By Melissa Keogh
It’s cold, there’s no other boat in sight, and you’re battling swells 18m below the ocean.
For 63-year-old veteran wild catch abalone diver, Rex Bichard, this has been an ordinary day at work for 40 years.
The Port Lincoln local, who is the South Australian abalone industry’s oldest diver, spends seven hours a day prising the underwater delicacies from rocks in the seas off the state’s West Coast.
“It’s a different world down there,” he says.
“You’re in your own mind all day, but on the flip side, you don’t have to see anyone and you’re the boss.”
More than 600 tonnes of abalone – prized by fine restaurants and Asian countries – are produced in SA each year and exported globally.
Generating $22m for the state, it’s one of SA’s most lucrative seafood markets.
Rex dives 12-18m into the deep, cold waters to collect three abalone species; greenlip, blacklip and roei.
Wearing a heavy, stainless steel chain mail suit, to protect from shark bites and keep him on the ocean floor, he uses an abalone ‘iron’ to lift the shellfish from the rocks.
Once collected in his bag, the catch is parachuted to the surface and collected by Rex’s on-deck sheller and brother-in-law Darryl Carrison.
Aside from shucking and icing the abalone meat, Darryl is also responsible for operating the boat.
“We never use an anchor, so the sheller follows the diver’s every move,” Rex says.
“The sheller always has to pay attention.”
Adhering to annual catch quotas, Rex says 150kg of abalone meat is a “good day” at sea.
His catches are delivered to Port Lincoln co-operative Western Abalone which exports mainly to Asian markets while the rest is sent to high-end Australian restaurants.
“Abalone is like a snail that moves around and forages for food,” Rex says.
“They strike on (the rock) with about 300 pounds of pressure per square inch so hopefully you get them before they latch down hard.”
Rex’s love for seafood has been inherited by his two daughters, Amanda and Nicole, who are active in the abalone industry.
After countless hours in the ocean, Rex has found “not much treasure but some peculiar fish”.
Among those less peculiar and more fearsome is one of the ocean’s top predators – the great white shark.
Over the years Rex has been in the underwater path of four of them and knew friends who lost their lives to the notorious species.
“They are a wild card and always a worry,” he says.
“The key is to never turn your back on them, it’s all in the body language.”
Rex, originally from the UK, settled in Port Lincoln as a young boy in the 1960s.
After completing an economics degree and becoming an accountant for a year, he decided his “heart wasn’t in it”.
“I got a job as an abalone sheller in 1975 and I’ve been in the game ever since,” he says.
“Port Lincoln is a great place to live and when I work I like to be by myself.
“I don’t see another boat on the horizon.”
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