Standing at the edge of a 100-foot cliff, Drew Arnold optimistically stares out at the blue ocean as the morning sun casts golden light across his face.
We may see some whales, he says, noting that he recently saw a mother and a calf here at the cove. Then he ties one end of a rope to a stake in the ground and tosses the other end over the cliff.
Hold on to the rope, he instructs his two guests. Youll feel much more confident.
Then, with 80 pounds of diving gear on his back, he descends the steep cliff, holding the rope as rocks and dirt create tiny avalanches under his feet.
No dying! he adds, as a guest hesitates on the way down.
Getting to the beach at Jade Cove is hard enough one bad slip on the cliff and its game over. But for jade divers like Arnold, its just one of many hazards one can encounter while seeking the ornamental stone.
Youve got poison oak, youve got sharks, youve got whales, youve got elephant seals; sharp rocks; currents; swell conditions that can change at the blink of an eye; tides. I mean, anything can happen out there, Arnold, 52, of Arroyo Grande, had said during an interview earlier in Shell Beach.
In China, jade has been coveted somewhat like diamonds in the Western world for thousands of years. So, naturally, Chinese history books are loaded with photos of green jewelry, furnishings, pipes, and statues made of jade. Yet, the rock was more recently discovered in North America.
We just figured out we had some here 60 years ago, Arnold said, speaking of Big Sur. So now were trying to catch up on the learning curve, and there have been some big strides.
Some Big Sur jade can be found on land. But the big bounties are underwater. And a handful of divers most of whom are friends now regularly explore Jade Cove, located about 12 miles from San Luis Obispo Countys northern border, in search of treasure.
Big Surs bounty
Having grown up surfing in Southern California, Arnold was familiar with the ocean. But he didnt get into diving until a decade ago, when he moved to the Central Coast for a pharmaceutical distribution job.
I just kind of lost interest in surfing, he said. So I took a trip to Big Sur and started poking around the beaches and climbing around the rocks and found some jade and started free-diving after it. And when I couldnt find any more while free-diving during the summer, I went and got certified (as a diver) about five years ago.
After 25 years in pharmaceutical sales, Arnold got laid off from his job three years ago. So he bumped up his jade diving, selling pieces to make money. He landed another job as a purchasing manager in San Luis Obispo, but again he got laid off. So now his office is the beach at Jade Cove. And his bounty, which he sometimes carves into art pieces or makes into jewelry, is sold at Art in the Park, the Big Sur Jade Festival and his wifes business, Reflections Salon and Boutique, in Arroyo Grande.
While some can make a living finding and selling jade, its not easy, said Arnold, who supplements his wifes income with his sales.
Youve got to go out there constantly, he said.
Getting up to Big Sur often is complicated by tricky weather and water conditions. But when its good, it clearly beats working under lights.
Theres just a magic an allure to that place. Just the drive up there. And when you get to the cliff edge, the vistas are just breathtaking. And when you get to the beach, youre part of it, he said with a laugh. And then you get in the water, and then youre part of the food chain.
While some of the danger divers talk of might be intended to ward off other potential jade hunters, Big Sur can be intimidating on land and water. And, Arnold said, hes had a couple of scary dives.
When the swell intervals get really big, youre hanging on, and its just ripping, he said. Its like being in an underwater river, and youre like a piece of Styrofoam. Youre super buoyant. You dont really go where you want to go, you go where the wave wants to take you.
A month ago, he found himself in trouble underwater and, unable to make it to the beach, found himself climbing up a steep cliff above the waters surface. Eventually, he slowly rock-climbed that cliff to safety, but it was a long, scary ordeal.
When youre on the side of a cliff for over an hour, a lot of weird stuff starts going through your head, he said. First of all, it was my birthday. So I was like: What am I doing here? How did I get here? And how am I going to get out?
On this day, Arnold isnt alone, though.
As he pulls on his 7-millimeter wetsuit alongside Highway 1, Justin Barrett, a Pacific Grove jade diver, pulls up and chats.
While Barrett has his gear on hand, hes not yet ready to head down to the water.
Im thinking of getting some breakfast in Gorda, he says while sleepily lounging on the tailgate of his truck.
Not Arnold. A little before 9 a.m. hes on the beach, navigating over boulders, headed toward a spot south of the rope.
Theres about a five-mile stretch where one can legally hunt for jade in Big Sur from Sand Dollar Beach to Cape San Martin and there are a few simple rules for collecting the rock: You can take whatever you can personally haul, but your lift bags cant exceed 200 pounds of capacity. You can use small hand tools to get at the rocks, but you cant use anything mechanical, hydraulic, electrical or explosive. And you cant dive deeper than 90 feet to get it.
With the cove shaded by the high cliffs, Arnold heads into the water and explores the ocean floor 20 to 30 feet under the surface. Meanwhile, on land, a bearded man in khaki pants scours the little stretch of beach for pieces of jade that might have washed up during the last big swell.
Theres jewels all over here, he says. You just gotta hunt.
When asked what he does with the jade, he pulls a jade hash pipe from a pocket, noting that he sells them at the Jade Festival for $45.
Later, a trio of divers arrives, headed by Santa Barbara resident Greg Ballou. He tells the divers that much of the jade has been picked over, so you have to look where others might not expect jade to be.
The more you do it, the better you get, he says.
Arnold, he notes, is particularly good at finding jade. And, as if to prove it, when Arnold surfaces an hour later, he has about 20 rocks, including his best catch a fat, round 6-pounder.
I can see my reflection in it, Arnold says, holding it in front of his face. Its primo!
Arnold had his eye on another, larger piece, he said, but since his oxygen was running low, he decided to come back. Still, his biggest piece alone could sell for $300 or more.
As hes talking about his collection, Tony Civitell, a diver who arrived from San Jose 15 minutes earlier, walks up to Arnold for a closer look.
You get some giants? Civitell says, already in his wetsuit.
I didnt get any giants, Arnold says. But I got some big ones.
Looking at the stash, Civitell is impressed. Arnold, describing his hunt, is beaming.
Ive got jade fever! Arnold says, and Civitell nods in agreement.
Hes got it worse than anyone Ive ever known, Civitell says.
As hes gathering his gear, Arnold, still stoked from his dive, pauses and considers the extra oxygen tank that sits in his jade-colored truck. Then he turns back to the coves blue water and remembers the rock he passed up during his dive.
Im wondering if I should take a shot at that other one, he says, making it clear: Hes going back for a second round.
He didnt score the big one, but later he would report that he did land an 80-pounder. Then he vividly described its glow as it rose to the light.
There is nothing more awesome than looking up and watching that thing go up to the surface, he said.