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What's a Sea Urchin Party — and How Do I Throw One?

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a woman's outreached arms, her hands holding several purple sea urchins, with the rocky seashore in the background.
Gathering your own sea urchins is an all-day endeavor — but it ends with a delicious reward. (James Gebilaguin)

My biggest secret is a set of geographic coordinates I keep in an unnamed tab of my Notes app. There you’ll find my heart, and you’ll also find dinner.

Whenever I can, I pack friends into my car and head up the coast from Oakland. We zip through cypress groves, scour the horizon for the dragon-like exhales of gray whales, scuttle down rocks like crabs and then we find it: orange starfish in tight knots, pink boulders with seaweed curtain bangs, and sea urchins — thousands of them.

And we should be eating more of them.

In California, over 95 percent of coastal kelp is gone, and the ecosystem is in crisis. While Indigenous folks have eaten these urchins for generations, colonization and unchecked resource extraction have wreaked havoc on regional ecology. Warming waters and over-hunting the marine mammals that once brought balance to the ecosystem have led to an overpopulation of Pacific purple sea urchins. And while sprawling urchin barrens sound like an uni’s paradise — there’s one that stretches 400 miles from Marin County to Oregon — they really aren’t. Exponential growth and a limited food source mean the urchins are starving. And it’s not a quick death: They can starve for decades, devouring any young kelp that’s struggling to revive the forest.

Three people stand in a tidepool searching among the rocks and kelp for live sea urchins.
Along with friends Dimitri Diagne and Angie Sijun Lou, the author (right) searches for sea urchins and mussels at her top-secret foraging spot. (James Gebilaguin)

But year-round in Northern California, you can still find sea urchins swelling with plump, yolky gonads, though they vary in size and quantity depending on the season and location. They’re creamy and delicious but wildly expensive. That is, unless you harvest them yourself.

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In my amateur experience, winter — so, like, right now — is the best time for a fruitful visit to the tidepools. So here’s how to find them, open them and throw the most memorable party ever, while educating yourself and your loved ones about the history of these habitats and the consequences of exploitation.

A word to the wise: I’m no marine biologist or commercial fisherman, and going out into tidepool territory can be dicey, from rogue waves to the health risks that come with eating raw, wild seafood. Please forage and consume at your own risk, and go with someone who knows what they’re doing if it’s your first time.

A woman in black stands at the edge of a tidepool looking down toward the water.
Taking in the view. (James Gebilaguin)

The Spot

You can find a gathering spot by trial and error, like my family did, or check out well-known urchin foraging destinations such as Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay or Fort Ross in Mendocino. There are designated places along the coast where it’s okay to collect and other marine protected areas where it may be illegal, so refer to these guidelines from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Wherever you go in search of urchins, you’ll find yourself at the staggering edge of the continent. With all the salty spray and swooping seabirds, your heart will feel full, maybe for the first time in a while. In short, a lovely way to spend a day with friends.

And when you do find the spiky creatures in their foamy homes, do me and the ocean a favor and hold one in your bare palm — they won’t hurt you. Delicate tentacles will emerge from among their blunt spines with curious intent, and they might even scooch softly across your hand.

Even though Pacific purple urchins aren’t venomous, make sure to stay up to date on shellfish advisories and call the toll-free biotoxin hotline (1-800-553-4133) to make sure the uni is safe to eat under current conditions. You’ll also need a fishing license, which grants you 35 purple sea urchins per outing.

A purple sea urchin held up with a three-pronged garden tool.
A three-pronged garden tiller can be repurposed into an excellent tool for prying sea urchins from the rocks. (James Gebilaguin)

The Tools

You’ll need a cooler to store the urchins, some gloves if you want extra hand protection and something like a three-pronged garden tiller to pry the urchins from the rocks with swift force. They stick like velcro and can use some extra oomph. Online tide schedules are also your friend. Even a few feet of water can obscure thousands of urchins from view.

Once you get home, you’ll need a pair of kitchen shears, some crab crackers and a few quiet moments to take in the bounty you’ve been gifted.

The Party

The ocean is special and these urchins are special, so do right by them. Get a nice little beverage and maybe boil some pasta. My friends and I usually bring back mussels, too, to make a linguini.

If you’ve collected a few dozen urchins and made a big ol’ thing of rice and steamed some veggies, you can easily feed a group of five. Stretch a little, shuffle your best chill nighttime playlist, give your friends a pep talk and then begin the real work.

Two hands cradling a spiky purple sea urchin.
Don’t be afraid to hold the sea urchin in your bare palm — it won’t hurt you. (James Gebilaguin)

The Shuck

In a clean kitchen sink with a trash can nearby and nothing close that you can’t stand getting stained, position an urchin mouth-side up — you’ll see an opening with the urchin’s beak peeking out. With your kitchen shears, cut the tissue around the beak in a circle. Once the beak is detached, pull it out with your shears and toss it. Now you have an opening to pry open the urchin.

To crack open the urchin, you can either cut perpendicularly from the crevice with your shears or set the urchin on the bottom of the sink, jam a pair of closed crab crackers into the opening and firmly open the crackers to split the shell open.

Four photos showing the steps to crack open a sea urchin: detaching the beak, prying the shell open, washing out the debris and then, finally, removing the creamy, orange gonad.
Removing the uni from the shell requires a bit of practice. Clockwise from top left: 1) Detaching the beak; 2) prying open the shell; 3) removing the uni; and 4) rinsing it clean. (James Gebilaguin)

Run cold water over the insides of the urchin. Hopefully there’ll be sunny orange uni, but there will also be guts and maybe some small rocks and sea veggies that the urchin was munching on — and it’ll smell as good as you’d smell if you’d just eaten a handful of seaweed and pebbles. You’ll want to rinse as much detritus as you can.

Delicately release the uni by running your finger (or a spoon) between the uni and the inside of the shell. This part takes some practice, and it’s okay if they fall apart sometimes. You can rinse the uni under cold water and put them on a plate lined with some paper towels.

Overhead view of a sea urchin feast: individual portions of seafood pasta and a plate of raw uni lobes in the center.
A few dozen purple sea urchins can easily feed a party of five. (James Gebilaguin)

The Eating Part of the Party

You’ve been on quite the journey, and now it’s time to come together at the table, reflect on the day and dig in. Uni is custardy, sweet and briny all at once — like if the word “umami” fell off the page in a creamy orange heap and presented itself to you, no condiments needed. Raw is the best way to enjoy uni, in my humble opinion. It gets sad and disintegrates if you sauté it in a pan with butter — trust me, I’ve tried. I like to eat uni fresh over rice with soft-scrambled eggs, some soy sauce and maybe a dollop of crème fraîche. You can also spoon it over pasta or straight into your mouth.

Later, after you’ve savored every custardy bite with fingers stained an inky magenta, remember the creatures’ gentle but formidable life force in your hands. It’s a loving reminder of their place in the ecosystem — and yours, too.

Plates of pasta, mussels and fresh uni laid out on a dining table with glasses of red wine.
The reward for your long day’s journey. (James Gebilaguin)

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The FDA offers the following guidelines for safe seafood consumption. Take the above suggestions around raw seafood collection and consumption at your own risk.

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