An underwater Easter egg hunt

Published: Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 at 4:58 p.m.

Scallop season is one of those times of the year that make you thankful to be living in Florida.

Growing up in Ohio, my experience with the ocean was limited to rare vacations on coastal beaches. So when I moved to Florida and married a native whose family spends every July 4 searching for scallops in the Gulf of Mexico, I was a little nervous.

It turned out that even a lousy swimmer like me had nothing to worry about. Scalloping is truly one of those activities that can be done regardless of age and skill. All it takes is a snorkel, mask and someone willing to bring you out on their boat.

Scalloping is often compared to an Easter egg hunt, and it really can be that easy. Just peek between the seagrass and the brilliant blue eyes of the scallops will often be staring right back at you.

Most years that's the case, anyway. The number of scallops and ability to find them depends on rainfall and other environmental conditions. Folks like Charlie Norwood, owner of Sea Hag Marina in Steinhatchee, face a make-or-break year based on those conditions.

"We're like farmers," Norwood said.

Last year, Tropical Storm Debby dumped record rainfall on North Florida right before the July 1 start of the scallop season. That meant that the tea-colored waters of the region's rivers and creek ended up being pushed into the Gulf, limiting visibility.

Norwood told me early last week that this year was looking much better. There's been a good bit of rain, but he said that it's been sporadic enough that the ground has mostly been able to absorb it.

"As long as you don't have it all at one time, it doesn't hurt us," he said.

It appears that there are plenty of scallops and they're pretty big, he said, which he attributes to the fact they were so hard to find last year. The state fish and wildlife commission's scallop counts showed they were in significantly higher numbers than last year in the Steinhatchee, Crystal River and St. Joseph Bay areas.

Gov. Rick Scott used the data in deciding to start the season June 29, two days early. Norwood was pleased, but miffed that it took so long for the commission to get the data to the governor. The decision was announced just three days before the season started.

Last year, the season started on the traditional July 1 date but the end was permanently lengthened to Sept. 25 from Sept. 11. Norwood doesn't care as much about the extended end of the season.

"It makes way more sense to open it early," he said.

Most of his business comes when students are on summer break and their families usually vacation. The largest crowds come out on July 4 and the closest weekend to the holiday, the same time that my wife Colleen's family scallops in the Crystal River area.

For us, it's a lot of fun. Cleaning the scallops is messy and time-consuming, but there's no reward quite like a fresh scallop cooked with butter and garlic on the grill.

For Norwood, scallops are his livelihood. He relies on scallop season for half of the marina's income, so he was more than a little enthusiastic that things have been looking good this year.

"The water is clear and people are getting a ton of them," he said.

Nathan Crabbe's column will not appear next week. It will return July 21.

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