This Is the Life of a Jade Diver in Big Sur, California

by Owen James Burke

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80 pounds of diving gear on his back, Drew Arnold, 52, of Arroyo Grande, California, ties a rope to a stake at the top of a 100-foot cliff, telling his guests, “Hold on to the rope. You’ll feel much more confident,” before hurling himself over the edge.

The cliff is laden with poison oak, crumbling, and creates a miniature avalanche every time its descended, but that’s just the beginning of the dangers for this adventure. Next, he’s got to jump into the cold California waters with sharks, elephant seals, sharp rocks, and constantly shifting swells and tides.

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Jade, of course, is highly sought in China, along with much of Asia, but it’s only recently been discovered in North America.

“We just figured out we had some here 60 years ago,” Arnold told the San Luis Obispo tribune. “So now we’re trying to catch up on the learning curve, and there have been some big strides.”

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The sea grass in the jade beds grows long and thick, and just happens to be nearly the same hue as the coveted rock.

Very few laws are in place for jade hunting: there’s a five-mile stretch between Sand Dollar Beach and Cape San Martin where jade can be taken; one can haul up to 200 pounds per day (permitting they can lift it); no mechanical tools may be used; and hunting below 90 feet is not permitted.

There are many jade hunters in Big Sur these days, and many of the fields have been picked over pretty well. Some scour the beach, and others freedive, but Arnold uses scuba equipment, and is considered to be among the best.

Like fishing, a day’s haul and payout can range anywhere from meager to quite good. A 6-pound piece of jade (a good haul by most standards), for example, can fetch about $300. Still, Arnold’s diving supplements his wife’s income.

Arnold has found himself in some bad spots, including being chased up a cliff face on his birthday, from which it took him over an hour to scale up to safety. Still, it beats any day at his pharmaceutical job where he was recently canned after 25 years.

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“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.”

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