If I were to choose one foraged food over all others, without hesitation it would be abalone (Haliotis spp.; blacklip abalone (H. rubra) where I come from). If I had to pay for it, I might not say the same. Not just because it is very expensive, but because of how much the joy of abalone is a whole package: The focused, exploratory snorkelling in the precious clear water; the thrill of finding one after what can be a long time of uncertain searching; the trip home, salty and satisfied; the preparation and cooking, knowing that it is the one wild food that after a lot of practice I really think I have gotten right. And of course, the eating.
As of March this year, the NSW Department of Primary Industries, who manage our fisheries (or mismanage it in the case of abalone), reopened a limited abalone fishery in the area between Newcastle and Wollongong where it has been banned for many years. On weekends and public holidays (with a license) you can now take 2 abalone with a minimum size of 11.7cm.
If you are comfortable swimming in sometimes rough open water and free-diving down to serious depth into kelp fringed crevices, then you seriously ought to give it a go (within the legal limits of course). If not, but you are a comfortable snorkeler at shallow depths in calm water offshore you should still keep your eyes peeled, because you never know your luck – and the further your get from Sydney southwards to Tasmania, and the more remote the shore, the better your luck is likely to be.
Focused on the job on my last outing, I looked up to see a four foot shark two feet from my face. Turned out to be a Port Jackson shark (Heterodontus portusjacksoni; which compares to the common idea of a shark as a muzzled toothless spaniel does to a wolf). Although utterly harmless, any sinuous huge fish will scare a least a little shit at least a little out of you when it takes you by surprise that close up. I collected myself for a go at some photos, and soon came across another similarly harmless blindshark a few minutes later.
Although a part of me would like to dissuade you from adding any pressure to this struggling resource with such talk of sharks, I must confess the truth that with some common sense, it is probably safer than venturing into traffic, and perhaps I should even encourage you into the water. Because another part of me thinks that more educated politically active abalone foragers is actually what the resource needs; to help take it back from being slayed by increasingly absentee commercial quota-holders, their part-time black marketeering and their lucrative export market. The whole focus of the industry and the DPI is commercial to the worst extent of venality, and gives us a government department that actually takes pride in the fact that they have boosted commercial potential by actively forcing recreational and subsistence foragers out of the water.
A few years ago, the DPI commissioned a study into the closure around Sydney. It recommended that the recreational take should be re-opened with a bag limit of 5 and that a commercial take should never again be allowed between Newcastle and Wollongong. The DPI response was to ignore it. In fact the latest external report I have read took its first task as a review of the past decade or so of reports, found that the one consistent thing with all of them was that the DPI ignored the recommendations and just did what the industry asked of them instead, and then explicitly questioned why they were being commissioned to write anything at all.
Rant over, back to the foraging.
My last abalone dive, as the photos hopefully suggest, was more than anything else a beautiful stretch in the water; early summer conditions on shore but with the clarity of winter water down below (whilst still perfectly comfortable in a decent wetsuit). I came home with just one legal (>11.7cm, on a weekend) abalone. The rest of it is below in pictures.
In the entirely recreational extent of my abalone diving, off Sydney, the NSW South Coast, Tasmania and New Zealand, even allowing that it is one my very favourite foods in the world, the greatest joy I get from it is that of simply doing my foraging in the sea. If I could have only one, the snorkelling or the abalone, I would forgo the latter. The point being that if you were to take encouragement for anything out of this, it should simply be to go snorkelling. Perhaps get a waterproof camera (mine is a pretty simple Olympus Tough) and hunt harmless shark images; perhaps just revel in the fact that you have plunged from a teeming city into one of the world’s most beautiful natural places. One way or another, you are likely to come home with delicacies. It turns out that there is no single crown jewel, there are many, and you are likely to adore at least one of them.