Jade diving in Big Sur: Going for the green

Drew Arnold holds up a piece of jade he pulled up from the sea floor during a morning outing in Big Sur. Arnold carves the jade into art and jewelry. See more photos »
Drew Arnold holds up a piece of jade he pulled up from the sea floor during a morning outing in Big Sur. Arnold carves the jade into art and jewelry. See more photos » The Tribune

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. “You’ll 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 it’s game over. But for jade divers like Arnold, it’s just one of many hazards one can encounter while seeking the ornamental stone.

“You’ve got poison oak, you’ve got sharks, you’ve got whales, you’ve 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 we’re 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 County’s northern border, in search of treasure.

Big Sur’s bounty

Having grown up surfing in Southern California, Arnold was familiar with the ocean. But he didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 wife’s business, Reflections Salon and Boutique, in Arroyo Grande.

While some can make a living finding and selling jade, it’s not easy, said Arnold, who supplements his wife’s income with his sales.

“You’ve got to go out there constantly,” he said.

Getting up to Big Sur often is complicated by tricky weather and water conditions. But when it’s good, it clearly beats working under lights.

“There’s 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, you’re part of it,” he said with a laugh. “And then you get in the water, and then you’re part of the food chain.”

Scary situations

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, he’s had a couple of scary dives.

“When the swell intervals get really big, you’re hanging on, and it’s just ripping,” he said. “It’s like being in an underwater river, and you’re like a piece of Styrofoam. You’re super buoyant. You don’t 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 water’s surface. Eventually, he slowly rock-climbed that cliff to safety, but it was a long, scary ordeal.

“When you’re 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 isn’t 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, he’s not yet ready to head down to the water.

“I’m 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. he’s on the beach, navigating over boulders, headed toward a spot south of the rope.

There’s 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 can’t exceed 200 pounds of capacity. You can use small hand tools to get at the rocks, but you can’t use anything mechanical, hydraulic, electrical or explosive. And you can’t 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.

“There’s 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. “It’s 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 he’s 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 didn’t get any giants,” Arnold says. “But I got some big ones.”

Looking at the stash, Civitell is impressed. Arnold, describing his hunt, is beaming.

“I’ve got jade fever!” Arnold says, and Civitell nods in agreement.

“He’s got it worse than anyone I’ve ever known,” Civitell says.

As he’s 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 cove’s blue water and remembers the rock he passed up during his dive.

“I’m wondering if I should take a shot at that other one,” he says, making it clear: He’s going back for a second round.

He didn’t 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.

Click here to see photos of Drew Arnold diving for jade »

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune