Chasing Abalone Along California’s North Coast

“How about a trip to the coast to an abalone picnic,” asked Dave, a long-time abalone diver. “Opening Day of the season is April 1st, and my dive club’s meeting at Fort Ross .”
“I’m ready,” I said. What a deal: a drive to the gorgeous Pacific Ocean , a chance to learn about abalone, how it’s prepared for cooking, and to eat!

From the Bay Area, the trip took about two hours which became a fun tour of landmarks and parks. We passed Two Rock, the landmark used by the Miwok Indians on their annual trip to the coast. Every year they walked from their inland winter lodgings for a summer harvest of fish, abalone and salt. Two rocks on a hill mark the path west of present day Petaluma to Bodega Bay.


We hit the coast at the sheltered harbor of Bodega Bay, a familiar place to me. The inns, the restaurants, and the campgrounds in the dunes to the north make it a great getaway place. But we rolled on past, miles to go along this Abalone Coast .

The unexpected sun, after a stormy week, brightened the ocean scene. Miwok Beach , one of a group of beaches which makes up the Sonoma Coast State Park, appeared within a few miles. We stopped to watch the ocean and take pictures. The waves explode as they break on the rocks and then froth and spin out along the shore. It makes a gorgeous picture, but intimidates non-divers like me.
A short car hop north brought us to Duncan ’s Cove and Duncan ’s Landing for more photos and Dave’s history lesson for me. Dave explained about the scarcity of large protected harbors
along the California North Coast that hindered shipping in the 1800’s. However, small coves of protected water, called “Dog Hole” ports, allowed limited access. Small steam schooners could pull into tiny protected coves just big enough to turn around in, and leave loaded with much-needed lumber for growing coastal cities like San Francisco. Ships would anchor under the towering coastal bluffs and, with the assistance of creative cable and chute devices hanging out over the ocean, they would load the lumber.

At Jenner, the Russian River flows from the redwood forests and spreads out just before pushing through the sand bar protecting its mouth, and empties into the sea. Beyond Jenner, we passed Russian Gulch, climbed a switchback road to the top of the bluff. We saw the offshore buoy,
marked by a bell, for the deep water reef, Sunken Reef. Waves broke on another nearby shallow reef at Fort Ross, a popular abalone diver spot. The road comes closer to the Reef Campground shore where diver vehicles and trucks lined the road.

Along the roadside, as well as in the park, California Department of Fish and Game wardens with State Park rangers check the divers’ abalone catch. The divers must have in their
possession a regular fishing license with abalone tags and tally sheet, a legal abalone iron and 7-inch measuring gauge. State officials work hard ensuring divers follow the rules for size and catch limits to protect this valuable resource.


We rolled into the entrance to Fort Ross Historic Park , paid our day-use fee and got a brochure that explained Fort Ross is one of the oldest parks in the California State Park System, established in 1906. It was North America’s southernmost Russian settlement, founded in 1812, built with the help of Alaskan Aleut/Alutiiq natives. But for centuries, the Kashaya band of Pomo Indians had occupied the Russian River area.

As Dave took the car to the picnic area at the historic Call Ranch House, I investigated the Visitor Center and learned a bit of history. Historical displays of the Russians and Indians include photos and notes about the coastline and the redwood trees inland. The Kashaya found abundant abalone, mussels, fish and sea plants for food. They harvested sea salt for their own use and trading, and found animals for food. Also, they bartered with the neighboring Coast Miwok Indians south of the Russian River, near Bodega Bay .

Then, off to the picnic for dozens of divers, families and guests. Northern California abalone divers gathered to show off and compare their abalone. Abalone donated for the potluck
lunch lay on the long picnic table ready for preparation. Slicing knives and pounding mallets appeared with seasoned preparers, some of them divers who had changed into dry
clothes. The abalone preparers began their work . . . and kept at it for more than an hour.

First, the abalone (really a sea snail, but don’t tell anybody) has to come out of the shell. The uncleaned abalone shell is bumpy and ugly, covered with sea life, until cleaned to reveal a
beautiful red surface. When the meat comes out, a gorgeous inside shows up as a silver and mother-of-pearl bowl. Everyone who wasn’t a regular diver wanted one of those shells.

Divers and helpers sliced the meat while others at the sides of the prep tables stood ready with pointed, tenderizing pounders. The “sous chefs” stood by to dip the slices into the flour with “secret” spices, a dish of whipped eggs and a final crumb coating, ready for the cooks. Soon, hundreds of pieces of abalone sizzled in pans on grills as the hungry hordes waited to eat.

Piles of potluck food covered the central serving table. The feast of salads and fruit, chips and buttered French bread, desserts and more went with the abalone. We were eating wonderful
seafood, a delicacy that costs up to $80 a plate in a fancy restaurant. The picnic area neared perfection. Across the road, past a bit of greenery, we could see the ocean with white caps
dancing on its blue surface. That meant 15 – 20 knot winds, but we were in a sheltered glen, complete with grass and iris flowers. Beautiful days do end, and after eating at least two meals each, people began to pack up and head home.

We, however, had more sight-seeing to do. We walked into the fort to see the Russian buildings. They are authentic, and although most have been rebuilt, they do show how the Russian settlers lived in the early 1800’s. Then, we drove north on Highway 1 to investigate a
few more parks. We passed private campgrounds like Timber Cove, with beach access and surrounded by chartreuse-green grass accented with gray-black rock mounds. Oh, to be a painter.

We found another “Dog Hole” port at Stillwater Cove Park . The cove was “rocking” with white water and swells crashing with big boom sounds. Ocean Cove Campground, another private campground, is diver friendly, and diving organizations have competitions here.
One last park before we head home: Salt Point State Park , 40 miles up this Abalone Coast from Bodega Bay has two big campgrounds and Gerstle Cove day-use area. At Windermere Point, we stopped for one last photo op and saw a whale spout off-shore – three

By 6 p.m. the wind “laid down,” but, Dave explained, the water still showed offshore swells. “The northwest swell runs down the coast breaking on this exposed rocky bluff.” That’s a diver talking. We headed south past Fort Ross, through the redwood forests, over the Russian River to Bodega Bay, and turned east for home.