I met an abalone poacher some time ago – just after I first came to Cape Town. He’d brought his regulator in for repairs to a dive shop that I happened to be visiting. When the technician opened it up, it was packed solid with particles of rust from his dive cylinders. Confronted with the information that it will cause him to drown one day if he doesn’t bring his cylinders for a visual inspection and hydrostatic cleaning, the poacher explained that his dive cylinders wouldn’t pass a visual, because they’re painted black (instead of South Africa’s regulation grey and canary yellow).
His cylinder isn’t the only thing that is painted black. ALL his dive gear – wetsuit, booties, hood, gloves, regulator, hoses, first stage, pillar valves, BCD, mask, fins, torches, dive computer – is black. There’s not a single reflective surface anywhere. According to the poacher, if he was standing by the side of the road in his dive gear at night, fully kitted up, and you drove past, you wouldn’t see him. At all.
What does he do with all this stealth gear? He dives, alone, at night, to fetch abalone (perlemoen) from the sea. His dives are often to 50 metres, on air, and he has no redundancy in his setup. No alternate air source on his cylinder (“For whom?” he asked), and no buddy. He sometimes does four such dives a night, and can make R40,000 for a single night’s work.
His view of what he does is that the abalone lives in the sea, and if he goes and fetches it, it’s his. “The ocean is free,” he said. Hardly anyone else is prepared to do four night dives in a row to depths of 50 metres with no support except for a boat on the surface (with no lights showing), and to look for abalone and pry them off the rocks with a crowbar. Why shouldn’t he reap the rewards? He told me that he’s not taking money from poor people – he’s only taking from the ocean, and it’s a big place.
It’s dangerous work, too (and not just because of the way he dives). There are rival poaching groups on the south/east and west coasts, and a police crackdown on the west coast has brought “boatloads” of their poachers across to this side of the world. Shots have been fired, cylinders have been filled with water (hence at least some of the rust), and a simmering atmosphere of impending violent conflict has arisen.
This was the first time that I’d talked to a poacher, and it gave me a lot to think about. This is a world that we don’t necessarily have any insight into as recreational scuba divers, even though we know that what the poachers do is wrong.
Clare and I have seen poachers once or twice before, filling cylinders or buying gear (lots of it, expensive stuff) from dive shops all over. I’ve also seen more than one at Miller’s Point, early in the morning. One tried to sell me his dive gear for money to get home, because his friends had left him alone at the slipway wearing nothing but a wetsuit and his trenchcoat.
You may wonder why I am mentioning this. No one talks about it in the dive industry because it’s awkward and poachers have a lot of cash to spend on gear and air fills. But there is value in looking at hard issues. Tomorrow there is some more reading about abalone poaching, and it’s very thought provoking!