The Cute Black Abalone

27 10 2012


“Can you make them sound cute?”  That was my friend’s suggestion on how to get more people interested in black abalone.  To accomplish this, I would need to describe their big, expressive eyes, their soft, furry shells, and their cuddly, trusting nature.  The black abalone would end up looking more like an anime creation that belongs on Pokémon than the elegant sea snail you find on rocky beaches in California. 


So, no big beautiful eyes, no soft, otter-like fur, and no outgoing nature; but what they do have is a lovely, smooth black shell and a hardy nature that survives in one of the most turbulent, hostile environments.


Black abalone are just one of eight species along the Pacific Coast of North America, and one of hundreds of species around the world, but they are unique.  Almost all other species are subtidal, meaning they live below the tide line, while the black abalone are exclusively intertidal, living on beaches where oftentimes they are exposed at low tide.  Beachcombers and shell collectors can’t resist them. 

Abalone jewelry (


The shell itself is beautiful.  Abalone shells in general are oval, ear shaped shells, which is where they get their witty nickname, the ear snail or sea ear.  There are holes (respiratory pores) around the outer third of the shell, which act as vents for water that has passed through the gills or to release gametes (eggs and sperm) during spawning events.  The most popular part of the abalone shell is the inner surface, which is covered with nacre, a mother-of-pearl iridescence that gets all the shell collectors hot and bothered.  While many other species shells’ get encrusted with algae and organisms as they hang out under the sea, black abalone shells remain fairly unencumbered except for the odd barnacle here and there, and are simple, smooth, and have a nice bluish-black hue.


What makes abalone such good eating is their strong foot muscle that makes up about a third of their body weight.  They use this invaluable muscle to cling onto rocks and snag any nearby kelp for a snack.  While black abalone is not the preferred species among seafood connoisseurs (with red abalone being the escargot of choice in California), it was commercially harvested for a period in the late 1960’s when all other species were depleted due to overharvest.


I’m not a seafood eater, and I don’t really collect shells, so why do I find black abalone so darn awesome?  I admire them for being tough buggers!  They live in one of the most hostile environments and have managed to survive the ravages of a devastating disease.  In their habitat, they are covered with a couple feet of 57°F seawater one moment, and a few hours later, they are exposed to direct sunlight and air with temperatures in the mid-90s, common in Southern California.  They are pounded by waves, which have forces that bend and break steel bolts.  A disease, called withering syndrome, has decimated the population.  They once numbered in the millions and now have disappeared from some areas altogether.  Remaining individuals have held on for more than 20 years, and are struggling to bounce back.

Black abalone on San Nicolas Island, CA (B. Blaud)


Although you’re probably not going to find the black abalone featured on the next Sponge Bob episode enjoying a crabby patty with Patrick, they’re definitely a main character in my adventures.  Now that you have been properly introduced, please don’t be afraid to say hi more often, especially if you’re in the neighborhood.  The ones that I know and am familiar with are easy-going and humble, just going along with their lives in the instable rocky intertidal, and don’t mind visitors just as long as you look and don’t touch!



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