Searching for Urchin - Elaine Masters
It began with seaweed, a lucrative enough endeavor to ditch his last semester of college. That Oceanography degree wouldn’t help out at sea. Bundled in layers of neoprene, Dave Rudie jumped into the chilly California sea to grab handfuls of seaweed, kicking past the shallow reefs off the backside of Catalina Island, far from the tourist crowds.
The water surged but he didn’t have to dive deep. Breathing through a hookah rig tethered to the boat granted him hours in the water, where he punched rough bunches of seaweed into a bag tethered to a bright orange buoy. The air hose floated near, loosely winched to a churning compressor on the boat. Forty feet above, his helper, a young ‘tender,’ tracked his bubbles then on a signal, looped the compressor hose close and used a small crane to lift the bags onboard.
Once at camp on the backside of Two Harbors, a small enclave on Catalina Island, the two spread the red seaweed out to dry in the sun and got ready for the next day’s work before resting. During the summer, the Rudie focused on seaweed then pivoted to a different crop, sea urchins. Forty years later, he smiles proudly that those early years of urchin diving were, “Like picking quarters off the ocean floor.”
Diving was cold, hard work but he couldn’t argue with the independence and income. Once his boat, the forty-foot Viva, was stacked and full, he motored towards the mainland, often racing alongside schools of dolphins. American Agar Company paid well for the seaweed bales before they moved overseas. Luckily for Rudie, that coincided with a Japanese market hungry for West Coast uni. It spawned a blue water gold rush along the Pacific Coast. Fat with a sea-sweet, pale orange roe, Anthony Bourdain once called Southern California Uni the "best in the world."
Rudie rode the boon as an American appetite for sushi was born and business was good. It lasted less than a decade until cheap Russian urchins flooded Japan. Then cyclical El Nino conditions warmed currents, which killed off the kelp forests sea urchins feasted on. Pivoting to stay in business was Rudie’s only option. It was a skill he’d learned early in life.
As an award-winning freelance travel writer, blogger, videographer and founder of Tripwellgal.com, Elaine Masters covers mindful travel, food, and overlooked destinations. An award-winning writer, she's published with Edible San Diego, Travel Awaits, Roadtrippers, Parks and Travel and Luxury Travel Magazines, as well as travel blogs and podcasts.When not crunching out articles and videos, she commiserates with local creatives, scuba dives with her fishmonger SO, and explores Baja Mexico, a few miles from home in San Diego.