Diving for abalone

‘Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld’ offers an unprecedented look into the illicit, and perilous, trade in one of the most sought after substances on the planet.

Lightning flashed at sea as the poachers cut across the flat water. Shuhood gunned the motor, steering towards the slipway with a massive haul of abalone. It was November 2006, four years into Shuhood’s poaching career and the point at which it began unravelling. Two mesh bags lay at his feet, leaking slime across the deck.

Riding with him were Shawn, a white diver he had been working with for several months, and Clayton, an old kreef fisherman from Saldanha Bay. They were returning to shore in Langebaan, a sheltered lagoon on South Africa’s west coast, after diving illegally inside a restricted military zone across the bay. Following a few early snags, the operation had gone smoothly, and each diver stood to earn R10 000 for the evening. Even the thunderstorm had played to their advantage, its clouds blotting out the full moon as it rose but then discharging over the ocean, too far away to pose a threat.

Under different circumstances, Shuhood might have considered this a good omen, but from early on in the trip, he had been unable to shake a sense of unease. Both his wives had been unusually anxious before he left, urging him to stay at home despite being accustomed to the dangers of his trade. Had he known where he was going, he said later, he would have listened to them, but he had only been partially informed of the plan.

It would be too late to back out when he found out what was expected of him. A drug merchant in Vredenburg, a barren town of strip malls and bottle stores between Saldanha Bay’s industrial port and the whitewashed holiday homes of Paternoster, had cut a deal with some guards from a nearby military base. For a share of the profits, the guards would allow a crew of divers inside to hit reefs that had previously been off-limits – a refuge that had withstood the unrelenting hunt for abalone up and down the coast.

The merchant needed divers, but abalone syndicates were not yet established in the area. He reached out to a Cape Town contact, who passed the message to Shuhood. In debt again and eager to work, Shuhood, accompanied by Shawn, had caught a ride up to Vredenburg that week.

The thought of poaching abalone from military waters had appealed to him: it was novel and daring, precisely what was needed to get ahead in the game. Already Shuhood had dived with poachers across the country and travelled internationally, once, to harvest abalone for one of South Africa’s biggest syndicates. He was also out on bail for two separate poaching cases and could not afford to get caught.

But the guards were in on the job. Everything had been organised, the merchant promised. The payoff for working virgin abalone beds would be colossal. It was only when Shuhood learned that they would be diving in Langebaan itself – off the tip of the peninsula, beyond the Postberg wildflower reserve – that Shuhood’s assessment of the situation began to change.

A poacher de-shells (or “shucks”) an abalone in the waters off Cape Town’s southern peninsula.

He knew several divers who had tried their luck in the lagoon and been caught, losing their boats and equipment, and wasting months, not to mention legal fees, grinding through the courts. The South African National Parks rangers – bokkies, he called them, after the kudu insignia on their uniforms – had offices less than a kilometre from the slipway, with a private jetty for their patrol boats. 

Langebaan had grown into a prosperous holiday town, with rows of villas and resorts facing the bay and an unending stream of leisure craft launching in the summer months. Most of the holidaymakers were white people, and most white people hated poachers. To Shuhood, it seemed obvious: there was too much heat to dive safely. No quantity of abalone seemed worth the risk.

That night, the merchant dropped them at a house with no furniture, set among anonymous rental properties on the outskirts of town. Shuhood sat up late with Shawn, swapping poaching stories, and by morning he found himself warming to the plan. Successfully navigating the illicit abalone trade requires accepting, and indeed seeking out, threatening situations, the trade ill-suited for levels of caution that most people would consider nominal. Viewed on a long-enough time axis, most threats tended to fall within tolerable limits for Shuhood.

He was in his thirties at the time, but looked much like he does today: muscular, a little below medium height, with a bald head and straight Grecian nose. “It was a chance to do something different,” he told me. The military base once more felt within reach. The merchant brought them breakfast and drove them down to reconnoitre the water. He spoke at high pitch, wore drab clothes and in Shuhood provoked an irreconcilable conflict that had threaded through his poaching career. 

As an underworld businessman, the merchant had access to the capital and markets for smuggling abalone. As a drug dealer, he was responsible for wrecking lives, profiting from a crime that Shuhood had considered, at times, to be punishable by death. Mostly it was possible for Shuhood to isolate his work as a diver from the wider black market it fed into – including, at the very end, bulk swaps of abalone for tik and its chemical precursors – but when confronted by someone who straddled both worlds, it was difficult to maintain the distinction.

The merchant had arranged the job and Shuhood badly needed cash, he decided. If he was a vampire who pumped drugs into vulnerable communities? Fuck him – and there were thousands more just like him. In the parking lot, one of the guards was waiting to take them across the water. The men followed him on to a semi-inflatable vessel, or rubber duck, with a 30 horsepower motor, too small for fleeing patrols. 

Past fishing groups and jet skis, they drew into the bay, crossing a line of red and white buoys marked: “Military zone. Keep out.” Their destination, Donkergat, a former whaling station, had been a base for one of the South African army’s special-forces regiments since the 1970s. Now it was a haven for abalone, the guard said. But Shuhood had learned to be sceptical of non-poachers who spoke on such matters. He asked Shawn, who had brought a dive mask, to jump in and take a look. Surfacing less than a minute later, Shawn held up two giant shellfish. The reefs right beneath them, he said, spitting out his snorkel, were packed.

Back on shore that afternoon, the merchant introduced them to Clayton, who would work as their bootsman, or deck assistant, keeping watch while they were underwater and helping haul up their bags. Shuhood thought him “a simple Simon”, he told me; later that evening, his suspicions would be confirmed. This time the merchant would stay behind, coordinating the pickup with a taxi driver he had hired. The guards would ensure that no patrols troubled the divers, keeping in cellphone contact with the merchant.

At 10pm, everyone was ready. With scuba tanks and torches, the divers launched again, Shuhood holding the tiller. Saldanha Bay was a bright smear behind the hills; further to the left, the Langebaan peninsula was dark. As the shore receded, its lights playing over the water, Shuhood felt the engine stutter. He opened the throttle to avoid it cutting out. He knew from experience that this could lead to serious trouble, and had no intention of getting stuck in a faulty craft. The engine coughed again and he let it stall, dialling the merchant. “Ons kannie gaan nie, [We can’t go]” he said, whispering even though they were far from shore. “The motor’s fucked.”

The first fish landed on the deck while he was speaking, bouncing and flipping at his feet. It was pale silver, slightly bigger than a sardine. Then the surface erupted and there were splashes all around them: harders, or mullet, trapped illegally by fishermen from Langebaan. A local staple, salted and dried into bokkoms, the species had been overfished, with strict catch limits imposed by the government. Locals had seen this as an attack on their livelihoods, and in defiance they had continued setting their nets.

The men on the boat felt some solidarity with their fellow fishers, but were also alert to the opportunity of salvaging a wasted night. Honour between strangers runs thin in the abalone trade, with each failure a chance for someone else to get ahead. Clayton knew a man who would buy the fish from them, he said, and without hesitation they began pulling in the nets. The wide silence of the lagoon was broken by harders flopping on to the deck. 

Then a different sound floated across the water: the swish of oars as a wooden rowboat drew nearer. Someone swore at them. The vessel appeared from the darkness, with four fishermen pulling hard. “Who knows what they would have done had they caught us,” Shuhood wrote. When they were metres away, he yanked the engine once more, and it shuddered to life.

The merchant was waiting for them at the slipway. They hooked the trailer to the minibus and drove off. On the road back to Vredenburg, two policemen stopped them: the trailer’s lights weren’t working, and they radioed a traffic officer to come issue a fine. In the meantime, the cops “had a look around the boat” and saw the “dive equipment and a few harders lying on the deck,” Shuhood wrote. “They then shone the torches on the three of us at the back of the taxi.” 

The divers had not even climbed out of their wetsuits, and were still wet. The policemen did not say anything: for catching fish, or whatever else the men had been doing, they seemed prepared to look away. Had they known it was perlemoen the men were after – one of the most criminalised substances in the Western Cape, trafficked for enormous profits by underworld cartels – it is unlikely they would have been as lenient. The traffic officer arrived, wrote a fine for R500, and escorted the men home.

‘Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld’,  by freelance journalist Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader, who was jailed for poaching in 2006, is an unprecedented inside view of South Africa’s illicit abalone trade, published by Kwela Books.

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