Delicious, local, and sustainable, Northern California sea urchin is an eco-conscious foodie dream. Even better, the Sonoma-Mendocino coastline is straight-up lousy with the spiny-shelled creatures. (In fact, there are so many purple sea urchins off the coast of California and the Pacific Northwest that it's becoming a crisis for kelp and other species.)
If your environment/uni-love inspires you to slither into a wetsuit and go diving for dinner, here's how to get started, with tips from champion spearfisher Harold Gibson and the pros at the Sub-Surface Progression Dive Shop in Fort Bragg, which ran for 43 years until it closed in 2019.
This should not be news: The ocean here is coldreally cold. For Gibson, a Hawaii native, the shock was a big one. "I didn't even think to look at the temperature of the water," he says of his first Northern California dive. "I got maybe knee deep in the water, and promptly turned around."
Gibson battles the cold with a specialty dive wetsuit. According to the guys at Sub-Surface, you're going to want a diving suit that's about 7-8 millimeters thick, and it should be a tight, close fit (Gibson uses hair conditioner to maneuver into his). And make sure you're covering as much as possible, with a dive hood (that fits very snugly into your suit, lest you want freezing water flowing down your back), boots, and gloves.
Tools of the Trade
Now that you're set to stay warm (well, warmer), make sure you have the necessary gear to score urchin most effectively. Your checklist should include a snorkel mask, fins, and a weight belt to counteract the buoyancy of the wetsuit (the amount of weight you need will depend on your size). You'll need a kayak, inner tube, or surfboard, both to act as a collection point for your catch, and as a way to take a break from the chilly waters while you're out.
As for snagging the urchins themselves, a pick is useful for prying the spiny guys off rocks, as is a mesh bag for storing them. If you have an inner tube, you do not want to puncture it with your catch hang the bag off the side. Finally, be sure to secure a sport fishing license ($16 per day), available online, at select local shops, and even the Fort Bragg Rite Aid.
Recreational divers are likely to be going after medium-size urchins that are dark purple in hue. "Commercial divers go much deeper, allowing them to find the big, red guys," explains Gibson. But smaller doesn't necessarily mean less delicious. While larger urchin will yield more creamy, orange roe, flavor almost entirely depends on a particular specimen's diet.
Recreational divers can harvest no more than 35 urchins a day, but that number rarely proves to be a problem. "I usually just grab two or three," Gibson says. "Trying to balance 35 good-sized urchins on the back of your kayak is not easy!"
Take a Deep Breath
According to Gibson, the key for a successful dive is to stay as calm and relaxed as possible. "If you relax, you can hold your breath for longer," he explains. "But diving is a paradox in that way. You have to calm down, but every bit of stimulus causes your heart rate to jump. The cold, thinking about your breath, seeing a fishit all counteracts that one goal."
His advice? Don't fight it too much. "We don't have kelp beds in Hawaii. So during my first few dives out here, kelp was like this huge sea monster," he recalls. Instead of trying to ignore the sensory overload, he let himself take it all in. "The sheer biomass along the coast here is amazing. It's special to be able to be down there, taking it all in."
Fort Bragg is known for ample amounts of urchin, and good entry-level dive spots. We recommend Van Damme and Russian Gulch State Parks, both of which are very protected and easily accessible. Wet suits ($15, with hood) and weight belts ($6) are available at Bamboo Reef in San Francisco.
This interview was originally published by 7x7 on April 9, 2014. It has been updated for 2020.