Sea urchin blackouts are gone at Point Loma, but now Japanese want them

Will they go the way of abalone?

Mac and John aboard the Sea Ranger. On O’Brien’s 29th birthday, the 29th of September, he picked 2900 pounds of urchins. Recently, Mac picked 1500 pounds, earning $1300 that day, and this out of deep water. “Not bad,” he says.
  • Mac and John aboard the Sea Ranger. On O’Brien’s 29th birthday, the 29th of September, he picked 2900 pounds of urchins. Recently, Mac picked 1500 pounds, earning $1300 that day, and this out of deep water. “Not bad,” he says.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

The six-packs of beer, the cookies, and a week’s worth of chow have been stashed below in the short refrigerator and in various nooks of the cabin. The fresh water tanks are full. Hundreds of feet of air hose lie coiled behind the anchor on the forward deck. Now, with the sun low over Point Loma and a wake spreading behind the Sea Ranger, Mac turns from the wheel. He glances around the cluttered wheelhouse, out at the rear deck loaded with nets and tanks and more boxes of food. “What’d we forget?” he says.

Mac Connell: “Had a spine in my hand for two years. It finally worked its way out the other side."

Mac Connell: “Had a spine in my hand for two years. It finally worked its way out the other side."

On legal documents, he is known as George McConnell, but his friends call him Mac. He stands a muscular six feet, with pale blue eyes and a reddish beard. A grin comes easily to him. At 40, he is losing hair, but his cap still holds in a mass of shaggy curls. He makes a living by diving to the ocean floor to scoop up sea urchins.

Each urchin is worth about seventy-five cents to the divers, and by the time it reaches a sushi bar in San Diego, the five pads of sex organ from a single urchin are worth fifteen to twenty dollars.

Each urchin is worth about seventy-five cents to the divers, and by the time it reaches a sushi bar in San Diego, the five pads of sex organ from a single urchin are worth fifteen to twenty dollars.

Not long ago, sea urchins were considered a nuisance, a weed in the kelp gardens off Point Loma and the Channel Islands. “People used to be amused that anyone would bother with them," Mac says. Now they are the number-one seafood export from California. Urchins picked by Mac can be in a Tokyo seafood auction 48 hours after they hit the dock in San Diego Bay. The Japanese love raw sea urchin gonads, which pack the highest concentration of protein of any known food. Once, a woman asked Mac if he ever ate urchins. He answered,

John O'Brien: “Now I remember. Diving is miserable, just like yesterday. I forgot."

John O'Brien: “Now I remember. Diving is miserable, just like yesterday. I forgot."

"No. Kind of looks like something you’d find in a baby’s diaper."

As the 30-foot Sea Ranger clears the San Diego harbor entrance, Mac still has a nagging sense of having forgotten something. He shakes his head. Maybe it’ll come to him later. On the open ocean, the boat climbs and drops over the swells. Mac sets the automatic pilot, northwest to San Clemente Island, one of the southern Channel Islands. Whoever stands watch only has to make sure the boat doesn’t run into something. Wisps of fog drift by and the horizon blurs and the sky turns a diffused pink. "Gonna get froggy," Mac says. He points to the radar screen. "That thing comes in handy."

More and more, urchin divers are making the trip to the Channel Islands, looking for the carpets of sea urchins, the "blackouts," reefs covered with the kelp-eating animals. "The blackouts are gone at Point Loma.”

More and more, urchin divers are making the trip to the Channel Islands, looking for the carpets of sea urchins, the "blackouts," reefs covered with the kelp-eating animals. "The blackouts are gone at Point Loma.”

On the rear deck, John O’Brien, the other diver, hangs his wetsuit on the boom and stashes weight belts and luggage and boxes of candy while drinking a Beck’s. He moves about the deck on bare feet as if unaware of the boat's rolling and pitching. Most days, he runs his own urchin boat out of Mission Bay. He came on this trip, he says, because sometimes he likes to work without the responsibilities of a captain. He is 30, wears a rough beard, and is shorter than Mac, with the same muscular build of someone who works hard. Years of exposure have lined the skin around his eyes. His gear stowed, he blows an air mattress full, shakes out a sleeping bag, and crawls in out of the wind. He’ll relax on the deck until time for his watch.

Once, while diving, O’Brien cracked open an urchin and ate some of it, "to see what it’d be like to be a fish.” He wasn't crazy about the taste. "Be nice if we could go down and scoop up burgers," he says. "Nice warm burgers.” The fog thickens briefly at sunset, then lifts, and the stars shine as brightly as in the desert. For hours, San Diego glows in the east, finally fading behind the curvature of the earth. The boat arrives off San Clemente Island during a meteor shower. Mac eases the Sea Ranger into Pyramid Cove on the lee side of the island, drops the anchor, then cuts the engine. After nine hours of diesel growl, the silence is vast. Lights from several other urchin boats bob and shine across the water.

More and more, urchin divers are making the trip to the Channel Islands, looking for the carpets of sea urchins, the "blackouts," reefs covered with the kelp-eating animals. "The blackouts are gone at Point Loma,” Mac says. "Every once I in a while, you’ll hit a pretty good patch out at Clemente.” O’Brien, though, says he still dives off Point Loma and finds the good "bank accounts," profitable beds of urchins. Kelp forests there are among the most lush in the world, and urchins, he says, reproduce wildly.

The next morning, a navy helicopter swoops out of the early sky, hovers briefly above each boat in Pyramid Cove, and makes a scratchy announcement that Mac receives through his multiband radio: The navy will bombard this section of the island today. The boats must leave. Now!

While O’Brien clears his bed off the rear deck, Mac starts a pot of coffee in the tiny galley and remembers what he forgot: coffee creamer. Well... if that’s all he forgot, this should be a good trip. Soon the Sea Ranger powers out of Pyramid Cove, around China Point, and into the rolling swells of the windward side of the island. In about an hour, Mac turns the boat toward the island’s rugged shore, stopping in thick kelp. Waves slam into cliffs close by, but the depth sounder onboard shows the bottom at 60 feet. “This might be a good place," Mac says.

Mac munches a handful of peanuts that will have to do for now. He likes to pick a net full of urchins before breakfast, then "gas off’ while he eats, that is, allow his body to throw off the build-up of nitrogen that comes from working in deep water.

Though the sun is up, O’Brien shivers as he lubricates his black wetsuit with baby powder and slips into it. He'll survey the bottom wearing a scuba tank and being towed by an underwater scooter. The scooter is a canister of yellow plastic with handles and a propeller driven by an electric motor. With it, O’Brien can scout more bottom than if he were swimming. He jumps over the side. Mac peers through the wheelhouse windows, idling the boat through the kelp canopy, following O’Brien’s trail of bubbles.

About ten minutes later, O’Brien surfaces, climbs onto the transom, and slides back his mask. “Not a blackout," he says, “but looks like good steady picking.”

Mac flips the anchor switch. The hook drops into the water with a clatter of chain. “We’ll pick a bag,” he says. "If it’s not any good, we’ll move the boat."

Now Mac lubricates his own wetsuit with shampoo and tugs it on. He starts the small diesel in the hold that runs the air compressor. Both men get busy tying the bottoms shut on net bags that will hold hundreds of urchins. They clip lines to air bags that will lift the nets once they’re filled. Next, air hoses are uncoiled, stainless steel rakes checked. The rakes are essential for plucking the spiny urchins off the reef and sweeping them, one at a time, into the nets.

They work quickly, with few words. Though both divers are experienced, the bottom of the ocean is still a foreign place for humans, and it’s unforgiving of mistakes. Plus, the rewards of the game are never certain. If urchins don’t eat, they live off their own protein. Since urchins are all spines and shell, stomach and gonads, what shrinks when they get hungry is the profitable part, the gonads, the pads of apricot-colored sex organ that the Japanese love to eat.

Sea urchins travel in armies, and the forward divisions eat the best kelp. At times they might be the only ones to eat. Urchins behind the front line have been harvested by fishermen and their shells found nearly empty. Some urchins, the old ones, called “cannonballs,” don’t move around enough to eat well. And all urchins stop eating during storms.

So the ritual of preparation is quiet at first. They work with late 20th Century technology, yet hunters and gatherers from any age would recognize the intent: Will we find good food today?

With their gear ready, they pause on the shifting deck, recalling good “jumps" of the past. On O’Brien’s 29th birthday, the 29th of September, he picked 2900 pounds of urchins. The congruence of the figures makes him grin. Recently, Mac picked 1500 pounds, earning $1300 that day, and this out of deep water. “Not bad,” he says.

O'Brien is the first to snap an air hose to his regulator, then sink below the brown kelp fronds. Mac drops an underwater speaker over the side and cranks up the rock and roll, music to work by. Next, he hooks an air hose to his regulator and gives the connection a hard tug. “It’s a bitch when they come apart at 80 feet." He jumps overboard. His bubbles boil up through the green water, releasing steam in the cold morning.

Yards away, the island rises steeply into low clouds, a huge, barren place, pitted and brown, a few rocks whitened with guano. Even cactus struggles to live on the crumbling slopes. But the sea jumps with life. Waves beat against cliffs and seals swim by like Labrador retrievers, while 60 feet below, Mac and O’Brien rake into their nets the harvested animals related to starfish and sand dollars.

Forty minutes later, O’Brien’s head pops out of the kelp. He has filled his net with urchins and floated it to the surface by inflating the air bags from an attachment off his regulator called a “monkey dick.” Now the net hangs immediately below the kelp canopy. O’Brien swims and pushes the load to the rear of the boat and clips it to a plastic float. Soon Mac rises, clips his catch to a float, and climbs aboard. Though he and O’Brien filled their nets, the urchins are too sparse here. After breakfast, he’ll move the boat to deeper water.

Over pork chops, eggs, and home fries, Mac admits to being an excellent cook. “I’ve had to learn,” he says, “the way I piss off broads." Mac grew up in New Jersey, and his voice still carries a trace of accent. Listening carefully, you can hear it: “Da way I piss off broads.”

The new location, though deeper, is still close to shore. The bottom falls off sharply, about the same grade as the hills of the island. “Want me to scout?” Mac asks.

O’Brien answers, “I don’t mind scouting." He lubes his wetsuit top, using soap now because it’s wet. He pulls it on and jumps into the water, again wearing a tank and running the scooter. This time his bubbles circle and wander and he climbs aboard without good news. Mac moves the boat a quarter mile up the coast. Before O’Brien jumps over to survey the bottom again, Mac ties a whistle to the scooter. He’s worried about fog, the way the day has turned gray and low clouds have crept down from the peaks and high mesas of the island. Now, if O'Brien surfaces and can’t be seen, at least he can be heard.

O’Brien cuts his next dive short. At 40 feet, the scooter sputtered and died. He swims it to the stem and heaves it up to Mac. Then, as he scrambles onto the transom, his scuba tank slips out of its harness and. taking the regulator, plunges into the water.

The scuba gear belongs to Mac. He doesn’t react, gazing at the kelp where the tank disappeared. Then he drops the anchor. They’ll work this area for urchins, he says, and maybe find the lost gear. “By the way, I’ve got an anchor around here some place. Never did find it.”

The next dive is a long one. Between the two of them, Mac and O’Brien don’t fill a single bag, and the gear remains lost. Still dripping, Mac climbs below to make sandwiches. O’Brien sprawls on the wet deck. He points to the water. “It’s fucking deep.” He doesn’t like diving deep, he says, and he prefers working the local beds off Point Loma. This roughing it out here for a week at a time, unable to take a shower at the end of the day, “That’s not my style.” He pauses. His lips are tight. What’s really bothering him is the lost tank. “I hate losing shit,” he says.

From the far end of the island, four of five miles away, the naval bombardment sounds like distant thunder, a continuous rumble that can be felt in the stomach.

After lunch, Mac moves the boat farther up the coast, towing the of urchins, the float balls that hold them bobbing through the kelp. It’s Mac’s turn to survey the bottom. He opens the shell of the scooter to see if the problem can be fixed by anything as simple as replacing the battery. Smoke drifts out of the machine, and the insides are fire-blackened. The scooter belongs to O’Brien, who turns and opens a beer, grips a line on the deck with his toes. "I think what happened,” He says, “is the ocean said I made too much money last week.”

Mac says, “It’s an income-canceling job. You make a lot of money, but none of it seems to stick.”

“It’s like horse racing, you know,” says O’Brien.

Mac buckles on his weight belt, ready for another dive. “Like they say, you know how to make a small fortune urchin diving? Start with a big one.” He grins. “But we stimulate the economy.” He connects an air hose to his regulator and jumps overboard. Soon O’Brien follows. Their bubbles work in opposite directions while the boat rocks in the swell and the compressor knocks and hisses, pumping life down below.

For some trips, Mac hires a tender, someone to watch the compressor and the hoses, to help hoist the urchins aboard, and to keep an eye on things while he works below. But Mac often works alone, trusting that the equipment won't fail and that the anchor will hold against the currents. The compressor has quit on him, though. He realized it at 60 feet, when he started having to suck for air. “You come up a lot faster than you want to.” And once, the mounts that held the compressor in place vibrated loose, breaking both the exhaust pipe and the line that feeds in fresh air from outside, mixing the fumes and intake and pumping it below. Luckily, he was on his way up when it happened. “That compressor tried to kill me.”

O’Brien, unless he hires out on other boats, always works alone. He admits that the one thing diving instructors emphasize above all else is never to dive alone. But, he says, "If you’re gonna blow it, you’re gonna blow it. That’s when you get your double drownings.”

He thinks the two biggest killers are inexperience and greed and that he has been diving long enough to know when to quit, no matter how good a particular day might be. Besides, he has a feeling that he'll die in an automobile.

Mac rises first, into a stiff wind. He slaps his swim fins and rake onto the deck. Though he managed to fill a net bag with urchins, while clipping it to a float he noticed that one of the other bags from an earlier dive was missing. It must have pulled loose while being towed through the kelp. “Fuck it,” he says. “I know when I’m pissing against the wind. Lost a tank and regulator, blew the scooter, and lost a bag.” Time to call it a day.

O’Brien surfaces with two bags, having found the lost one on the bottom. Mac smiles. But still, it’s time to quit, the day is out of sync. "Must be Clemente’s time of the month,” he says.

Mac and O'Brien fold back the hatches of the rear deck and hoist the urchins aboard. The nets heave out of the water at the end of the boom, draped in kelp and draining like waterfalls. Each net holds several hundred pounds, a load of purple pin cushions, enough to fill the trunk of an American car. The nets swing and lurch with the swell. The bags bristle with spines, and the divers do their best to direct them into the hold without getting stabbed.

With the urchins aboard and the hatches closed, Mac sets a course for the lee side of the island and throttles up the big diesel. The twilight is fading fast.

At ninety cents a pound, each urchin is worth about seventy-five cents to the divers, and by the time it reaches a sushi bar in San Diego, the five pads of sex organ from a single urchin are worth fifteen to twenty dollars.

O’Brien pops open a Budweiser and says that all urchin divers at some time will be jabbed by a spine that breaks off inside the flesh of a knee, a hand, an elbow, or anything else that can brush against the bottom during a working dive. The lucky wounds, he says, are the ones that “pus up and the spine pops out.” Others will callous over and make a bump. “Some divers have bumps all over their bodies.” Once O’Brien had a long needle of spine in his elbow that got so bad he could barely move his arm. A doctor had to cut it out.

And Mac’s favorite story: “Had a spine in my hand for two years. It finally worked its way out the other side. They’re like arrowheads or something. They only go forward.” The spines have tiny barbs, all pointing in the same direction.

Back in Pyramid Cove, Mac steers toward the bright lights of the "pick-up” boat. For a percentage of the profits, the pick-up boat ferries each day’s catch to San Diego and brings fresh water and provisions out to the urchin fleet. Some divers stay and work the island for weeks at a time.

Mac off-loads the urchins, then finds an anchorage. The island is a black hulk that looks barren even in the thin moonlight. Points and rays of light from the other boats shimmer on the water. Mac and O’Brien drink beers and sit on toolboxes in the wheelhouse, and later, after a meal of stir-fry vegetables and chicken over rice, the day shifts into perspective: a cold, unprofitable freak of a day, but all in all, what the hell? Besides, on the radio they’ve heard that one of the other boats has real trouble, with a broken-down transmission and unable to make it back to San Diego under its own power. Mac radios the captain of that boat and says he’ll tow it in at the end of his trip. “Hey, what goes around comes around. Never know when you might need help out here yourself.”

The next day, Mac wakes in a good mood, looking very Irish with his red beard and weathered cheeks. He says, “Top of the morning to you,” then starts a pot of coffee and finds a weather program on the tiny television in the tiny cabin. Outside, sunlight sparks off dew on the deck, but the satellite map shows a series of storms sweeping out of the Gulf of Alaska. “Looks like we’re gonna get hit with some weather,” Mac says. He decides to work the island one more day and head home tonight. If he waits beyond that, he'll be towing the other boat during a storm, something he’d rather not do.

Once again, the navy plans to use this end of the island as a gunnery range, and the urchin fleet must move. While Mac gets the boat under way, O’Brien cooks up turkey and cheese omelets and for fun tosses in some peanuts and raisins. Mac’s first bite makes him grin. “Thought I’d tried everything you can put in an omelet.”

Pulling around into the open ocean, the boat climbs the big rolling slopes of oncoming waves and slides down the troughs, a building sea. “We’re gonna work deeper today,” Mac says. “Good-sized groundswell running.” On a shallow bottom, the surge from this much surf can drag a diver back and forth, bang him into the reef.

During the run up the island, the sun fades behind a heavy overcast. Swarms of gulls feed on surface fish, and gangs of seals flash by, some of them leaping out of the water. Then Mac picks a spot to pull in close. He switches on the depth sounder, and the jagged bottom shows on the screen next to the 80-foot mark. Mac says, “This is it, like tossing the proverbial dart. Just wade into the kelp, drop the hook, and see what we find.”

The lost tank and burned scooter haven’t been forgotten, nor has the poor quality of yesterday's picking. But this is a new day. With a hot breakfast in them and a different bottom to work, both divers are cheerful, ready for more punishment. “Maybe we do it for the flag," O’Brien says.

The water looks cold, reflecting the gray sky, as O’Brien and Mac strip, soap up, and pull on wetsuits still wet from the day before. “You gonna survey?” O’Brien says. "Yeah,” Mac says. “I’ll take a look.

No point in being here unless it’s damn near a blackout.” He fires up the compressor, hooks himself to an air hose, and jumps over. His bubbles rise next to the boat and don’t travel away. Soon he surfaces through the kelp, knocks back his mask, and shouts, “We’re rich." But he grins at his own joke and says, “Ah, it’s all right. We can work here.”

The bottom here is a rubble of piled rock, every surface encrusted with animal and plant growth. Some rocks are hidden by the anchors of the giant kelp, the knotted holdfasts that secure the long stalks climbing into the filtered light.

Mac looks for this kind of vegetation. Urchins thrive on it. “You know, it’s their groceries.” Fish hang in the current, dart this way and that, then drift some more. As the divers work, they’ll occasionally crack open an urchin to check the quality of the gonads, and then the fish swarm in to feed on the pieces that float up. “It gets to where 1 fear for my fingers,” Mac says. “They’re right in there.”

"We’re like pied pipers,” O'Brien says. “You look behind and there’s a trail of fish.” After one dive he tells of a large sheepshead that lunged in over his shoulder. “I saw a monster down there. 1 saw a freight train.”

The divers see a diversity of life: crabs, starfish, anemones. “When 1 first started " O’Brien says, “seemed like I saw something new every time I went down.”

Once Mac saw an albino sea cucumber. “Thought someone threw away a brand-new dildo.”

They seem comfortable with the sea life, as casual as others feel about the they see on the street every day, and it holds true for the occasional blue shark, territorial sea lion, or moray eel. Mac thinks morays “have gotten a bad rap." The way they hold their mouths open to pull in water over their gills makes them look truly fearsome. But to have one sink its teeth into you, he says, “you have to practically jam your hand down its throat."

The water itself shimmers and twists the light, growing colder in descending layers called thermoclines. “Sometimes you can see them,” Mac says. “Like traveling down a highway and you see a mirage, yeah, you’ll see it when you’re gonna go through a thermocline. You'll see a distortion."

The first dive goes so well that Mac decides to leave the boat anchored where it is. Forget looking for the lost tank and regulator. With all that money crawling around down there, all those urchin gonads properly fattened on algae and kelp, it makes more sense to work. “Fuck it. I could blow off a $500 day looking for a $100 tank." And so they work this patch, diving and eating and “gassing off."

After one dive, O’Brien is acutely aware of his time below. "Sixty minutes since I left the boat, and 40 of that was on the bottom, and one spot was at 90 feet. I pushed it a little." Years ago, the navy came up with a set of tables, a general guide to the times safely spent at various depths and suggested intervals between dives. At today’s depths — 80 and 90 feet — Mac and O’Brien should work the bottom for 17 minutes and give themselves two-hour rests in between.

“We all push the tables,” O’Brien says.

Today, Mac keeps a 25-foot air hose dangling over the side to provide the ascending diver pure oxygen from a tank strapped to the wheelhouse. “When you’re working deep,” he says, “you can hang off down there and breath it. Pushes the nitrogen out of your system. It’s a way to cheat."

It helps that they won’t be diving tomorrow. After a day of pushing the tables, it takes another day for the nitrogen to leave their bodies, and in that time they had better not fly in an airplane. The pressure difference could make the residue nitrogen bubble in their vein. Mostly, urchin divers don’t work at the spooky depths that cause narcosis. O’Brien experienced the beginnings of it once, a slightly disoriented feeling, tipsy but not quite drunk. At its worst, working too deep for too long can lead to giddy drunkenness, loss of judgment, and fatal mistakes. Mac says, “I don’t think I’ve ever been narcked. Then, maybe I’m always that way."

As the day wears on, the wind picks up and the temperature drops, and with the rising tide a blowhole comes to life on the nearby cliff, blasting out geysers to the beat of the waves. By late afternoon the divers have picked the reef clean. “I like to think of myself as an underwater bag man," O’Brien says, “like I’m down there picking up cans."

Hundreds of urchins hang in nets off the floats attached to the rear of the boat, representing a vital little slice of the economy. At 90 cents a pound, each urchin is worth about 75 cents to the divers, and by the time it reaches a sushi bar in San Diego, the five pads of sex organ from a single urchin are worth 15 to 20 dollars. In Japan, they can cost as much as $100 a pound. With that kind of price and demand, the picking is relentless. The season on urchins is closed one week a month in the summer, and no new licenses are being issued, but no one knows what kind of long-term management they need. The harvesting of urchins is still too new to know how hard they can be hit. Most divers say they grow like weeds, and if an area is left alone for a season, the urchins come back in full force. Urchins are unisex animals and haven’t the equipment to do much besides eat and reproduce. But O’Brien says, ‘‘My worst nightmare is, if America goes crazy for sushi, then the sport divers will move in on the urchins and clean 'em up like abalones.”

Abalone, a shellfish that once flourished off Point Loma, is now rare enough to cost $40 a pound. Mac doesn’t expect urchins to follow that trend and feels no great loss from the dearth of abalones. “Abalones, Borsches, and cocaine, they’re all overrated.”

Mac decides the remaining daylight allows time to move the boat to another reef to get in one more jump. Because the overcast has brought on an early twilight, he jokes about needing a miner's helmet for diving into the murk. On this last dive, the luck changes, nets rising to the surface with few urchins, and the boat sitting in such thick kelp that nets and air hoses get tangled and Mac and O'Brien have to push and cut their way back to the boat, only to be greeted with the slippery transom slapping up and down in the rising weather. Mac doesn’t look irritated, but his New Jersey accent is showing. ‘‘Der ain’t no fuckin’ urchins down der.” O’Brien’s teeth chatter while he changes out of his wetsuit after the urchins are loaded. He pops open a beer and says, “Now I remember. Diving is miserable, just like yesterday. I forgot. ”

Night has slipped in, black and windy, by the time Mac cranks open the throttle and heads for home. “It was getting dark on that last jump,” he says. “I was starting to see the bubbles glow, you know, phosphorescence.”

Back in Pyramid Cove, Mac slides a turkey into the oven and lights a fire under a pot of potatoes. Then he backs the boat up to the broken-down vessel, the Taxi, and ties her on with a length of inch-and-a-half nylon rope. He sets a course for San Diego Harbor, arriving 12 hours later, escorted by a new winter storm. It’s been wet, cold, and the last miles were rough. Money was made, and money was lost. Perhaps Mitch Hobum of the crippled Taxi summed it up best: “Fishin’s the easy part."

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