First-Person Historical Narratives
From Morro Bay's
by Dorothy L. Gates and Jane H. Bailey,
Morro Bay: El Moro Publications, 1982, 1993,
excerpt by Glen Bickford:
A Midwesterner reports
from the Pacific floor, 1936
This excerpt is re-printed here with the generous
permission of Jane H. Bailey. Morro Bay's Yesterdays is newly available in
a third printing as of summer 2001.
Glen Bickford came out
to the Pacific Coast from Adams County, Iowa, in 1935, and found himself
diving for abalone off Morro Bay, following, literally, in the footsteps
of the Chinese, who from the 1870s on harvested abalone in the
inter-tidal zone, and then of the Japanese, who subsequently pioneered
the use of diving suits in the quest for the red mollusk officially
known as Haliotidae. The following is excerpted from two letters
which Mr. Bickford sent home to Iowa in 1936, and which appear on pp.
74-76 of Morro Bay's Yesterdays. Mr. Bickford was so fresh
to the Pacific scene that his analogies--to carnations, rabbit-hunting,
swarms of bees, and dry creek beds--were still partially rooted in a
Bickford died October 9, 2001, in Morro Bay. --Lynne Landwehr]
“I have been
down on the bottom of the ocean twice since I started working on the
boat. The first time was
about a month ago….We were anchored in about 30 feet of water.
Bill put the suit on me first and I climbed down the ladder and
he put on the weights. A
diving dress is about as cumbersome a costume as anyone would ever hope
to wear. First the diver
puts on about 6 suits of woolen underwear and four or five pair of
woolen socks. The diving
dress itself is a heavy canvas and rubber suit, with a heavy rubber
collar and rubber cuffs. The
cuffs fit tight around the wrists, leaving the hands bare.
diving dress is about as cumbersome
a costume as anyone would ever hope to wear...."
abalone diver and photo-historian
of Morro Bay since 1930s.
Photo courtesy of
Glen Bickford and Jane Bailey.
brass breast-plate goes on the shoulders and clamps to the collar.
The helmet fits on the breast plate, screws tight, and locks with
a pin. The air hose leads
into the back of the breast plate or the back of the helmet, depending
on the type of outfit. The
life-line is tied to a leather belt around the waist. The valve for regulating the inflowing air is also on the
belt. The valve that
regulates the air going out is on the side of the helmet.
The diver wears shoes with lead soles weighing about 20 pounds
each. The helmet and breast
plate weigh about 75 pounds.
everything but the helmet is on, the diver climbs out on the ladder and
15-pound lead weights are put on his back and chest.
Then you put on the helmet, screw in the face-plate, hang the
abalone bar on his right wrist, put a basket in his hand and slap him
twice on the top of the helmet. He
just steps backward off the ladder and you lower him to the bottom….
“I gave the signal [that] I was down and then looked around and I
could hardly believe my eyes. I’ve
seen some beautiful sights but I’ll take the bottom of the ocean over
all of them. There’s no
use trying to describe it, because no one can have any idea unless he
has seen it.
“I was in a little gully about 8 feet wide, that looked just like a
dry creek bed, with steep rocky sides and a sandy bottom.
The sides were covered with a heavy growth of seaweed, and it was
every color of the rainbow. Right in front of me was a bed of carnations [i.e. sea
anemones], and I reached out and touched one with the abalone bar.
It disappeared before my eyes, so I investigated further.
Each one was growing out of a little tube about an inch long and
as big around as a lead pencil. When
anything touched it, it drew back into the little tube so quickly it
disappeared like a busted balloon.
I stayed there and poked every one of them, and then went looking
for something else.
“The water was clear as crystal except when a swell came
through, and I could see clearly for about 20 feet. Once in a while a big swell would go by, and all the seaweed
would lie down flat and then turn back and lie down the other way, and
blow around like a feather in the breeze, and the air would be so full
of dust and ashes that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face for
a few minutes. All around
me were star fish, and other animals that I don’t know the names of.
And fish—you wouldn’t believe it.
Schools of little fellows about 6 inches long went by, and
floated all around and looked in the glass to see if they recognized me.
Smaller ones, about an inch long, went by in swarms like bees, thousands
of them. I saw only a
couple of large ones. I saw
a cod fish about 2 feet long and tried to catch him in the basket, but
he ran in a hole just like a rabbit….
“I looked and looked, and lay down and peeked under rocks and poked
into every crevice, but there didn’t seem to be any abalones.
At last I saw one. Everything is magnified down there, and he looked as big as a
dishpan. I hung over him
and gloated over him for a while and then shoved the bar under him and
snapped him off the rock, and as he lay there on the ground, belly up, I
was as thrilled as the day I shot my first rabbit.
I measured him on the bar and he was nine inches long, an
unusually large abalone, though nothing phenomenal.
I have seen them as large as thirteen inches.
There was a black mark on the rock where he had been, and I
looked around and could see [the black marks] everywhere.
Someone had been there and had cleaned the place up.
I poked around in the cracks and finally found enough to fill the
basket fairly well up, and sent them up.
Then I started out looking for some more and couldn’t find
“The pressure was beginning to tell on me and I was very tired
and beginning to get sick. The
water holds the suit so tight to your legs and body that you feel as if
you were in a vice. At that
depth, you can keep enough air in the suit to hold the upper part of it
away from your chest, but at 60 or 70 feet, it clamps around your chest
till every breath is an effort. Nevertheless,
I had had enough, but I was resolved not to take up an empty basket. I climbed over rocks and poked into crevices and looked
everywhere, but it seemed as though there were no more abalones in the
world. At last I looked
down into a little hollow and saw four big fat ones and pried them off,
put them in the basket, and signaled to go up.
“I was very sick at my stomach by this time, and the bottom of the
boat was one of the most welcome sights I ever laid eyes on.
I was afraid I would throw up before I got the helmet off, but I
didn’t, and the fresh air soon cured me.
I was a very sick Indian for about 15 minutes, but in a little
while I was as good as ever….
“Diving is a tough way to make a living, and I don’t see how any man
stands it to go down day after day and week after week, 6 or 8 hours a
day under water. I was only
down a little over an hour, and I can understand something of what a man
goes through working all day. It
gets the toughest of them down after a while.
They get punch drunk, just like prize fighters.
After a couple of weeks of good weather, working every day, the
divers all get screwy as a bunch of pet coons.
They get so they don’t hear what is said to them and don’t
remember the things they say and do.
They are just as apt as not to use tools and [to] toss them
overboard under the impression that they put them back in the tool box.
Bill Pierce went into a restaurant here in town one night and
ordered a steak dinner. While
it was being cooked, he put on his hat and went out and got in his car
and drove to San Luis. He
never thought about his dinner again until he got back to Morro and the
restaurant man jumped him and wanted to know what was the idea.”
Pierce's abalone processing "gang" at the first
"shop" in Morro Bay (today 580 Monterey Avenue).
Pierce began his abalone diving and processing career in the
1930s; he died in a diving accident in 1944. Left to right,
front row: Frank "Pepper" Herrera, Carl Pierce, Ed
Pierce, Charlie Pierce, Bill Kester. Back row: Walt
Pierce, Tom Pierce, Carl Tonini, Les Pierce. Far right:
A.R. "Dutch" Pierce.
With seven of the ten men pictured named Pierce, this was
clearly a family operation. Photo courtesy of Glen
Bickford and Jane Bailey.
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