Dawn breaks briskly, dew drips off the leaves and other campers slumber cozily in their sleeping bags, zipped in a maze of multi-colored tents scattered across the sparkling grass as we hardcore divers yank on our wetsuits and head out to sea. The pitch black road twists through the gnarled and weathered California Red Woods, leading to the ocean. Bets are being made. Who will capture the biggest abalone today?
Dragging our unwieldy gear up the jagged rocky terrain in our hot, sticky six millimeter wetsuits, sweat drips down our faces and the fierce wind whips through our hair. Finally, we reach the glorious raging ocean. At the exact right moment, we leap off the rock ledge, that’s about the width of a file cabinet. We barely avoid being dashed by the oncoming waves on the unfriendly patch of prickly sea urchins and sharp rocks lurking just below the surface. We hit the foaming water as a wave swells up about fifteen feet, covering the ledge we were teetering on just moments before. All family allegiances evaporate, and the hunt begins. It’s every man for himself. We spread out in all directions with our eyes glued to the sea floor searching for our prize. I jack-knife dive through the waves into the swaying, green kelp forests below. Swimming as far as I can before my lungs start burning and screaming for air. I blast up through the rolling waves kicking fiercely, gasping three big breaths of air. Then I flip over and quickly kick down again into the crystal blue water to about thirty feet. There, I finally spot my future abalone dinner. It’s 9 inches from tip to tip, with a giant, hard, oval shell that has rough, squiggly edges and is covered with all types of algae and other miniscule sea life. Its strong, slightly brown and pink muscle is plastered just inside a lightning bolt shaped crack in the coral ledge that runs all the way down into the deep blackness of the ocean. The kelp sways back and forth around me and the sunlight shines in perfect rays through the blue ocean water, as I push myself to descend another ten feet to the prize abalone waiting below. Squeezing through the long, thick stands of kelp, I take out my iron, a long flat metal stick about 10 inches long, wedge it under the abalone and pry with all my might. Pop! The muscular foot of the abalone detaches from the rocky surface, and I rocket to the glistening sunlight above. I take a sweet breath of salty air as I break through the chilly clear water. I spot my mom gloating to my dad that her abalone is bigger while he’s teasing her back, with two abalone suctioned onto his chest. I slither myway through the rolling waves to show off my prize, abruptly beginning the argument about who got the biggest catch of the day.
That evening we prepare for the feast. My dad carefully puts the now shell-less and clean, tough, pink muscle of the abalone through the shiny meat slicer. We line up at the table with our abalone pounders in hand, whacking and tenderizing the strips of tough meat. A fresh, cool breeze rushes over the light green grass, ruffling my salty damp hair. The seagulls squawk above, like madmen, while we daydream about the delicious meal being prepared. The sun rays pierce my tanned skin, warming my insides, chilled from the icy ocean water. As soon as the abalone is beaten into tender, quarter inch thick, slightly shredded pieces, I’m snatching them up and tossing them into the bowl of uncooked, mixed up yellow eggs. After the abalone is fully covered in egg, I drop it into the bread crumb bowl. My Dad buries them in a mound of crumbly, yellow, white and brown bread crumbs before handing them to my Mom. She stands next to him, joking that we need to hurry up our egging and breading work, while waiting impatiently to gently set the abalone into the popping hot oil in the pan. One of my favorite memories is of my Dad and I trying to sneak up to the plate of steaming hot cooked abalone, to snatch a piece before my Mom can catch us. She would always let us get away with one or two but after that she would shoo us away, waving spatula in hand. My Dad and I would slink away, with our stomachs growling, impatiently waiting for the abalone to be done, trying to ignore the mouthwatering smells emanating from the charcoal black pan my Mom is stooped over.
In the ocean it’s everyone for themselves, but we become a well-oiled machine, chugging away, in order to prepare a delicious feast from our catch of the day. The food is finally done and we all pile a mountain of the still sizzling abalone onto our plates, on that cold, windy night in Fort Bragg. Huddling around the dancing yellow and orange light of the fire it feels like home, with the forest enclosing around us. Loud boastful stories of how we pried off the biggest abalone from the deepest crevasses of the ocean echo around the cheery fire. Everyone’s stomachs are soon stuffed with the impressive heap of savory abalone we just gobbled up, all happily satisfied dreaming about our next family adventure into the ocean.