Abalone in the harbour at Simon's Town

Sea life: Abalone

Also called perlemoen, abalone were among the creatures I was most excited to see when I started diving. As a child, I’d collect their shells on the beach at Betty’s Bay, and admire the mother of pearl interiors. I enjoyed ranking them in order of size, and specially loved the tiny, tiny shells the size of a thumbnail.

Empty abalone shell in Simon's Town Harbour
Empty abalone shell in Simon's Town harbour

The holes running along the edge of abalone shells are for respiration, used to eject water from the gills. Baby abalone are called spats, and abalone only reach reproductive maturity at the age of about seven years. It takes an abalone about 30 years to reach a size of 18 centimetres, and they become more and more prolific breeders as they increase in size. I am always awed to see a large specimen on a dive… Sometimes they’re almost as old as I am.

Walking abalone (with passengers) at Long Beach
Walking abalone (with passengers) at Long Beach

When we’ve dived in relatively undisturbed place, such as the North Battery Pipeline and Simon’s Town Harbour, we’ve found huge abalone clustered together. Fisherman’s Beach is also a favoured hide-out. They usually hold fast onto rocky outcrops, but I’ve seen them on the sand at Long Beach, motoring along leaving a wide trail in the sand behind them. They are preyed on by octopus, occasionally, but not much else.

Abalone in Simon's Town harbour
Abalone in Simon's Town harbour

They are herbivores, and eat kelp leaves – trapping them under their shells as they float by. Sometimes it’s a feast for the whole family if a single abalone manages to capture a large frond.

Abalone in the harbour at Simon's Town
Abalone in the harbour at Simon's Town

Abalone meat is considered an expensive delicacy in many other parts of the world, and particularly in Asia. The snails have large, fleshy feet which need to be pounded vigorously to tenderise them. I found this guy tipped over on a dive at Long Beach – I thought his foot was beautiful. I took this photo, and then turned him over. I hope he wasn’t sun tanning or something!

Upside down abalone
Upside down abalone (I turned him back over)

This page on the Department of Environmental Affairs website makes for sobering reading. For the last few years, no permits have been issued for perlemoen harvesting. They used to be managed on the same basis as West coast rock lobsters, but stocks are too low at the moment.

There are over 15 abalone farms in South Africa of which (at least) three abalone farms are in the Hermanus area: Abagold, TerraSan, and HK Abalone Farm. There are also several up the West Coast between Saldanha and St Helena Bay. such as Abulon Holdings. I’m itching to visit one of them, and you can be sure that I’ll update the blog when I do. As you can imagine, it’s a lucrative business, and several companies have sprung up to support the burgeoning mariculture (sea farming – compare the word agriculture, bearing in mind that mares means sea in Latin) business. One of them is Marifeed, which supplies abalone feed to the abalone farming industry.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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