The Last Abalone Diver
History Fest Monterey channels deep history all weekend.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
B ack in the late 1930s, when waves tossed abalone diver Roy Hattori against an underwater rock, the collision cracked the round helmet that was keeping him alive and breathing. Seconds separated him from drowning.
Hattori reached in his abalone basket and pulled out one of the enormous, slimy, edible sea snails. “An abalone immediately forms to whatever surface it touches,” he says, decades later.
The split-second decision worked, sealing the helmet attached to his jumpsuit—which, connected to his ship’s oxygen tank by a tube, looked more like a spacesuit—long enough to allow him to surface safely.
Hattori, now 91, is still proud of his diving past. The doorknocker on his Monterey home, which replicates an old-school abalone diving helmet and breastplate, echoes the enthusiasm audible in his stories and the energy of this weekend’s History Fest Monterey, a nine-event, four-day series of activities.
Born in Monterey in 1919, not more than a mile from where he lives today, Hattori is the only living Japanese abalone diver remaining in Monterey, and a walking example of the ever-present culture of the area.
“Japanese fishermen started the whole Monterey commercial fishing industry,” says Tim Thomas, a fisheries historian who spent 16 years documenting tales from local waters at the Monterey Maritime and History Museum and 10 years at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. According to Thomas, while the first abalone harvests were shipped to Japan, in 1913 their exportation became illegal. But after “Pop” Ernest Doelter’s pounded abalone steaks scored big at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco, their domestic popularity boomed.
In the 1920s nine different abalone companies, all Japanese, operated from Fisherman’s Wharf. But the Japanese divers didn’t stick around. “Japanese divers came and then went back to Japan,” Thomas says.
That made Monterey High grad Hattori, a locally-born Japanese abalone diver, a rarity—and meant he had a different destination after Pearl Harbor. While Japanese divers were deported, Hattori was shipped to an Arkansas internment camp for two years.
Hattori was then drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served two years. He returned home with his family in 1945 to start over, his fishing boat long gone. “I had nothing,” he says.
The vet tried his hand at abalone diving again but learned that something was different.
“The sea otters had arrived,” Hattori says. “[A diver] can’t compete against an animal who lives there.”
After a short stint clearing land on 17 Mile Drive, Hattori spent the next 20 years in the dry-cleaning business. Halfway through that period, he learned the watch-making trade and proceeded to spend 40 years perfecting that craft.
Even before Hattori’s time, the history of Monterey was far richer than most people realize, according to Lisa Bradford, who has spent 12 years as an interpreter with Monterey State Historic Parks, part of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
“If people were coming to the West Coast in the 1830s and 1840s, pre-Gold Rush, Monterey was their destination.” she says. “It was the capital and was the primary port and many people who arrived as traders ended up staying.”
Consequently Monterey Custom House is the oldest state historic landmark (in fact, it is California Historical Landmark Number 1). Bradford will be handling the Custom House activities for Oct. 7-10’s History Fest.
“History Fest is a celebration of California and Monterey history,” Bradford says. “It provides opportunities for people to learn about area history in ways other than reading books or going to museums.”
NightWalk Monterey (8-9:15pm Thursday and Saturday) will take visitors to local landmarks while telling tales of fishermen, seamen and others who called Monterey home. The behind-the-scenes tours of the Larkin and Stevenson Houses (10-11am Friday) follow a museum curator showing off normally unseen artifacts. Colton Hall, meanwhile, will play host to an 1849 Constitutional Convention reenactment (2-3:30pm Sunday).
The festival will also feature early California dancing as well as daily Mexican-American War re-enactors, storytelling, period costumes, film, music, art and more. “History Fest will allow people to use their imagination and see how people lived,” Bradford says.
It will also remind locals that, as Hattori helps indicate, key parts of Monterey history live on.