La Jolla Abalone Diving – Bird Rock, Casa Pool and Cove

 Dennis Downie and his mother, Tony Downie, on her back porch in Bird Rock with 18 green abs. That was a good day.  Approx 1969 - photo provided by Dennis Downie

Dennis Downie shows how it is done. Here he is with his mother, Tony Downie, on her back porch in Bird Rock with 18 "BIG"green abs taken in 1969. That was a good day, claims Dennis - photo provided by Dennis Downie

Back in the good old days, La Jolla abalone  diving was just a matter of getting into the water and searching for these  uniques creatures. Or in the area of Bird Rock, at low tide one could walk out and over turn rocks and there would be these wonder creatures.  The prime spots were Bird Rock to North Bird and anywhere in the general area of the Case Pool and Cove areas (which is now a marine reserve) due to their rocky bottom. In the early 1970s,  Richard Krug organized the 1st Abalone Dive Contest that was held off Point Loma, were the best of the best divers, free dived, and afterwords have a huge ab party.

Then after cleaning it, slicing it into 1/2 steaks, one would tenderize the abalone by hammering it with a hammer or mallet until it became about 1/4-3/8s thick. The prime way of cooking it was on a very hot skillet, butter, olive oil, and garlic.  Salt and pepper was used to taste and forget the breading.

Abalone and Lobster was a part of the La Jolla, California beach  scene as surfing, drinking, and avocados would be  like to the  bayou crayfish of Louisiana.

For most la Jolla kids eating abalone sandwiches was just as easy as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was common to see these eaten during lunch at La Jolla High School.

The Meda Editor remembers in school, coming home (almost crying) and asking his mom if she would buy baloney for his sandwiches. One of the kids in school had teased him that his family was poor because his parents had to catch their food. Nowadays that would be a sign of rubbing elbows with the rich and famous.

Back in the 1960s the season for abs was 6 months with a limit of 10 abs,  then that changed in 1970 to 8 abs, then to 6, then to 3 and now there is a  complete ban on taking abalone along the Southern California coast and the Channel Islands. It is hoped that in many years the abalone fishery might make a come back, but we doubt it.

In 1997 southern California was closed to the taking of abalone by both sport and commercial divers. This ban was introduced by the California State Department of Fish and Game as it became apparent that the numbers of abalone in southern California were so small it was feared that some species would become extinct.

Abalone can still be taken north of San Francisco but only by skin diving (no air tanks) and a special abalone stamp must be purchased in addition to the regular sport license. This allows funding of a program to monitor the status of the stocks. Abalone diving remains a popular sport and as the human population grows in Northern California these remaining dense beds of abalone above San Francisco are threatened by poaching as well as sanctioned take. Northern California was never open to commercial abalone fishing and while El Niños and disease have not impacted the population, there are areas of easy access that have experienced serial depletion.


  1. Gregg Jacobsen says:

    My dad used to go ab diving at Bird Rock. He would come home with a huge sack…then the party would happen. I spent my adolescence and young adulthood skin diving at Bird Rock, Wind and Sea near Big Rock etc…and never saw a single abalone although I was in the water constantly, between 1977 and 1983. To say they were over fished is an understatement.

    • john koman says:

      I used to dive bird rock in the 60 -70’s and never failed to limit in less than an hour – went back in the 90s and it took two hours to find a black which was too small to take.

  2. Chris May aka "Amp" says:

    I lived on Prospect above the caves in those days. The Devil’s Slide was my personal passage for abs at low tide. I had a flag on my roof deck, and someone would spot for F&G, who always parked on the east end of Coast Walk where it was a street.

    We used to fix phony ‘balone at the old Frederick’s Ski and Drink. We’d pick up boxes of frozen squid (bait) at ten cents a pound, pound them out, and bread them. Pretty tasty and hard to tell the diff! There were some pretty drunk times there too. The only ski shop in the world with a full bar and beer on tap in the back room.

  3. I remember Ab diving along the La Jolla cliffs in the late 50s and early 60s. It was full on and in no time you would have limits or more.

  4. when crabs roar says:

    In the fifties the season for abs was open all year and the limit for sport divers was 5 abs a day. Off the Bird Rock steps in front of the big flat reef and about halfway to North Bird were the “pink beds”, where you could find mostly pink abs growing on the sides of rocks. In my opinion those abs were more tender and the best tasting of all types. If you were in a good spot for greens at Bird Rock you could pop two or three a dive, we would sort out and take only the big ones over 8 inchs. For the commercial ab divers there was no daily limit and on a good day they would pick a 100 dozen abs, that’s right 1200 abs! And they would complain that the sport divers were taking all the abs.

  5. Mac used to say to me ” Why does Greg and Pauly burn up all that gas when they could easily just go to Lake Albertsons?”

  6. Dan Dameron says:

    My favorite Downie anecdote is about Jimmie…We all know the Downies’ knew their way around the Seafood delicaies showcase known as the Pacific Ocean, from Tourmalaine to North Bird. I was driving thru Bird Rock in the Late afternoon, circa 1970 and spotted Jim Downie hiking down to the the beach from their house on Taft loaded down with diving gear. I pulled over for a dose of Jim’s slow, meticulous chatter. I ended the conversation with a question….not knowing what Season it was or what would be abundant under the waves. I asked…”Whatcha looking for?” Jim looked at me like I was crazy, paused, then said….”DINNER” That’s a La Jolla food preference from the premier Ocean Foraging Family in Bird Rock….

  7. The Warden says:

    On Native La Jollan food rituals:

    Jack’s parents had a great deal of style. Looking at the family albums, was like looking at a Hollywood movie.

    He said his folks used to have oyster parties. They and 2 other couples would order a wooden keg of New Orleans oysters flown into San Diego. An oyster station would be set up on the driveway.

    Other La Jolla culinary traditions:

    1. No catsup. Not even with burgers.
    2. Salt rising toast for breakfast.
    3. Sunday brunch at the La Valencia Hotel.
    4. Bloody Marys on the weekends.
    5. Martinis in the evenings.
    6. A good can of salmon, brought from an Oregon vacation.
    7. A flat of eggs purchased on the way back from Warners/Julian. Ditto Dudley’s Bakery.
    8. Adult man is still using his Sterling Silver baby spoons.
    9. Grandmothers insist on heated plates.
    10. Jack Macpherson would wipe butter/mayo on his forearms, during meal. Remarked he saw Burt Lancaster do it in ‘Apache’. Am groseed out, but his skin did look pretty good. Requested he not sit on the couch until the grease absorbed. Towards the end, ready to get a cement couch.

  8. The Warden says:

    On Native La Jollan food preferences/habits:

    I am an inlander. We buy fish for dinner. We like fish for dinner. We go to Ralphs or Von’s and get some overpriced, stale piece of salmon or halibut and feel bitchen about it.

    When I met Jack Macpherson, I would ask him to get some fish for dinner at Alpha Beta. He informed me that “I don’t buy fish, I catch it,”.

    Year after year…the same request, the same response. I finally asked him when the last time he actually speared halibut from the local waters…it was so long ago, he couldn’t remember.

    He then responded, “You weren’t born with sand in your cuffs,”.

  9. Dennis Downie says:

    Guys, Da… It was 10 by Mom and 8 by me.

  10. mark dameron says:

    My conclusion is / was that both Jimmy & Dennis got close to their limit. It was kind of a trick question.

  11. Hey Doug, I’m coming to SD from 12/16—01/05 Hope to come out see you and buy some of those great t-shirts if they are ready…Turtle

  12. mark dameron says:

    18 minus 10 = 8 , see picture, and paragraph 6 above. any conclusions?

    • What I see is that they were short of getting the max amount of 20 (ten each), per license bummer! Read the ab dive, post! … Back then even the Fish and Game knew that, watch the video…

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