Sea Ranch 2000 Editors Trip

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An Early Morning Swim

It was morning and I had the time. What could I do? I pretty much had to dive. But that's not so bad. I was back at Sea Ranch on the north Sonoma Coast and the diving is fantastic.
Debbie and I drove about a 1/2 mile from the house we rented, down the nearest road that looked like it went to the water and looked for a trail. I was suited up already and my other gear was in my innertube backpack, so it is only a couple of minutes from parking the car until I was at the bluffs overlooking a beautiful calm rocky cove. I didn't forget to pore warm water down my suit first though. Since there were a couple of divers already out, that made the decision where to go quite easy.
It's an easy hike down the rocks, pull my mask and fins out of my backpack and then it's a dive float and game holder. It also holds my booties. Luckily for me I don't get cold feet, because I don't wear booties under my fins and the water is a brisk 50 degrees.
As I headed into the water, one of the divers was coming in through the rocks. He said his brother was staying out for a while to do more 'shopping', but he already had his limit of abalone. He said the vis was good and there were some nice abs to be had.
I had never used one of these innertube backpacks before and they are fantastic. I already liked how the straps across the back, made it a convenient backpack for carrying gear. Now I liked how it made it easy to glide across the thick low tide kelp and shallow rocks. I puttered out about 70 yards to where the second diver was and made my greetings. He was having a good time diving inside of a house sized reef that stuck just a bit above the surface and made a nice calm spot. He had his limit though and headed in.
I unzipped the float, got my ab iron and pulled out my line that would snap onto kelp or just hang and tangle to keep the float nearby. Now it was time to see if I still had the touch... or maybe it's the breath. I snapped a good surface dive with my feet high in the air to push me down and went to the edge of some rocks. There was a vivid magenta anemone and some small fish to see, but no abalone. The dive was short, but I knew it would take time for me to adjust.
It seemed that the terrain was mostly large rocks sticking up vertically from sand channels at the bottom. On the top of the rocks grew big bull kelp that came up to the surface. I continued to dive but started heading straight down to the bottom of the rock walls to about 25 feet. Soon, I knew I still had the touch. I was hitting the bottom and heading off through the sand channels looking for abalone along the base of the rock walls. Unfortunately, the sheer rock walls offered pretty much no cover for abalone, though there were numerous large anemones in the small cracks as well as lots of smaller fish. Vis was say 15, maybe 20 feet, which is good for here and plenty for diving. The thick kelp was what usually limited vis. I was finding some boulders and cover, but still no abs so I kept moving on. Then I found an opening about 4 feet deep, a few feet wide, that went into the rock for a body length or so. It was perfect habitat for an abalone to wait for kelp leaves to fall down into for lunch and sure enough there was a nice keeper at the back. That was in the bag.
Still, I thought that I should be seeing more abs so I decided to try to get into the heavy kelp and see if there were more cracks, boulders or other broken terrain that would give cover for abs. The kelp was very thick and tough on top of the rocks, but there were cracks that I could get in under the kelp and follow to the outside of the reefs. The abalone were still spotty though and I wanted to find big ones to fill my limit.
It was pretty diving with lots of crabs, colorful anemones, pilaster stars, small fish and other invertebrates, though notably very few large urchins. I gave up diving into the thick kelp. It was a bit thick by this time of the summer.
Well, I had seen many abs, only a few shorts, but only a few nice keepers as well. There were occasional holes with 6 or 8 nice ones together, but nothing huge. I had one that I was disappointed in. It was plenty legal, but I found it well hidden under a rock and had thought 'score, a hidden biggy'. I popped it off and was disappointed because I could tell it was nothing special sized.
My diving was good and I could still go down and comfortably cruise. Due to my recent lack of exercise and back problems, that had not been a given. I was feeling great, but I didn't think it wise to push it. It was time to find one more nice sizer and get out.
Once again, the float was wonderful. I had my game in it, to which I added my iron and weight belt. I climbed on top and it still went through the water without dragging.
The other divers had nicely taken their time to move out in case I might need any assistance. Really, I guess few people are used to soloing out here, though I have done it enough to be comfortable. It is a strong custom up here to look out for other divers. They helped me get my gear up on higher rocks.
Ah.. Another fantastic north coast dive. There is nothing I like better. Now it was time for the short trip back to the hot tub.

Afternoon With Chris and Curt

Sea Ranch is one of the most beautiful places on the California Coast and one of the most private. Many years ago some partners bought the northern most 10 miles of the Sonoma Coast, extending up to the Gualala River and planned a development of summer homes that would fit into coast with a light touch. Regulations said that all houses had to have a natural wood exterior and many houses were designed as architectural dreams. It is some of the most easily accessed shoreline of the entire coast with mostly low bluffs above the shore instead of the towering cliffs that line much of the coast. They deeded some miles of the shoreline to public access so as to keep the state happy, but the central section was strictly off limits and will quickly get a wheel boot for anyone parked without a permit. Eventually, the Coastal Commission forced them to make some other accesses, but they are long walks. The houses are widely spaced, but grouped together with a 1/4 mile or so between them. The quiet, protected properties are filled with deer, rabbits and many other animals that are too shy to be often seen.
We rented a house that seemed to be Fen Shui approved with a strong touch of Frank Lloyd Wright to the design and decor. A peculiarity of the Sea Ranch is that curtains and blinds are not allowed. The area is so private that it is not an issue, but the house can sure get sunny. When it gets cold, most heat comes from the circular glassed fireplace in the living room. The interior is all raw sanded redwood. There is a beautiful shoreline view and binoculars out on the coffee table for enjoying it.

It was a clear sunny afternoon when Curt called me from the bluff top house that they had rented about a mile away in another part of the Ranch. I quickly got loaded up and drove there. The house was another typically complicated design with a large comfortable living room just made for relaxing while watching the nearby shore. There was a nice patio as well, that was shaped to be protected from the wind. Curt and Chris were preparing their gear and Doris was coming on this trip for support and camera management.
We all had our innertube packs on and headed the perhaps 150 feet along the trail across the meadow to the bluff top. Then it was a short walk through small brush trails to a path down the cliff. It is a short, but very careful hike down the rocks to the water.
We headed out on our innertubes along the side of a rock that stuck out into the cove perhaps 75 yards. Chris picked a spot about halfway out while Curt and I headed out towards the end. Vis was nice and got better as we went out. A legal red abalone is 7 inches and all divers are required to have a caliper measure with them. Curt had a 9 inch caliper and wanted to find some biggies.
The diving was easy and no more than 25 feet to the bottom. there were occasional nice sized abs, but not many monsters. Lots of small jellyfish were in the surface waters near the end of the rocks. There were also lots of multi-colored anemones, small rock fish and large red urchins. Curt came up at one point and had found a nice ab just under 9 inches. That was a definite keeper. I had swam through one crack where I had seen at least a dozen abs that were bigger than 8 inches, but I too was looking for big ones.
Chris was working the same spot further in along the rock wall. I think he hunts abalone the way he hunts lobsters. He had a light mounted on the side of his mask and I expect that he was crawling in every hole that he could find. I think he was using an iron to get them off and not just his hands...
At the end of the rock was an area the size of a small Jacuzzi that had constant waves washing into it. I couldn't resist going into it even though it was just a constant white out. When it calmed between waves I could see that it was very shallow with thick seaweeds and no cover. I finally found that one side had a body wide crack about 8 feet deep heading out. It was well worth following because it was filled with hand sized anemones of every color.
I made a few more dives and then got to do one of my favorite things when diving. The last rock out was the size of a kitchen table and covered with sea palms. The waves were going over it, but not badly, so I climbed out on it to relax and enjoy the view. About 6 feet away, Curt was diving in 25 feet of water. That pool I had been in was behind me and the larger waves that were coming in just now made me really glad that I had left it. After a while it was time to go in and do a few dives before leaving. I didn't feel that I could push it. One good mistake with my back and I wouldn't be walking. I had my limit of some nice large fattys, but nothing was 9 inches.

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About this time Chris showed up. He had done really well with finding some large abs, though nothing that was 9 inches. He and Curt decided to swim another 75 yards out to an isolated rock that was sticking up. Regretfully, I headed for shore as they headed out. Again, the float was great for holding my iron, weightbelt, game and me on top.

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The story was that when Curt and Chris got to the rock they dropped down along a rock wall and saw a number of huge abs, some of which were easily 9 inches. Curt took one and Chris got another large fatty, but that was limits for them, so it was time to swim back. We got our gear off and started cleaning some abs for dinner. It's nice when there are others helping. Usually, that is my job alone. I went back and got Debbie for dinner. Abalone were cooked breaded and in cooked almond chips. Doris and Curt make a good cooking team. It was some truly tender abalone. Not only did Doris provide a delicious spinach dish with dinner, it turned out that she has a great taste in red wines. I was definately prepared for a beautiful north coast sunset to end the day.

Diving With The Dive Crazies

I've already described what a beautiful drive it is along the coast from Sea Ranch to Albion in Dive Crazy Diving. This trip was beautiful again, but considerably more foggy than the last time and just as rushed. We got to the dock in the forested river valley of the Albion River and everyone was soon ready to go. It was also more foggy on the water than the last time. As we left the harbor, Captain Matt said that radar showed that we were surrounded by boats. They were completely invisible in the fog. Since the trip had been planned for abalone diving instead of scuba, his objective was to get far enough south that we would be beyond where many boats were able comfortably go. In this fast boat, that meant about 45 minutes. It is a strange trip through the fog. Sometimes you could see a few hundred yards, but most times it was far less than that.
Here I must put in a disclaimer. I brought along my wife for sight seeing. That was a mistake. It was not sunny like last time. It was cold and foggy. There is really no cover on this boat. It is fine if you are in a wetsuit. Better if you are in a warm wind jacket over your wetsuit. If you are not set up very cold and water resistant, it can be miserable. She was.
Anyway, we went a long way through the fog, down the coast and then we could see our destination. About 150 yards in, above the shore, was a middling cliff down to the water and some offshore rocks. In from the boat, there were numerous rocks together forming a bit of a reef about 75 yards from shore. There were 2 car sized wash rocks sticking up about 75 yards out from the boat as well. Most of the divers went to the inner rocks. Curt and I decided to go out to the wash rocks.

Vis was fairly poor. It was lucky if it was 10 feet. Luckily, for this kind of diving, vis is fairly irrelevant. The abalone are camouflaged in the weeds and cracks such that you are not likely to see them from much more than 6 feet anyway. They are instinctively hiding from the otters that are no longer there... just now. The objective is just to get to somewhere that few people have ever visited and see if there is some huge abalone stashed somewhere that either no one noticed or else they weren't able to get out. Abalone may be in holes that they fit in, but nothing else is going to. Curt had along his 9 inch measure. He was looking for fairly serious biggies.
The bottom was large rocks in about 25 feet of water with rock or narrow sand channels between them. The rocks flattened out in about 12 feet of water and they were covered with thick red algaes that stick up less than a foot. Among these short thick leafy algaes, are the small holdfasts of bull kelps that come up to or near the surface.
You have a choice here. You can dive to the bottom of the rocks at about 25 feet and look along the rock sides or you can try to look through the thick algaes on the tops of the rocks. In both cases you are looking for holes and cracks that are good habitat for the abalone. Either way, these are basically huge flattened snails and aren't always so bright. You may just find a big one out in the open on top of a rock. What you really want to look for though, especially in areas that have some diving pressure, is a small hidey hole under a rock or some other hole that you figure is well enough hidden that other divers probably didn't look there. That is where you may find a really big one. Or it may be just completely out in the open... You just have to look.
Another thing to look for are cracks that are wide enough to swim through and up to 6 feet deep. There are a couple of reasons to look for these. The first is that they catch kelp leaves and so there is food for abalone. There may be a lot of abalone and you can look for a big one. Also, if the water is rough, these cracks can provide a very comfortable calm spot to swim in. Sometimes they may be a calm spot just under the surface of big waves. The other reason to swim in them is that they provide protection to fish, crabs, urchins, anemones and many other species besides abalone. They are extremely beautiful, protected areas.
I searched the different parts of the reef as did Curt. He did find one nice one in the 9 inch range. I decided to climb out on a rock and relax. I was out for just a couple of minutes when a bigger wave came by. It didn't knock me off, but it made it about a 4 foot fall off the back of the rock and I decided to go while the going wasn't painful.
It just wasn't anything special out there, so when Curt suggested trying in where the others were, I readily agreed. The rest of the divers were strung out along a series of wash rocks about 75 yards from shore that marked a very large shallow reef area. Chris seemed to have staked out an area just next to a truck sized rock and was working the rough area next to it where there was some wave action.
I found a likely looking spot (there is a lot of those in the untracked ocean) and started diving. It was nice that there was so little current that I didn't try to anchor my inner tube any. It never really went anywhere.
There was better terrain here. There were lots of the cracks that went down 3 or 4 feet and were wide enough to dive in. At first I didn't see many abalone, but then I started getting into cracks that might have a dozen in them. The lower you get in the crack, the better you can see and the better control of your movements you have. I just kept looking for hidey holes or in the groups to try to find some big ones. There were numerous of the bright magenta anemones and some crabs in the cracks as well.

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Conditions like these are what I have said make some of the best divers in the world. The vis was crummy, maybe 8 feet, at times it gets much worse. Though this was a very calm day, for up there, it still was ocean waves coming from Japan and Alaska. North Coast divers continue to dive on even moderate days and that can be a very rough day indeed. The experienced hunters are able to dive effectively among wash rocks where there may be white outs and surges from waves can suddenly grab you and whip you into a rock at high speed. But these divers know how to read the terrain so that they can move and hold their bodies such that are able to hide from the currents or ride them without harm. Free diving in waves and kelp forces them to have their gear configured to slide through the water without ever dragging, snagging or coming loose in a wave. The heavy wetsuit they need does not stop them from swimming relaxed and efficient with a graceful speed. The senses of the hunter are hightened by natural instincts to understand everything they see in a glance and to react instantly to anything they do see. Since they are filling the nitch of the sea otter, they must move with a similar style, quickly moving around and under rocks, positioning to look in holes and dodging things that suddenly appear out of the gloom. The north coast divers of California are comfortable in conditions that are more challenging and hostile than most divers from elsewhere, ever see.

Eventually, I figured it was time to finish up and get back to the boat. I looked for some fattys to finish my limit. Really, a deep 8 1/2 incher is going to have as much meat as a flatter 9 inch abalone. With my limit done, I climbed on my float and headed back to the boat. Before long, the other divers were returning as well. Pretty much everyone had gotten their limits. Curt had gotten a couple that were 9 inch, but the biggest one had been found by Chris. He had found a monster that was over 9 1/2 inches and was incredibly deep. A wild guess is that it had 5 pounds of meat in it. The return trip was another journey in the fog. It was just big enough for the swell to pound the boat a bit, but not big enough to make the waves have a long period. I was glad when we got to the cove at the river mouth. The fog was thinning a bit there and the entrance to the cove, under the old Albion Bridge, is beautiful.
The innertube floats are wonderfully convenient. The only drawback to them that I can see is that you do have to keep track of them some or tie them off. Normally that is not a problem and this trip it wasn't, but in the past, I have tried to avoid having a float because I am more likely to go exploring a distance. A single freedive may move me 75 feet down the coast. It's not like that's needed, but when I can explore, it is fun. the other drawback, that wasn't a problem this time, is that I often like to go into very rough water where a float would get pushed away or ever perhaps brought to shore. This time, I it was pretty much calm and I wouldn't have felt comfortable diving into the surf anyway.
Chris was using a piece of gear that I have seen but never used. It is a ~30 foot piece of plastic tubeing that has had flourescent paint poored through it. You tie one end to your float and the other end to your ab iron. If you see something big but you can't get it on one breath, you drop your ab iron and surface. Then you can dive again and follow the line to where you were before. Apparently, he and Curt, using it together, were able to get two 9 inch plus abalone on their last dive at Sea Ranch.

The drive back was a bit less foggy. We stopped at the Point Arena Seafood Festival and Abalone Competition at the pier in Point Arenan. It was an interesting stop with a band, fish kabobs, fish tacos, pies, cookies and lots of other consumables. If you want to compete in the abalone competition, you have to register at by 10 am. Expect a 10 inch plus abalone to take the competition.

Chris and Curt's Cool Dive

The next morning showed another incredibly beautiful day. Unfortunately, we had to get packed and head back home. I wanted to get some last photos so I went back to where Curt and Chris were staying. They were leaving later and so had planned on a last dive that morning. I would have loved to make another dive, but I didn't think I had time to join them.
It was another morning with excellent conditions. They were planning on going straight to the outer rock where they had seen big abs before. They would fill their limits with 2 abs, so the plan was to take nothing under 9 inches.

This is what Curt told me about the dive. I wish I had been there.

Chris and I made our last dive out to the rock for about an hour. The vis was magical. I could clearly see my 4" square weight lying in the troughs of white sand holding my dive float in place. The sun was beaming thru the ripples of what should be waves just like the rays of light piercing thru a cloudburst. I saw a VW size boulder off by itself and thought that might hold some trophies. I figured how would anybody even know it was there in a normal 10' of vis. I dove down and surveyed the rock and did not find a single ab. Discouraged I swam over to the outer rock, the same location where I had been to on Friday when I got a 9.5" However, I could not locate the same spot underwater and was having a hard time finding good abs. The diving was beautiful and despite the abs I was having the best of times enjoying the sights. I poked around here and there in different kelp clusters until Chris found a spot he said had some big abs. I moved the float in and set the anchor in the vicinity. Made a couple of dives and a spotted a couple of keepers. We needed two to limit out. I discussed the spot with Chris and it was apparent it was the spot he found. I made a dive gauged two, then another I found was over 9 inch so I popped it, gauged another - over 9 inch and popped it too. As I headed to the surface I dropped my 9 inch gauge. At the float I told Chris I got two 9'ers and he replied 'let's go'. 'Oh no' I said 'I have to get my gauge'. I dove back and in the clear water, by north coast standards, and found the gauge lying next to another large 9'er. It will wait for the next trip. There is always a reason to go back.

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Big ab of the trip goes to Chris. He got two in the 9 1/2 inch range that were both incredibly deep. They must have had about 5 pounds of meat each.

Sometimes, I try to fix in my mind a picture of the beauty I see when I dive. It is so fleeting and the image fades like a sunset. I guess that is all right, because then I must go back and do it again.

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