The Urchin Diver: Matt Pressley
What I Do:
“I’m basically a seafood harvester,” says Matt Pressley, who has spent the last 30 years diving into the Pacific Ocean off little boats to collect sea urchin for West Coast restaurants. When he's diving off the California coast, he usually wakes up at 5 a.m. for the quick drive to Mission Bay Harbor, where he keeps a boat. “I usually motor up toward La Jolla and start diving the kelp beds by 8:30,” he says. He breathes through a so-called hooka, a long hose connected to an air compressor on his boat. Pressley’s average dive is 60 to 75 feet deep, and he wears a custom titanium claw on one hand so that he can pry urchin off rocks without getting speared by their porcupine-like tines. He puts the take into a big net bag connected to an inflatable flotation device that allows him to raise as much as 300 pounds in a single dive. “We’re basically doing the job the sea otters used to do."
“Up in Alaska you can pretty much just buy a permit and a boat and start diving,” says Pressley, “but the sea otters are pretty well knocking out the urchin up there. You might do better to get a permit for sea cucumber or geoduck clam. That’s a similar fishery. Down here in San Diego they’re trying to reduce the number of permits available, so you have to be a deckhand for two years first on an urchin boat — that’s how I got started — and then you can put your name into a lottery to get your own permit. It’s also a good idea to take a recreational diving class before you try it, just so you don’t kill yourself.”
How Not to Panic Underwater:
During nearly three decades as a diver, Pressley has encountered more than his share of apex predators. “I was at the end of my air hose one day in about 70 or 80 feet of water,” he says, “and I turned to one side and this 14-foot great white shark was about three feet away from me. I was instantly panicked because all I had was a six-inch knife. I started backing up and my heart’s racing and honestly, these animals down there, they sense fear. If you show fear, they’ll harass you. So I thought, ‘I got to calm down’ and I just went back to work and never saw him again. You don’t want to head for the surface around sharks anyway, because that’s where the seals hang out and so that’s where all the attacks happen.” The scariest thing that has ever happened to Pressley, however, was jumping off a boat with a lead weight belt and lead boots into what he thought was 80 feet of water. He was still sinking at 130 feet when his air hose pulled out. “I had to dump my weights and fight for the surface and I was so weak when I got to the boat that my partner, a new guy, called 911 and sped me to the Seattle harbor. The ER guys figured out that I was okay, so I went walking through downtown Seattle in a bright orange dry suit. At the marina, I saw some fishermen raising my boat out of the water with the winch and I asked what they were up to, and they said, ‘Matt Pressley died today, so we’re raising up his boat so his family doesn’t have to pay for it.’ ” -Daniel Duane