By Miles Saunders
It is already a blazing hot summer morning when we head for the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s Crystal River. With the breeze blowing over our swiftly moving boat we hardly notice.
It is the first week of the summer scallop season on Northern Florida’s Gulf Coast. We’re here to catch the delectable Florida Bay Scallop and since there is no commercial scallop fishery in Florida, diving is the only way to get them. (Recreational scallop season runs from July to September.)
As we break out into the Gulf, there are boats scattered to the horizon. Our boat Captain stops to trade news with other captains on the best spots so far. Heads bob in the water. Dive flags wave in a light wind.
Cooled by the breeze, we slip into the warm bath-like water wearing flippers, snorkel and mask and enter another world.
Below, a great green meadow stretches as far as the eye can see.
“Some people call it the womb of the Gulf of Mexico,” says Tim Jones, manager of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Big Bend Seagrass Preserve. “This particular area of Florida is one of the most diverse and biologically productive eco-systems in the world.”
Seagrass flourishes in shallow water where sunlight filters to the sea floor. Here the water is only six feet deep.
The scallops are filter feeders living hidden among the grasses. They prove tricky to find.
It doesn’t matter.
One discovery leads to another as we float on the surface scanning the bottom.
Fish swim above the swaying seagrass and an occasional star fish, sponge or seahorse appears. It’s mesmerizing.
Scallops are what we’ve come to find, however, and at last I spot one. It’s hidden in the grass and, what’s more, I see it looking back at me! As I dive down I see its lines of blue iridescent eyes along the edges of its two shells. It begins to flee but I quickly snatch it up and slip it into a mesh bag wrapped around my wrist.
Now that I’ve spotted one, I can spot many. People here refer to it as an underwater Easter egg hunt. Before long, the mesh bag is too heavy to swim with. I surface back into the bright world of sun and sky. We’ve nearly reached our limit of scallops. We’ll eat well tonight.
Before we leave, though, I submerge one more time into the underwater quiet.
The sun shines through the water in parallel bands.
The grass sways with the current. A seahorse flits by.
The ancient dance of the ocean–sun, water, life–rolls on.