Dive deep for this ab workout

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Posted by on July 05, 2005 at 15:29:56:

In the turbulent waters off Salt Point State Park, abalone, which looks like a dinner plate glued to a rock, just might be dinner.

By Eric Simons, Special to The Times

"So you want to drive 100 miles up a crazy, winding road, dive in murky, freezing, shark-infested waters and then bite into something that, if you don't cook it right, tastes like a squid-flavored racquetball?"

This is my friend Brendan struggling to come to grips with abalone diving.

"Yes," I say.

"Why?" he wants to know.

Like the snail we hunt, there is a secret heart under the shell of this question. Campers from all over the state join me in pursuit of the world's most glamorous mollusk, and we keep coming back despite the admittedly silly nature of the thing because there is an appeal that extends beyond the epicurean. It's an appeal that goes right to the heart of what it means to live here and to love wild California.

Our destination is Salt Point State Park, but part of the fun is getting there a breathtaking drive up the rugged coastline north of the green Russian River, where vertiginous Highway 1 burrows into scrubby pine forest and tiny one-trailer towns cling to the sandstone cliffs. Along the way are general stores that sell the required ocean fishing license, abalone report card, measuring devices and abalone irons used to pry the creatures off rocks. We've timed our trip for June, during the season that runs from April through June and August through November up here.

In the park, wildflower-studded hiking trails overlook Gerstle Cove, a glittery horseshoe marine reserve where beginners learn to scuba dive, cormorants slam into the frothy waves and local seals bark approvingly at the scenery from their rocky resting ground. At the campground, a quarter-mile from the beach, afternoon winds blast through waist-high grassy meadows, blowing shadowy waves across the golden surface. Most summer days the sun sets into coastal fog, leaving a maroon haze across the ocean.

It's a great spot to pitch a tent, chop an avocado over the top of a greasy burger and pop open a Sierra Nevada, then roll a log close to the warmth of a crackling campfire to watch the glowing sparks follow a whimsical path into the shimmering constellations. It's the kind of place made for outrageous stories and reminiscences or a weighty philosophical discussion on the nature of ab diving.

I spin the less-than-epic yarn of my first dive a few years ago: meeting an old hand at his house in a Guerneville redwood grove, suffering nausea on curvy Highway 1 as the black sky lightened into gray fog, pulling off at an unmarked turnout, struggling down the cliff, face burning from the cold of the water, an overly buoyant wetsuit tugging me back toward the surface as I struggled to pop my first abalone, then carrying the surprisingly heavy snail up the bluff and later inviting friends over for an afternoon barbecue. The old pro went along just to swim and look after me. He explained the appeal of abalone diving by reciting the Golden State mantra: Any day you can get in the water is a good day.

I think about that as I stand at the glittering water's edge at Gerstle Cove and plan my circuitous paddling route around the large rocks at the point, past the clearly marked boundaries of the marine reserve. Out there in the deep blue, I hope, is lunch: a luscious, opalescent abalone to share over a campfire. Also out there is something that could be eyeing me for lunch: Whitey, king of the sharks, lurks in the shadowy water and in the back of my mind.

Clinging to a bodyboard just outside the breaking waves, buffeted by swells that carom off nearby rocks, I put my face in and scan the seafloor a green world with seaweed and kelp swaying to the leisurely rhythm of the swell. In slightly deeper water, the sand disappears, and I see only kaleidoscopic green and yellow light filtering through suspended particles in the water. The sound of my breathing through the snorkel seems unnaturally loud and labored, as if Darth Vader were hovering nearby.

I retreat back toward the shallows, imaginary white sharks nipping at my heels, and on my first exploratory dive see what looks like a 9-inch dinner plate clinging to the edge of a rock. A snap breath-holding decision: I kick, jam the pry bar in and push. The abalone's suction breaks, and it rolls into my waiting hand.

Back at the surface, I examine it over the bodyboard. It's a red abalone, one of nine species in North America, easily large enough to please strict Fish and Game wardens, and certainly large enough for a big lunch. A single abalone provides about 1 pound of rich meat, too much for one person. Which explains why, for me, the diving tradition brings to mind a golden-tinged vignette of California living: family and friends gathered around a beachside barbecue, watching those snail steaks sizzling in a pool of butter.

Ready to give tradition a stab we've never done this on our own before Brendan and I carry the trophy back to the campsite, where I clean it and cut it in half. I put one portion in a Ziploc bag and tenderize it with a rock, then soak it in a marinade of soy sauce, leftover beer and melted butter. I place the other half back in its shell with a half stick of butter, then throw both on the stove and watch them sizzle. A few minutes later, I pull the non-marinated one out. We hold it with buttery fingers and gnaw at the edges. It's slightly overcooked, a little bit tough in the middle, but sublime around the edges.

Then Brendan bites into the mollusk's muscular foot, which the abalone uses to clamp onto rocks. He makes a face, likens it to chewing on a racquetball, and then again asks why.

I tell him that we've stoked a campfire under a sky full of stars, swum in the tranquil Pacific, participated in a Golden State tradition, things that edge us closer to understanding the wild natural bounty of our home. Above all, we've learned from that wise old teacher the value of sharing that bounty.

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