What Causes Abalone Divers to Die?

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By Jack Likins

I thought I’d take a stab at trying to explain why divers die abalone diving.

I’ve been abalone diving for over 50 years in both southern California and here on the north Coast.  It can be a very dangerous sport if not done with proper training, conditioning and knowledge of the ocean.  Let me explain why.

From what I have observed most of the deaths come as a result of what the newspapers call a “medical emergency”.  In other words the deaths occur not directly from drowning, but from some other medical problem (usually a heart problem) that may lead to drowning.

Think about it this way… A person who dives once or twice a year comes to the coast with his/her family and friends for a little diving and a lot of fun.  If they have dived before they begin to get excited about the prospects of diving and getting abalones for a meal or to take home.  If they haven’t dived in a while or kept swimming over the winter, they may not be in very good condition and many divers are older (50+).  In any case, anyone will have anxiety and apprehension on their first dive of the season (it still happens to me and every diver I know).  They look at the ocean, but they don’t have enough experience to know if the conditions are within their personal capabilities and they see other people and their friends diving so they think it must be OK.  It’s difficult to say you don’t feel comfortable going into the water when your dive buddies all say they want to go.  Who is going to be the one who backs out first?  Ten years ago is was not going to be me?  Anxiety probably causes most of these so called “medical emergencies”.

Here’s what happens.  You put on an old wetsuit that may have gotten a little smaller over the years and it is very constrictive.  It’s tight on your chest and gives you that claustrophobic feeling of confinement.  As you start to suit up you start to thinking about sharks, even though the chance of being bitten are extremely rare, you can’t stop thinking about how it would be to be attacked by an 800 pound great white shark.  Once you’ve struggled to get into your wetsuit then you put a 20-30 pound weight belt around your waist, grab all your other gear (float tube, mask, fins, snorkel, ab iron, etc) and start walking to the beach (maybe down a cliff with a rope).  By the time you get to the water you are sweating profusely from hiking in your wetsuit.  After putting on the rest of your gear you jump into 47-degree water and all of a sudden the cold water starts to seep into your wetsuit and you begin to swim, hard, to get out beyond the breakers.  Maybe there is a current, maybe there are waves, maybe you start to getting sucked out to sea and try to swim against the current, or maybe you just get knocked down by a wave and washed into the beach or rocks.  But, let’s assume you are successful in getting out to the area where you want to dive and the visibility is only 2-3 feet underwater.  You can’t see the bottom, so you get out your underwater light. Since you can’t see the bottom from the surface, you dive down 15-20 feet and finally see the bottom, but it is covered with palm kelp so you have to go another 2-3 feet and get under the palm kelp.  Once there, it is even darker so you shine your light to look into the rocky crevices and under the rocky ledges where the abalones live.  Now you’ve successfully gotten to the bottom and have looked for abalone, maybe even found one and you want to go back to the surface.  You can’t use any type of underwater breathing apparatus so you have to be constantly going down and up as you look for abalones.  When you decide to return to the surface you look up and the surface is covered with matted bull kelp, so you look for the light shining through the kelp and head for a clearing hoping not to get tangled in the long strands on your way to the surface.  Let’s say you dive for 45 minutes to an hour.  You’re getting tired and now its time to head back to shore, but the wind has picked up during that hour and there is a current running in the opposite direction that you want to swim.  Maybe the waves have picked up too, maybe the tide is lower and the exit is more rocky.  What do you do?  Hopefully you’re in good enough shape that you can swim against the current, or you have a “bail out” location down current where you can safely get out of the water.  If you’re lucky or experienced and have planned right, you will get back to shore safely.  I am trying not to exaggerate, but I have had all of these things happen to me a one time or another.  Now imagine thousands of divers, many of who are not very knowledgeable or experienced and you can understand how some of them become overly anxious and why 3-4 people die every year.

If you’re lucky or if you are well trained and experienced you can avoid these hazards of abalone diving and get safely back to the beach with an abalone or two to enjoy with your friends and family.  If not, from what I have described, you can understand how this sport can be deadly.  Personally, I would not want to stake my life on luck.  I’d rather base my life on knowledge and experience.

My advice… the best way to prevent these hazards is to avoid them altogether.  In other words, don’t dive if you don’t feel comfortable with the ocean conditions, even if your dive buddies want to dive.   If you dive or have friends who dive, the best advice you can give them is “don’t go into the water when the conditions are beyond your capabilities”.  To be able to judge ocean conditions you must have the knowledgeable to “read” the ocean and the experience to understand your own capabilities.  To me, this is what the buddy system is all about.  If you are a new or inexperienced diver find an experienced buddy who can help you gain the knowledge and experience, both in and out of the water, and one that won’t push you beyond your comfort level.

Having said all this, if you pick the right day with the right conditions and don’t push beyond you ability, conditioning and knowledge then abalone diving can be a wonderful, eye-opening experience.  Most of the time I go abalone diving I don’t ever take an abalone, although I see hundreds of them.  What’s most rewarding to me is the experience and the wonders of the ocean that I see every time I dive.  More often than not, I will see something that I have never before seen.  The ocean is an amazing environment and one that has only begun to be explored and understood by man.

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Jack Likins, Gualala, CA, has been abalone diving for 50 years

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10 comments for “What Causes Abalone Divers to Die?

  1. Mary Wicksten
    June 17, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Right on! And let’s not forget what sometimes is called “Monterey Syndrome”–we’ve driven all this long distance to dive (at Monterey or elsewhere on the California coast) so we’ve gotta go diving! Wrong, buddy–you’ve gotta go diving, not me!

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  2. Mark Boden
    June 17, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    Great article with extensive view on diving for us old people.
    Many of us think we can overcome all at all times and not have the strength or endurance to do things.
    Also, since 60% of our US populatuion is over the age of 60,its a matter of numbers in divers over 60 who are going to die just because of the numbers ,with more older people diving thinking they are 18.
    Great article,
    Mark

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  3. Howard Lewis
    July 17, 2013 at 1:18 am

    I enjoyed some parts of the article. Especially the tight fitting suit; since Jerry Stugan no longer makes those wonderful skin 2 suits at Stan’s Dive Shop in San Jose, Ca. I used to be a pretty good free diver but stopped doing that maybe 15-20 years ago. Just started feeling old and not able to hold my breath as well as I once could. I still swim 250 miles or more a year but no longer dive. It was kinda neat to see the picture of the largest California white sea bass taken with a speargun, while free diving, and not recognise the diver as Bill Ernst. We do age….

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  4. John
    August 1, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    I agree with some parts of the article. I been ab diving for a long time and some people go out diving when the surf is big or the tides are to wild. People also like to go out after a storm or after a large swell thinking the water would be clear. People have this conception that they have to dive in 60+ water to get abs. Going beyond the kelp line is a risk. Trophy abs aren’t always in deep water. So I agree that the lack of experience and peer pressure from your buddies is another reason people die.

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  5. Rob
    May 8, 2014 at 12:01 am

    From experience, You’ll learn how to pick your dive spots too.

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  6. August 23, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Jack, great article. I would like add that most deaths in the water happen to males with big spikes at 2 years old ( they weren’t diving) and 19 years old, including surfing, diving, apnea etc.
    Why 19? Their confidence can greatly exceed their limits. They believe they can get that 10 incher at the back of a dark crack right up to when they pass out.
    I’m 63 now. I’m sure a lot more cautious now and the beauty of the ocean surpasses any desire to score.
    One of my buddies lost his stepson at Salt Point: same conditions different ages.
    I met you at Masters water polo some years ago. You do stay in shape!
    Gualala remains my favorite Ab area. Jim

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  7. Don Sr.
    April 15, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    Most of what is said is very good info, but as a diving instructor let me point out that the diving organizations do not teach Ab diving, so as Jim stated getting a older Ab diver to teach you the proper ins and outs of the sport should be the first concern of any diver who wishes to join in and partake of these very taste sea creatures. As for the conditions of the ocean waters, it may look flat but in most cases flat means 3 to 4 foot swells that are spaced farther apart, and as the older divers know these conditions can change for the worst in as little as 30 mins. so before you go in, ask other divers who are coming out what the conditions are like, both at the surface and at depth, because diving in ruff water with low vis is a sure way to end your diving forever.

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  8. DarrylKBateman
    March 1, 2016 at 7:18 pm

    Bluewater blackout…is one of the main killers of divers. As I understand it, from a PBS special, “Bluewater Hunters”, Divers pass out and drown 4 to 5 feet from the surface, usually after over long period of breath-holding, then rapidly swimming towards the surface; oxygen starved lungs steal blood from the brain, added to rapid change of depth, resulting in bluewater blackout…and sadly death.
    Who hasn’t stayed a little too long past twenty feet trying to get the elusive big one?
    I know I have until I saw the PBS special. Lesson learned. This is a link to a story on it…
    http://www.freedive.net/chapters/SWB3.html

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  9. Bill Baxter
    April 5, 2016 at 1:24 am

    Jack:Hello! My daughter,Brenda sent me your article and my wife read it first. She immediately measured me and ordered me a NEW rubber suit( I hung my old rubber suit in the closet for the winte last year and it shrunk..it was 12 years old.., imagine that,) Amazon.com is going to deliver my new (full figure) suit in a couple of days. I live at The Sea Ranch and like you have been diving for Abs for 60+ yrs. Ab diving can be very stressfull.., especially,when things aren’t going right. At my age “76″…, I pick and choose my dive days very carefully. I hope many divers read your article and pay attention to your suggestions. Saludos, Bill B
    , Bill B

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  10. May 23, 2016 at 7:06 pm

    The article was a perfect explanation on why my best friend aged 67 recently drowned.He was in perfect health,athletically active. A rented wet suit as the article stated seems very much a factor.He had never done this and and was very apprehensive when he talked about this diving experience.Fantastic guy , huge loss if only more publications were out there to inform all the novices of the serious dangers involved. A much better way to inform all involved in this sport of how deadly this sport has become needs more public notices on a regular basis.

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