Free diving for wild Abalone on the Mendocino coast

Free diving for wild Abalone near Mendocino, tripwellness
Free diving for wild Abalone near Mendocino, tripwellness

Free diving for wild Abalone near Mendocino

It’s not often you get a chance to harvest your dinner. The rich waters of the north Pacific coast drew my family in, literally, and the effort paid off deliciously. It takes some planning and care yet every year sadly, unprepared divers are lost trying to pry the giant invertebrates off tidal rocks. Planning and luck play a big part when you dive for wild Abalone.

Wild abalone harvest

A good but chilly harvest!

Abalone are only available for sport harvesting. They were once abundant all along the Pacific Coastline. In San Diego I’ve seen older homes with hundreds of shells set into walls. Mother of Pearl jewelry is popular most everywhere. Native American tribes would pick them up at low tide. The Spanish gorged on the meat. Over-harvesting took its toll but it wasn’t until a ‘withering foot’ disease swept through a few decades ago that they disappeared almost entirely from Baja Mexico and Southern California waters. The north coast has luckily avoided that disease and with regulation wild Abalone are flourishing.


Tagging wild abalone.

Tagging wild abalone.

Ready to try free diving for wild Abalone?

You need to be a strong swimmer to face the surging waters and cold conditions. Once you’ve found a good cove they can usually be found within 5 to 40 feet of water. For all the complications, it’s worth it. Biting into a tender, succulent, fresh-harvested Abalone ‘steak’ is a rare treat.

Enjoying the harvest. pan-seared wild Abalone for dinner.

Enjoying the harvest. pan-seared wild Abalone for dinner.

Here’s a few of the steps:

  • Make sure you’re visiting in the open season. Abalone diving is carefully regulated by Fish and Game. You need to check with them about open months, rules and licenses. Mess up and there are hefty fines or imprisonment.
  • Make sure you have the proper gear. There are several dive shops in the Fort Bragg / Mendocino area. You’ll feel like a sausage in the 7 millimeter suits, booties, hood and gloves but it’s worth it once you hit the water.
  • Prepare yourself to be cold. The temperatures topside run from a ‘warm’ 60 to 50 degrees. Once you see the Abalone and start working adrenaline kicks in and you’ll start warming up from exertion.
  • Remember: You can only harvest 3 per person per day for a total of 24 each year. Minimum size limits are strictly enforced. Checking the shell size correctly takes a gauge and experience. One Abalone can feed 4 people well! Three would feed a party. You can freeze them for months but legally you need to keep the shell, meat and tags together when storing them. We’ve kept them for a year and they’re still delicious.


I’m so grateful to my partner, Dave and his son, Jeff Rudie for doing the diving and prep this year. I went wild Abalone diving once and discovered how trying it can be to pry them off the rocks, especially in frigid waters. It’s hard killing things too, even though I feel it’s healthy to acknowledge where our food comes from and be responsible about it. Red meat? That’s where I’d draw the line.

Have you ever harvested your dinner?

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  • In evolutionary time, we’re not so far removed from our hunter-gatherer past, so I guess there is some appeal in diving for abalone. As for killing what I eat, I am a total hypocrite. If something looks like what it really was, I can’t eat it, but turn it into something else and I’ll dig in. During my recent visit to Spain, enough of the meat/sea creatures served up for dinner looked like what they really were, so I pretty much became a vegetarian for the duration of my trip.

    • That’s a harsh distinction to live by, Suzanne, but I can understand your compassionate heart. I’m a scuba diver and have witnessed so much of the eat or be eaten aspect of the underwater world. It’s survival. Although I lived as a vegetarian for about 3 years, eating some meat but more seafood is my preference. Sometimes though I too get squeamish.

  • I’ve had fresh abalone from the Mendocino coast, but what I ate, or didn’t eat, could hardly be called succulent. Glad to hear your harvest was so tasty.

    • Hi Carole, Shellfish is horribly tough if not prepared or cooked correctly. It takes a lot of work to harvest Abalone and to prepare the steaks. There’s de-shelling, slicing the foot off, slicing into pieces, pounding to tenderize. Then you cook it very quickly and not too much. I’m so lucky that my travel buddy was a professional diver and all this is second hand to him.

  • I haven’t ever catched my own food & probably ever won’t, but your post is a great write up and explaination of your experience.

    • Thanks, Erica, catching your own food is a right of passage. Put me in better alignment with what I eat and why. There’s value in that but can’t say I’d ever want to kill my food. Not in my heritage, I didn’t grow up on a farm where that regularly happened.

  • I don’t think I’ve ever tasted Abalone but would love to try it. Free diving for them sounds like quite an adventure in itself! I have caught salmon off Vancouver Island but that’s about it. And I did feel bad killing it, though I agree with you about acknowledging where our food comes from.

  • Hope you got to Gualala as you went up the coast. We were supposed to go there and I did a lot of research. Sadly we had to bag the trip. We did spend a night in Ft. Bragg years ago. It sure is a beautiful area!

  • I’m afraid that diving for abalone would be outside of my personal comfort zone, but the hubby is going to be very interested in this informative piece. I’m there to help with the eating. As for harvesting my own food……. beyond picking fruit and veggies, I’m sadly lacking in experience.

  • As an amateur of good food, I am certainly tempted by the idea of a freshly-harvested Abalone steak, but I suspect that I’ll let you do the diving and harvesting parts and limit my role to cheering you on. Very informative and interesting posting!

  • Great post Elaine.
    I have scuba dived along the California coast but never free dived for Abalone. After your post I will check into it. Thank you for mentioning that there is a season and limit.

    • You’re so welcome and yes, it’s important to know the limitations on catch. The area is beautiful in most any weather but we were lucky to have mild seas and warm temperatures. I hope so for you too when you get there.

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