After hopping across several little water ways we got to the mussel rocks. They looked pretty much like mussel rocks always look - encrusted up and down with mussels of various sizes. Only this time we were going to eat them. :) We took a quick detour first though and collected a few sea urchins. They were a bit of a challenge, but if you can get a good hold on the far side of them then quickly tilt them towards you they pop of the rocks pretty easily. There weren't too many though, so we only took a few.
Then it was time for the main attraction! Mussel harvesting went even faster than the sea urchin harvesting. I just put on some gloves, grabbed a big one and levered and twisted it off. Ones in the center of a tight community are almost impossible to budge, but if you can find some large ones near the edge they're pretty easy to lever off. Everyone else was harvesting without gloves, which worked though resulted in a few cuts.
Brewer and I quickly gathered as many as we thought we'd need for dinner and helped some of the other people get up to their limit. It was too much fun to want to stop harvesting. On the way back we wandered around peeking in at the sea anemones (for giggles try trowing on some food) and various sea weeds. Unfortunately none of us knew anything about the seaweeds, so we let those be.
Back at home we rallied the troops and started in on making dinner. The sea urchins we prepared by tapping them solidly on the mouth side until you can lift out the mouth. Then I used my finger to detach all the black bits from the inside of the urchin and poured them out, leaving only the orange gonads. We ate this uni both straight and after rinsing them off in fresh water.
Unwashed they start quite salty and then transition to sweet. It's an interesting flavor, but a bit too intense to eat straight, which is what we were doing. I'll definitely try and cut them with some other food next time, maybe spread them on bread.
We rinsed and scrubbed the mussels (leaving the beards on) and then steamed them in some white wine, garlic and onion. After all the mussels were steamed we poured off most of the liquid from the steaming pot, being careful to leave the grit behind, and poured it over a pot of spagetti with some more butter. We did the same thing for the few odd ball sea life that we'd also picked up (some of it accidentally). The spagetti and mussels were amazing. The beards pull off the cooked mussels easily, and there was almost no grit. Everything tasted sooo good. We couldn't even come close to finishing all the mussels and had to give them away to several neighbors. Eight mussels a person turns out to be about as much as anyone can eat with a bit of pasta.
I used this recipe for making the sea snails. Getting them out of their shells wasn't too bad - we mostly used small screw drivers and finishing nails to poke them out due to a lack of toothpicks, but that just added to the amusement. The snails had two main sections internally. A mostly black foot, and a white/brown tail part. The two pieces detach easily. We decided to try and use both. The snails came out tasty, a bit tough, and more gritty than I would have liked. We at them up, but next time I think I'll wash the snails again after getting them out of their shells, and I might cook the tails separately from the feet 'cause I think they may have been causing some of the grit. We ate this over the spagetti as well.
In the end we were stuffed and happy with wine. I call it a success.
More pictures here
A note on legality
In California all you need to legally collect mussels is a fishing license and a scale (you need a way to ensure you aren't exceeding the bag limit). According to this site the bag limit is ten pounds. Determining where you can collect is tricky, and at this point I'm considering calling to determine if some other spots I'd like to try are legal. Also it's not safe to collect filter feeders around San Francisco in the summer months as they can harbor toxins. To prevent accidental poisonings California has a mussel quarantine from May 1st to October 31st, so get out before then.