Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#205: As the Abalone Turns

Although the title of this week's column may suggest it, this will be no soap opera story. Perhaps it will be a bit of a fantasy, but let's read on and find out. Unfortunately the abalone stampedes of the 60's and 70's are a thing of the past following their widespread commercial and recreational harvest, and the terrible impact of the withering syndrome disease on the remaining population. Fortunately I am at least reminded of the abundance of abalone, and the taste of Rosie's abalone burgers, on a regular basis when I encounter one of the relatively few adult "abs" still surviving in our waters.

In August I was enjoying another dive off at Catalina's Sea Fan Grotto. I had descended to the depths to spend a few minutes filming the unique species I find there, and was doing an extended deco stop in waters 20-30 feet deep. I had already explored the grottos here and observed more recent damage to the somewhat fragile sea fans at the site. I was beginning to make my way back to Scuba Luv's boat when I saw two abalone practically out in the open, almost inviting me to... ah, resist Dr. Bill... take them... er, I mean take pictures of them. No I'm not some unscrupulous poacher... in fact I haven't taken any edible species since the mid-70's. The only "take" I do these days is to take video. No Fish & Game limits on that.

I filmed the first ab which was partially hidden by a rock overhang. I could see it tighten up against the rock and knew there was little chance I could remove it without causing damage to its body. I moved to the second ab, out in the open in bright sunlight, and filmed it. I noted it had not gripped down, and the shell was raised well above the rock. With my free hand I quickly but gently "popped" the ab off the rock. I was determined to move it to a safer location so someone less scrupulous than me would not make it a potentially costly dinner.

Before I relocated the abalone (which technically is illegal itself... but this was for its own good), I decided to film its tasty... er interesting... foot. I placed the ab upside-down on its "back" (shell) and filmed as it attempted to right itself. An exposed foot like that could be a tempting sight for predators other than humans... and even I had thoughts of delicious abalone steaks in my mind. Fortunately I resisted and remained content to conjure up memories of pan frying these breaded delicacies in my early days at Toyon Bay.

Enough of possible "munching," and although the two abalone were fairly close to one another I did not expect any "mating" today. I'm going to focus this column on some of the ways that these delectable... er threatened... critters avoid being munched by you, me or their marine predators. I filmed as this abalone attempted to turn itself over so it would once again be protected by its thick calcium carbonate shell. Unfortunately an overly curious garibaldi kept getting in the way, so some of the footage was compromised by its orange tail and fins drifting through the frame. I pointed towards a lovely female Geraldine-baldi nearby and my unwanted accomplice drifted off to woo her (oops, I was wrong... there is a touch of "mating" in this tail... er tale).

The abalone kept extending its foot to the sides of its shell, trying to make contact with the hard rocky substrate. Some silt deposited on the rock probably made that more difficult, and it just could not seem to gain a "foothold" (literally). Finally as I kept the camera rolling it made contact and quickly flipped itself upright using that tasty... er strong... foot muscle. Once it was fully upright, I filmed the frilly fringe at edge of the shell and then quickly picked it up and relocated it to a safe hiding place before it could clamp down on the rock and thwart my plan. It was "safe..." at least for the time being.

Decades ago I used to see small abalone frequently when I turned over rocks in the intertidal to collect specimens for my biology lab tanks at Toyon. Now this is a rarity, but on occasion I do find one of the "little ones." These "baby" abalone (even though some of them were 1-2 years old) exhibited another form of defense that was critical to their survival... negative phototaxis. When exposed to sunlight, these little critters do indeed stampede... towards the safety of the new "underside" of the rock, and they can be pretty quick about it for a snail. Of course I always return the rock to its original position and make sure I don't crush the little critters before they can become dinner... er, before they can grow and repopulate our island with many more of their species.

So our lonely abalone have several different mechanisms to help ensure they survive to a ripe old reproductive age. Like most snails they have the thick, hard shell as primary protection. The little ones can "run" like rabbits to the safety of the "dark side." And the adults are able to turn themselves over and protect their tasty feet from potential predators. Of course if they are going to reestablish themselves in numbers sufficient to reopen abalone season, it is going to take will power (and conscience?) on the part of the many sport divers who have an opportunity to encounter them. Do you have what it takes? I know I do... I think. Just teasing... of course I can resist the pleasures of the abalone flesh!

© 2006 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles" or "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

My abalone star showing it has "the right stuff" to right itself and survive!

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2006 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia