Three dead diving for abalone near Fort Bragg


Sonoma County Sheriff's Department used a helicopter to search for the divers in the waters off Fort Bragg in Mendocino County.

The victims had been free-diving for abalone.

"Fort Bragg, the seas were rough, the body was inside the surf line. It took two, we had to deploy two personnel for that, for that and it was rough," said Sgt. Ed Hoener of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.

The rescues-turned recoveries started Saturday afternoon at Sonoma's shell beach where 66-year-old retired Pacifica fire fighter Cedric Collett was found several feet underwater, still wearing his weight belt. Friends say he was in great shape and an experienced diver.

"Proficient swimmer, diver, you know. Routinely swims at the Dolphin Club once or twice a week. He's dived at this spot, I'm guessing, 50-100 times. Conditions were reported to be calm and perfect. We're at complete loss on why this happened and it makes no sense to us," said Capt. Joseph Penko of North County Fire.

The Sonoma sheriff's air ambulance was used in all three recoveries.

Other abalone divers had already recovered the body of 36-year-old San Francisco man Kenneth Liu. They say he had called for help when caught in a riptide. But just an hour later the helicopter headed to Mendocino, where rescuers recovered the body 50-year-old Henry Choy of San Bruno.

"We don't know if these persons suffered medical situations that caused them to not be able to self-rescue. Although we do have a report of the one individual who was seen getting pulled out by the riptide. It could have been a combination of things," said Hoener.

Not only is abalone diving dangerous, it is strictly regulated in California. The season runs from April 1 until June 30 and from August 1 until November 30. Abalone can only be harvested a half-hour before sunrise and a half-hour after sunset.

SCUBA diving or diving with surface supplied air is prohibited.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife released a video in 2008 instructing divers on how to harvest abalone. They call the technique popping the abalone. Divers separate the fish from its rock with a smooth metal tool that has no sharp edges.

Before they pop the abalone, they have to measure it. Harvestable abalone must be at least 7 inches across. Abalone that is smaller than that are the ones that spawn the next generation and keep the population thriving.

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