Magazine article Sunset

Beyond the Endless Blue

Magazine article Sunset

Beyond the Endless Blue

Article excerpt

Free diving for abatane took this beginner to a whole new, wild world

FOR YEARS after my fiancé, Drew, took up abalone diving, Fd accompany him on day trips up the California coast. He'd go free diving - holding a single breath as he disappeared under the water, resurfacing a couple of minutes later - while I would happily relax on the cliffs, watching him and reading my book. Being a girl from the Midwest who holds her nose in the shallow end of the pool, I never really liked the idea of plunging into the icy Pacific.

But after a while, I noticed something: During the car ride home, Drew, usually a man of few words, would regale me with exuberant descriptions of the beautiful things he had seen underwater. I got tired of missing the party, so I mustered the courage to try it with him. I went a handful of times - including one bout of seasickness in the water - but had never managed to get an abalone.

I didn't quite enjoy it, but wasn't ready to give up, either. So here I was, just a few months after my first attempt, heading out for another try with Drew and Eric Titus, a renowned Napa Valley winemaker, from his Sea Ranch, California, home. We climbed down the rocky cliffs and checked our weight belts, defogged our masks, and made sure we had our fishing licenses and abalone report cards. Then we put on our fins and pushed out into the water.

It's true: The water off the Northern California coast is incredibly cold, and the first swish of it filling my wetsuit around the neck and down my back took my breath away. As I began to swim, the swell increased and waves hit with a ferocity I had never experienced.

I kicked at full strength for what seemed like forever, eventually making it past the wave break, where the water was calmer. We spread out and got started.

Eric and Drew were picture-perfect in their diving form, bending into a pike and kicking one leg back, out of the water, before sinking into the deep. They blended into the ocean landscape like any other graceful sea creature. In contrast, I imagine I looked like a one-winged parakeet that had fallen into the kitchen sink. After only a couple of dives, the boys started resurfacing with abalone and putting them in the zippered float bags we'd brought. My competitive nature kicked in: I wanted one too.

After a few long, deep breaths to slow my racing heartbeat, I removed the snorkel from my mouth, inhaled, bent at the waist, clumsily kicked my leg up, and felt myself plunging downward. In what seemed like miles deep, but was probably more like io feet, the building pressure of the water pushed against every inch of my body.

There's a moment of faith when all you can see is endless blue, but you know something is down there, so you keep going. I kept going, starting to feel a rising desire to breathe. Just as I caught a glimpse of the tip of the rocks jutting up from the ocean floor, I had to turn around and head up. I was close but needed air.

I kicked my fins, shot to the surface, and gasped the second I broke through. After giving myself a couple of minutes to recover, I tried again. And again, diving down and shooting up, each time getting a little deeper into the sea.

Eventually, I got close enough to reach the rocks and grabbed hold. There were brightly colored starfish wedged into the cracks and crevices, as well as spiny points of black sea urchin. Finally, under a ledge, I saw an abalone camouflaged with barnacles and plant life on its shell, clinging onto the side of the rocks. …

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