Dan McCaslin: Five Backyard Abalone Shells – Decoration or Illusion? | Outside


In the summer of 1983, I taught a field methods course in underwater archeology for the USC Department of History, along with the lessons and diving at the USC Field Station at Big Fisherman Cove on Catalina Island.

I focused the lessons on real-time scuba diving in the mesmerizing waters off Catalina in the San Pedro Channel filled with golden Garibaldis, leopard sharks and tasty calico bass.

Most of the time, the 12 students and I – all fully certified PADI divers – would meet early for a quick lesson after breakfast, then rush out to the cove in our wetsuits, grab our snorkel gear and jump in. small boats, because the wind often appeared in the afternoon (reducing underwater visibility).

As I sarcastically pointed out to the students, “If we can’t see, how can we locate anything there?”

Artifacts, anchors, coins, amphorae, submerged walls and port facilities easily disappear in rough waters, especially near the shore (as I also learned diving at Cape Kiti in Cyprus and later at the port of Caesarea in Israel).

Given this easy access thanks to the largesse of USC, we were in the San Pedro Channel several hours a day, before and after lunch.

I demonstrated some basic underwater mapping procedures, shallow water search techniques, underwater photography (pre-digital; and we had our own excellent darkroom), and comparison and comparison. artifact analysis.

Since Big Fisherman’s Cove faces San Pedro and Los Angeles, we dive “inside” the English Channel, sometimes descending to Ripper’s Cove or even further south in the small university boats.

Along the virgin – it’s 1983, remember! – and a relatively unspoiled coastline, the 12 dive students and I witnessed many colorful miracles of marine life including moray eels, bat rays, lobsters and kelp bass.

We also noticed leopard sharks and other inhabitants that I was not educated enough to identify, but my simple child’s eye appreciated the variety, colors and arrow movements. Sometimes we were very close to the intertidal zone in areas that were quite difficult to access from the shore.

Among the anemones, mussels and other critters found there, we have all noticed crawling abalones (haliotis), sea snails or gastropods (ventral feet) — camouflaged as they were by encrustations on their rounded shells.

At one time, the various species of abalone were very abundant and formed an important part of the diet of many indigenous peoples, especially the Chumash and the Gabrileños. The Chumash called them t’aya.

Equally important, abalone shells were valued on their own and specifically for use in ritual ceremonies (for example, white sage was burned in them). The white abalone has been known to live for up to 40 years, and most humans have found the nutritious meat of abalone flesh delicious and high in protein.

As we hike through our local mountains or swim beneath nearby ocean inlets, the array of life forms come and go before we can properly assess or fully enjoy this overflowing cornucopia of life forms. life. The great variety of living species was one of Charles Darwin’s greatest discoveries and joys, as he remained in awe of this “plenitude principle” all his life.

Recently, renowned naturalist writer Elizabeth Kolbert quoted documentary filmmaker Thomas Mustill about nature’s sacred variety:

Being alive and exploring nature now is read by
the light of a burning library.

I immediately think of the famous Hellenistic Greek Library in ancient Alexandria, which, together with the adjoining “museum” complex, formed one of the earliest known centers of research in world history.

Apocryphal and Islamophobic history said that the conquering Muslim Caliph Omar burned down the Library of Alexandria in 640 CE because Islam was not mentioned there, but this is not true. What we do know is that during these centuries of the common era, the world lost the greatest archive of knowledge of the ancient world.

Without much awareness or foresight, my team of students and I sometimes “harvested” a few of these large red or green abalones and kept them in salt water on the dive boat until supper. That evening we were meeting in my spartan apartment to fry the delicate abalone.

In 1983, from an environmental point of view, I was still an ignorant and inexperienced ancient historian and marine archaeologist and had just obtained a doctorate. from UCSB the same year.

Although I helped clean up the beach after the great oil spill of January 28, 1969, and then witnessed the disgusting dead sea life and oil-soaked cawing seabirds along the shore, my conscience ecological had not matured with my 36 years of life.

When I “recovered” these precious abalones 14 years after the oil spill, I had no idea they were under threat, the big red ones (haliotis rufescens) especially, and selfish hunters with scuba gear like us had cleaned up all the seabed. canyons along the San Pedro channel.

In 1997, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife banned the taking of abalone, by sport or commercial divers, in Southern California waters. The ban remains today.

Fish and Wildlife did this because it was becoming very clear in 1997 that most abalone species were dying off. All the big ones had been taken, much like the depleted Pismo clams near San Luis Obispo, the ongoing saga of endangered snowy plovers, and I note that the US Forest Service still wants to “thin” (read clear) 750 acres of evergreens elders of Pine Mountain (California).

At one point I had saved 11 of the finest abalone shells, and when we moved into our current Westside home, I placed them as bollards in our tiny backyard. While the Chumash used them for bowls, hooks and jewelry, I was happy to have them in the yard as a reminder of the wonderful scuba diving in California and important friendships (I taught the course in been twice).

Forty years later, there are only five heroic shells left to decorate my garden.

Did I write “decorate”? I had no idea when we harvested them that they were already endangered, but I should have guessed.

My ignorance, despite Earth Day 1969, prevented conscious awareness from knowing that a clumsy human using scuba diving could “grab” six to eight abs in less than an hour. The pre-contact Chumash harvested limited numbers at very low tides by simply collecting and snorkeling from their tomol canoes.

To be alive and explore nature now is to read
by the light of a burning library.

This “library” that Mustill refers to is the entire catalog of living species existing on Earth today, and we are literally warming it up and watching fragile species disappear completely.

In 25 years, will the wandering herds of wild elephants be gone forever? What about our local arroyo toads and the California condor (in the face of new threats from wind blades)?

With a freshly struck doctorate. and a few summer seasons at archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, I was able to teach my students the basics of the emerging field of marine archeology in 1983. Yet my ignorance of the planet’s damaged resources left me drifting towards selfish use, scuffing on thin, delicious abalone steaks in good company on the glorious Catalina.

Yes, we can hide in a progressive dream, imagine our own lifespan as an eternity…yet the number of humans and their dependent cows and pigs continues to soar today and crowd out others forms of life.

What examples do we give to our children, and what natural beauties and resources will remain for their children?


Elizabeth Kolbert quoting Thomas Mustill in “Contact, The New Yorker, June 13, 2022, p. 26; Luciano Canfora, “The Vanished Library” (UC Press, 1990); Dan McCaslin, “Cap Kiti 1977 Underwater Report, Studies in Mediterranean Archeology XLV: 4” (1978).

» How to cook abalone: ​​thinly slice (very sharp knife); bread them a little; cook in very hot olive oil for a short time – less than 90 seconds – turning once with an iron spatula. Eat immediately with an organic green salad, bread and copious amounts of chilled white wine or German Doppel-Bock beer.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone anchors in antiquity and has written extensively about the local hinterland. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available on Lulu.com. He is the Archaeological Site Steward for the US Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes readers’ ideas for future Noozhawk columns and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.


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