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The Last Thing You See Before You Black Out...

James Nestor | March 22, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

By the time the Sonoma County sheriff’s air ambulance helicopter reached Cedric Collett in the roiling waters off Sea Ranch, it was too late. Collett, a 66-year-old retired firefighter from Pacifica, wasn’t breathing and registered no pulse. Moments later, he was pronounced dead.

The next day, Sunday, April 28, 2013, the same rescuers found another victim. Ten miles south of Sea Ranch at Salt Point State Park, Kenneth Liu, a 36-year-old security checker at San Francisco International Airport, was discovered floating hundreds of feet from shore. Liu had been scavenging in the shallow water an hour earlier when a riptide swept him off the rocks and dragged him into the open sea. He drowned shortly thereafter.

On the same day, at the same time, 70 miles north, Henry Choy, 50, of San Bruno, was diving off the coast of Fort Bragg. After losing sight of him in the surf, his friends called for help. As an air ambulance arrived at the scene, the crew spotted Choy’s dive buoy bobbing in the whitewash. Fifteen feet below the buoy, they discovered Choy’s body.

In the course of 24 tragic hours, the Sonoma coast had suffered half the number of fatalities it usually sees in an entire season, the deadliest spate on record. Over the next seven months, three more divers would drown within a few miles of Liu and Collett. The most recent victim, Alan Rosenlicht, 57, of Oakland, was recovered on November 24, 2013, a few hundred feet from the shoreline of Fort Ross State Historical Park. Like Collett and Choy, he was found pinned to the seafloor, still wearing his weight belt.

I was diving at Fort Ross that November Sunday, about a half mile from where first responders later recovered Rosenlicht’s body. But I didn’t hear the sirens, and I didn’t see the emergency crews. I didn’t because I couldn’t. I was holding my breath 25 feet below the ocean’s surface, cutting kelp from my legs and jamming my hands into the shadowy cracks of boulders on the seafloor.

I’d come to Fort Ross with the same goal as Collett, Liu, Choy, and the other divers who had lost their lives in the past several months: to wrench a few eight-inch, slimy gastropods out of the sea. In Britain they call them ormer, in New Zealand they’re pāua, and Australians call them mutton fish. Around here, we call them abalone.

To the uninitiated, risking life and limb for a shellfish seems crazy, and for the most part, it is. First off, abalone aren’t much to look at. Their exteriors are craggy, crusted with dirt, covered in algae and barnacles, and hardly distinguishable from the rocks under which they make their homes. Their insides are even less impressive: Abalone flesh is tough, like a cow’s tongue, and covered in a thin film of transparent mucus. It takes hours to render it edible. You need to dislodge it from its shell, then cut away its foul-smelling guts and excrement, slice it up, tenderize the chunks with a mallet for 15 minutes, and finally cook it. The meat lasts about a day in a refrigerator and doesn’t take well to freezing.

In short, wild abalone is a notorious pain in the ass—a hassle to prepare, illegal to sell, and, increasingly, lethal to hunt. The only way to catch California abalone is to dive down, using your own kicking power and a single breath of air. Since the 1950s, the use of scuba equipment or air tubes in the collection of abalone has been strictly prohibited in the United States. The authorities reason that scuba diving for abalone is simply too easy and would put the species, especially the larger and older specimens in deep water, at risk of being exterminated. But these provisions, meant to save abalone, have also endangered the lives of thousands of hunters and resulted in dozens of drownings in the past decade alone.

Despite the obvious risks for foragers, the sport continues to thrive even as abalone numbers decline. In many parts of the world, including Japan, China, and South Africa, the 60 or so species of abalone have been fished to near extinction. (Abalone meat in Tokyo can fetch as much as $100 per pound.) In the United States, two species are on the federal endangered list, making it a federal crime to harvest them, and the rest are heavily monitored. Wild red abalone, which is found only along the Pacific coast, can’t be bought or sold. It’s illegal to hunt in Washington, and Oregon has strict catch limits. In California, red abalone is protected in all waters south of San Francisco. (Poaching could get you a $40,000 fine and up to six months in jail per ill-gotten mollusk.) North of the city, in Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino, licensed hunters can harvest only 18 red abalone a year during the season, from April through November, down from a cap of 24 last year.

But for the 25,000 or so active abalone hunters in California, this ugly sea snail, with the meaty texture of steak and the delicate flavor of calamari, is an unsurpassed luxury. And the punishment and perils of the hunt are more than a cheap adrenaline rush. For them—for us—abalone is a taste worth dying for.

But does diving for abalone require a death wish? Terry Maas, a 69-year-old Los Gatos real estate mogul and world-renowned spearfisherman, believes that it does not. After almost a decade of toiling away in obscurity, Maas recently found a way to make abalone diving, spearfishing, and freediving significantly safer. In March 2011, he debuted a new device, called the Freedivers Recovery Vest, or FRV. The system contains an inflatable vest and a handheld programmable computer that constantly monitors a diver’s depth and time underwater. If the computer senses that the diver has stayed submerged for too long or has dived too deep, it triggers two carbon dioxide cartridges to fill the emergency buoyancy vest, bringing the diver safely to the surface. Maas is now selling the streamlined second generation of the FRV to the public, albeit with a hefty price tag: $1,500.

Maas argues that the FRV could have prevented a number of the abalone-diving fatalities along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts last year and, if promoted by the authorities and adopted by more divers, could save dozens more lives in years to come. But Maas finds himself kicking through murky waters: sometimes bumping against the hunters themselves, who argue that the price of the FRV is too high; other times against skeptical state officials who worry that the device might lead to even more fatalities.

Decades ago, when red abalone were abundant along the coasts and there was little to no market for them, most fishermen would simply walk out in jeans and a sweatshirt and gather them from tide pools and shallow rocks. Only in 1998 did the California Department of Fish and Wildlife begin requiring abalone hunters to carry special fishing licenses. By 2000, the DFW had initiated catch limits and begun requiring divers to carry abalone “report cards” and file annual catches. Shallow-water abalone, which were plentiful around the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts just 10 years ago, are today snapped up within the first few days—or hours—of the annual season opening on April 1. Overharvested areas like Fort Ross, which from 2005 to 2007 experienced a 90 percent increase in catch totals, have now been closed to hunting indefinitely. (My trip there in November was among the last permitted.) In 2011, a bloom of toxic microorganisms killed off much of the red abalone population. What few remained lurked around 15 feet below the surface (depending on the tide). Today, abalone at popular dive spots like Stillwater Cove, Salt Point, and Fort Bragg is mostly found at depths below 20 feet.

Page two: the danger of "Sacramento Syndrome"

It’s this last fact that is making abalone hunting more and more deadly for divers. To freedive 20 feet beneath the surface of the cold and current-ripped Pacific takes about 15 seconds. After finding an abalone on a rock, you must measure it with a ruler to ensure that it has reached the harvestable size of seven inches in diameter. Add 10 more seconds. Then you need to pry it off the rock with an abalone iron, a process that can take another 20 seconds, if not longer. Once you’ve accomplished all this, it’s time to go. Hopefully you’ve saved another 15 seconds of air in your lungs, because you’ll need every one of them. All told, at least a minute has passed from the time you took your last breath. If you miscalculate your dive—if you get tangled in kelp, or mishandle your iron, or encounter a great white shark and panic—you’ll run out of oxygen during your ascent and pass out. If nobody is there to help you to the surface, you’ll be dragged back down to the seafloor by the lead weights around your belt and drown. That’s what happened to Collett, Choy, and Rosenlicht.

“I don’t think that people understand how much stress this kind of diving puts on the body,” says Jerry Kashiwada, an environmental scientist in the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marine Region in Fort Bragg. Competitive breath-hold divers train for years to master the depths that amateur abalone divers gun for on a weekend. “And most of these guys aren’t watermen,” says Kashiwada. “They drive for hours, rent a hotel room, spend a lot of money, and then go out in the water no matter what. They don’t know the ocean.”

Kashiwada points out that many of the divers who drowned in the past few years didn’t live by the coast and rarely, if ever, went into the sea other than to hunt abalone—a pattern that North Coasters refer to as the “Sacramento Syndrome.” Curiously, the premier dive shop for abalone-diving and spearfishing gear, Freedive Shop, is located not in Sonoma or Mendocino but in West Sacramento, some 100 miles from the Pacific. “I get guys coming in from the Central Valley wanting to ab dive or spearfish with no cardio training, no understanding of the physical conditioning it takes to survive in the water, especially the cold ocean,” says the shop’s owner, Greg Fonts. “And there’s been a huge explosion in numbers lately, more and more of them every year.”

Fonts attributes some of the sport’s newfound popularity to the slew of superheated wetsuits that have hit the market in the last five years, making cold-water diving significantly more comfortable than it was five years ago. “Now anyone can go out in 48-degree water and stay warm for hours,” he says. Another possible culprit: a reality-TV show on the Outdoor Channel, Speargun Hunter, that follows elite divers on their adventures. A similar show, Spear Kings, will soon premiere on the Weather Channel.

Two months after the last abalone diving death of 2013, I’m sitting on a plush white sofa in a rambling estate perched high above the foothills of Ventura, California. Terry Maas lives here with his wife on weekends, commuting every Tuesday to his Los Gatos real estate office in a private plane that he pilots himself. To my right is a wall-size window overlooking a field of bird of paradise plants. Further out, along the dusty-blue Pacific horizon, is Anacapa, one of the eight Channel Islands, which run from southern Los Angeles up past Santa Barbara. In a few hours, we’ll be taking Maas’s 32-foot powered catamaran, the Tuna Dreamer, to the shores of Anacapa for a freedive. But before that, Maas wants to tell me why he, a successful businessman, toiled alone for eight years in a cluttered workshop building the FRV—a contraption that has already cost him more money to build and develop than he ever dreams of making back in profits.

“Freedivers don’t need a new speargun, or better fins, or whatever,” says Maas, leaning back on an adjacent white sofa and running a hand through his shock of white hair. “What everyone wants is to make their stuff safer. They want the peace of mind to know that when they go out diving, there’s a good chance that they’ll be coming back.” Maas, who grew up in Cupertino, has been steadily freediving and spearfishing since he was 14 years old. In the 1980s, he captured world records in competitive spearfishing for bagging a 398-pound bluefin tuna and then, years later, a 225-pound yellowfin. In 1997, while diving off of San Benedicto Island, Mexico, he was attacked by a 1,000-pound tiger shark. He shot it in the face with his speargun, hopped in a nearby boat, and, over the course of 15 minutes, pulled the carcass up to the side of the vessel.

Spearing giant fish and diving dozens of stories below the ocean’s surface don’t come without danger, and Maas has had his share of close calls. At age 18, he blacked out in a swimming pool. Four years later, he suffered another blackout after shooting an African pompano. (He woke up a few seconds later when he hit his head on the bottom of the motorboat.) Many of his cohorts weren’t so lucky. He lost a good friend to a shark attack and dozens more to shallow-water blackouts throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Then, in 2001, tragedy struck closer to home. His son, Loren, then 19, was freediving with a friend in Hawaii when he dove down to at least 35 feet and never came back up. By the time rescue crews pulled him from the water, it was too late.

After Loren’s death, Maas looked for a way to save other spearfishermen and freedivers from a similar fate. He began tinkering. He studied software design and taught himself hydrodynamics. He installed a lathe in his garage and began piecing together waterproof containers that could hold a computer capable of monitoring conditions and triggering an emergency inflatable vest at the first sign of trouble.

Page three: testing the FRV

“It’s like a parachute,” says Maas of the FRV. “But instead of carrying skydivers safely to earth, it carries freedivers safely to the surface.” Maas and I are standing in his workshop, a small bedroom with turquoise carpet located beside the garage. On two joined desks are piles of wrenches and screwdrivers, soldering irons, a nest of colored wires, and a half dozen circuit boards. To the left of the desks is a shelf filled with two dozen FRVs. Maas grabs one, unfolds it, and reaches for a metal box with a clear plastic cover attached to the neck area of the vest. Inside the box is a custom-built, programmable computer with an LCD display. “You set it the way you’d set an alarm clock,” says Maas, holding the FRV’s computer in his hands. “No matter if you’re underwater upside down, right side up, on your side— whatever. The vest will right you so that you always—always—come to the surface faceup.”

Maas and I load two FRVs and the rest of our dive gear into his pickup and drive down to the Pacific Corinthian Marina, where he docks the Tuna Dreamer. An hour and a half later, I’m about 30 feet below the surface, holding my breath facedown on the seafloor. My stomach has begun trembling with convulsions, the first sign of an impeding blackout. Just a few minutes earlier, Maas and I were freediving together through Anacapa’s greenblue kelp forests. I’ve been wearing the FRV since we first entered the water about 40 minutes ago. I’ve been able to descend and ascend just as easily as if I were wearing only my wetsuit; the thick nylon straps around my chest that felt so constricting on land are hardly noticeable in the water. Maas spent years streamlining the vest, and it feels like it. For most of the dive, I don’t even realize that I’m wearing it.

It’s time to put the FRV through its final test—activating the remote trigger switch and initiating an emergency ascent. I’ve been on the seafloor now for about a minute and am desperate for air. I’m beginning to feel lightheaded, and a washed-out blur is slowly obscuring my peripheral vision— the second stage of the pre-blackout phase. I probably have about 30 more seconds before I pass out. I reach over with my right hand, grab the sidearm trigger on my left arm, and press the button four times in quick succession. Before I can fully comprehend what’s happening, I feel my body being jettisoned from the seafloor, as if an invisible hand has grabbed me and yanked me upward. After what seems like a fraction of a second, I’m back at the surface, floating faceup and squinting in the bright, white sunlight. I take a big breath and start laughing. Maas, who is standing on the transom of the Tuna Dreamer a dozen feet away, laughs back.

“Well, how did you like that?” he asks. I nod, give him the OK sign with my right hand, and then proceed to fl oat above the kelp for a few minutes and stare at the craggy hilltops of Anacapa, fully supported by the inflated FRV. A few minutes later, Maas yells at me to get in the boat. It’s late afternoon now, and we have to return to the marina before it gets dark.

As the Tuna Dreamer motors back to the mainland, Maas and I chat in the cabin. I tell him that while the FRV works as advertised, I wonder if it really could have saved the divers who died off the California coast last year. Maas believes that an FRV would have rescued some of them, but not all. “Listen, nobody can save you from being reckless,” he says. “A lot of what happens in the North Coast is done by people who are out of shape, in rough conditions. They don’t know how to read the ocean; they aren’t ocean men.” He exhales. “If you approach the ocean like that, you’re just kind of asking for trouble no matter what you’re wearing.”

The FRV may not be a silver bullet, but Maas is convinced that it’s a start. DFW scientist Kashiwada is a bit less enthusiastic. “I guess it might save one or two divers,” he says. But he also fears that the FRV, which he has never seen in use, might lead divers to overestimate their lung capacity, which could, in fact, result in more fatalities. A while back, Kashiwada says, some locals suggested allowing a small emergency air bottle that people could breathe from if they got in trouble. “People being what they are, they would probably be tempted to abuse that as a mini–scuba gear to help them stay down a little longer rather than save it for an emergency,” he tells me. It’s easy to see how the FRV might be similarly misused. The only foolproof way to prevent most diving deaths, Kashiwada concludes, would be to ban abalone hunting altogether. “That would be super-unpopular,” he says. “And I have no idea how many people will need to die before we want to take more steps.”

One thing that Kashiwada and other DFW officials rarely mention— one thing that the newspaper stories and radio reports about diver fatalities never convey—is the joy of the hunt itself. This may sound trite, but I believe that most abalone hunters do know what they are getting themselves into. They understand the dangers, and they choose to dive anyway. Most hunters, at least all the ones I know—even the sufferers of Sacramento Syndrome— don’t dive because they get a rush out of defying death. They aren’t daredevils. Some don’t even care for the taste of the slimy mollusk. They dive because freediving deep in the ocean is a transformative experience.

When you dive, you are removed from the noise of the surface—the texts, the traffic, the laws (most of them, at least)—and enveloped in a wilderness that few people will ever access. Down there, you see things no land dweller can see, feel things they will never feel. The ocean below the surface is a refuge from all that is wrong on the top side. It’s the last truly quiet place on Earth. For a diver, traveling there will always be worth the stiff price of admission.

Originally published in the April 2014 Issue of San Francisco Magazine

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