that means working in remote, off-limits, and sometimes dangerous places. There’s the west end of Santa Cruz Island, for instance, a site I have studied for several decades; which takes a three-hour boat trip and several hours by 4-wheel drive vehicle on a rugged road to reach. To study the abalone, my field assistants and I would navigate cliffs, waves, and strong currents, often in the dark before dawn. At other times, we would head to the seal-and shark-infested waters off Año Nuevo, an island south of San Francisco, where the greatest challenge is staying clear of three-ton elephant seals, which look lumberingly slow but can cover 30 feet in a heartbeat.

Dried abs chinatown_Jim_Wilson, NYTimes

Dried abalone from South Africa in a Honk Kong market. Prices varied from $223-$41 US per pound depending on size, quality, etc. Photo: Jim Wilson.

Still elsewhere, facing abalone’s high demand and slow growth rates, escalating prices and rampant poaching has resulted in divers competing with pirates and poachers for the haul. In some places like South Africa, a once-pleasant pastime has become a deadly pursuit. During the early 2000s the demand for abalone in the Hong Kong market exploded and illegal catches comprised the bulk of South Africa’s annual catch, estimated at more than 2000 tons per year. Because of its lucrative nature, Chinese criminal syndicates became involved in the fishery resulting in engagement in the drug trade and broader criminal activities. The South African fishery for “White Gold” as the abalone are called, is now regarded as a large‐scale, highly organized transnational crime complete with sophisticated counter-intelligence, forced labor, gunfights and transformative changes in low-income fishing communities.

Clockwise from left: Native American shell trade routes in the SW (Cox, 1960).  Black abalone in shell middens in the California Channel Islands. Handmade Yurok shell, and abalone shell earrings.

But it wasn’t always deadly. In California, native Americans harvested abalone for food along the coast for thousands of years, picking and pulling them out of crevices along the shore and even diving for the eight species of local abalone. Shell middens record abalone use throughout California and their shells were valuable trade items in a network covering half of North America. In the 1850s, first Chinese shore pickers, then Japanese divers, began harvesting the rich resource, and large-scale commercial fisheries were established in the 1930s. Red abalone were the backbone of the commercial abalone fishery, catches averaging over 2,000 tons a year during the 1950s and 1960s.

abalone 3

Growing up in San Diego in the 1960s, I recall small burger shacks along the beach used to sell abalone steaks for under a dollar. Later, I explored massive abalone shell piles in California and Baja, the remnants of a once vibrant fishery. In the 1970s the catch began to decline due to fishing pressures, poor management, growth in the sea otter population, and disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The fishery closed in 1997 when catch rates were just 4% of their former glory, and that closure left the Northern California recreational fishery as the only place to hunt abalone in the state. As a result, abalone fisherman were pushed into a 200-mile section of the rugged Northern California coast where red abalone could only be caught by free-diving. It proved to be a deadly change: on average, a handful of people die each year harvesting abalone; 15 in 2007-2008.

Although many abalone divers are experienced skin divers, others are unaccustomed to the Northern California coast. Conditions can be treacherous and even seasoned divers get caught in bad situations. Large waves and rip tides can drag divers far out to sea. Others die of exhaustion or heart attacks in the water or while scaling cliffs with ropes to find unfished areas. Then there are the sharks: since 1960, 13 attacks have occurred on abalone divers, including a fatal attack in 2004.


Coast Guard rescue for abalone divers off northern California in April 2015. Photo: USCG.

Unfortunately, California abalone are having a hard time these days and in 2017, the red abalone fishery was closed to protect dwindling populations. Warm coastal seas in recent years have caused dramatic declines in kelp, the main food source for abalone in Northern California, which resulted in dramatic increases in kelp-eating sea urchin population following the death of their principal predator, the sunflower sea star from wasting disease and warm ocean conditions. Since sea urchins also feed on kelp, abalone are starving and, ultimately, dying. Current management efforts are being reevaluated to protect the resource by including climate change, poaching * and a broad range of environmental and biological indicators to construct an adaptive fishery management plan that can respond to today’s rapidly changing conditions.  Although two species are on the endangered species list (whites and blacks), heroic efforts are being made to culture and outplant baby abalone seed for green, white, and red abalone in kelp forests in efforts to restore depleted populations. What the future may bring is unknown due to the unpredictable nature of coastal environments and the response of cold water species like red abalone. Although ongoing aquaculture efforts are successful and will ensure a future supply of abalone for food, there is no replacement for the chase, lore, and allure of abalone fishing and Native American cultural use, which in many ways is equally (or more) important as the meal at the end of the day.

*Poaching is rampant and the illegal take may rival the legal sport catch of 250,000 per year. Poachers face severe fines and may serve years in prison.

Back at the beach, after catching my limit, I begin the ritual of cleaning and eating the abalone around the campfire. With my abalone iron, I excise the large muscular foot — the edible part — from the shell and trim off the guts and the dark edges of the foot with a knife. I slice what remains into thick steaks to prepare it for the pounding, which tenderizes the meat. Abalone can be used in many dishes including eating them raw in a ceviche, cooked in a chowder or Cioppino, and/or sauteed, breaded or grilled like a steak.

Pounding abalone always calls to mind the ritual tied to the “Abalone Song,” which was first composed in the art colony days of Carmel around 1907 by the writer George Sterling and his friends. Since pounding can take time, people would sing while they pounded away, making up verses as they went along. The song should only be sung while pounding the abalone, and new verses can be composed, but only when in high spirits and good company, and they all must end in the word “abalone.” Although Sterling was credited with writing the initial verses, others soon added their own, including Jack London and Robinson Jeffers, among others.

▲ click to hear the music ▲

The song is sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” with the mallet pounding the abalone to keep the beat. It is always good to remember to avoid getting carried away and pounding the abalone into oblivion. Abalone are much too valuable for that!

The Abalone Song

Oh, some think that the Lord is fat,
And some think he is bony,
But as for me, I think that he,
Is like an abalone.

Oh, some drink rain, and some champagne,
And whisky by the pony,
But I will try a dash of rye,
And a hunk of abalone.

The more we take, the more they make,
In deep-sea matrimony,
Race suicide will ne’er betide,
The fertile abalone.

Oh some folks boast of quail on toast,
Because they think it’s tony,
But I’m content to owe my rent,
And live on abalone.

Oh mission point’s a friendly joint,
Where every crab’s a crony,
And true and kind you’ll never find,
The clinging abalone.

He wanders free beside the sea,
Where’er the coast is stony,
He flaps his wings and madly sings,
The plaintive abalone.

We sit around and gaily pound,
And bear no acrimony,
Because our object is a gob,
Of sizzling abalone.

He hides in caves beneath the waves,
His ancient patrimony,
And so ’tis shown that faith alone,
Reveals the abalone.

I telegraph my better half,
By Morse or by Marconi,
But if the need arise for speed,
I send an abalone.

Some live on hope and some on dope,
And some on alimony,
But our tom cat he lives on fat,
And tender abalone.

Oh some like ham and some like lamb,
And some like macaroni,
But bring me in a pail of gin,
And a tub of abalone.

As the smell of the tenderized abalone steaks sizzling in butter surrounded me and my friends, I gave thanks once again to these special gifts from the sea and all that I have learned in life while chasing the abalone.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Sho Spaeth and the editorial team at Serious Eats for comments on the post.

Further Reading: