The engine shuts off, and the boat begins to slowly drift. It’s early morning, the bay is calm, the far-off horizon meets a cloudless blue sky and it’s another postcard perfect day in Florida. We’re hanging over the boat rail scanning the six-foot clear shallows below. Manatee grass covers the bottom and our mission is as clear as the water – we’re searching for Florida scallops. The mollusks are grayish and large enough to fit in the palm of a hand but easily camouflaged by marine life down under. Soon, we begin to notice them among the blades of grass, sitting upright with royal blue eyes peering out from a narrow opening in their shell.
We’re on Crystal Bay, west of Crystal River on Florida's west coast. It’s just a 10-minute boat ride to the scalloping grounds from the dock where we met our scalloping guide. From June 27th to September 25th, the Florida scallop season is open for recreational divers and there are a handful of locations designated as prime scalloping grounds. Florida’s scallop destinations include a range of counties along the Gulf of Mexico from Hernando County up the coast through Gulf County on St. Joseph Bay.
Surrounding us are hundreds of colorful boats, in party mode, of all sizes and shapes - concentrated in an area of five or more square miles. Dive flags are atop boats as splashing snorkelers flop their flippers and dive below. There’s no doubt that tonight’s dinner is on everyone’s mind.
To gather scallops you swim on the surface of the water, equipped with mask, snorkel and fins, head down, scanning the area below. You’ll begin to spot the scallops, which are often found on the edge of the grass beds near the sandy spots or sometimes on top of floating seaweed. Dive down and grab the scallops – gloves make it easy, and stash your bounty into a mesh bag.
Scalloping is a lot of fun, but the added benefits are being on - and especially under - the water, where we saw beautiful sea life like seahorses, coral, sea turtles, rays and even star fish. Manatees keep clear of the motorboats but are often grazing on sea grasses nearby.
You’ll find this sport is addictive, the more scallops you find, the more you’ll want. But wisely, there are limits to what each individual can gather. Two gallons of whole scallops or one pint of meat per person is the law.
Once back on the boat, scallops should be placed on ice. An oyster knife is used to open the scallop and remove the white muscle from the shell. Once you have cleaned the scallops, you’ll need to keep them in a cooler in a zip-locked scallop bag.
Once you return to shore, many local Citrus County restaurants will cook your freshly caught cleaned scallops for an added fee. West 82 Restaurant at the Plantation Resort and Peck’s Old Port Cove are two restaurants known for accommodating scallopers and there’s nothing like the taste of freshly caught scallops. They melt in your mouth and I guarantee you’ll never taste anything better.
Local guides charge around $250-350 for a half-day trip, but you can split the costs with others or bring friends. Moderately priced group scallop tours on pontoon boats, charge around $75 per person, and are popular for half-day tours. Be sure to pack sunscreen, cold drinks, snacks or even lunch. Our captain provided the necessary dive gear of masks, fins, snorkels, net bags and a cooler of ice (but be sure to ask the captain if these are provided).
Always be sure you call ahead to book your reservations – for a guide and accommodations. Scallop season is popular and weekends are very busy. If you can manage a weekday outing, you’ll be happy you did.
Enjoy one of Florida's most enjoyable sports and past times, it’s pure family fun for everyone!
To plan your trip, consult: www.VisitCitrus.com
Florida native Robin Draper is a columnist, author and owner of the award-winning website, AuthenticFlorida.com, a travel and lifestyle blog devoted to the simple pleasures of Florida living. To get Authentic Florida's weekly travel and living updates, sign up for the ENEWs, at Authentic Florida.