Scalloping has been called “an Easter Egg hunt underwater,” and for a good reason. It’s utterly thrilling, and diving into the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico to harvest these delicate molluscs, even if you’re a novice, is as easy as 1-2-3 (-4-5).
1) Booking Your Tour
We chose a Semi-private 6-person River Safari tour out of Homosassa for its proximity to quieter scalloping grounds than some other locations along the Gulf coast. We also chose a weekday, which tends to be much quieter than weekends.
Every River Safaris tour provides the boat and the captain (of course!), fishing license, flippers, mask, snorkel and scallop bag, plus cold bottled water for the duration of the 4.5 hour experience.
We were instructed to bring sun block (essential!) and snacks, drinks and lunch in a cooler, which could then be used to carry our scallops home.
While it does make for an early start, booking the 7am tour was a huge plus. You’ll avoid the worst heat of the day and the possibility of an afternoon thunderstorm, which could impact a later tour. Our group was the first to go out, and we were well into it before any others showed up.
Our tour guide was Casey, who “knows all the best spots”, which proved true, as evidenced by how few scalloping boats were around us (none, most of the time) and how many scallops we found as a result. Our boat moved three times to stay ahead of the rest, and to find more prolific grounds when we’d picked over the spot we were in.
It’s worth staying overnight to avoid a long drive in the wee hours, and we can highly recommend the Hampton Inn Crystal River, just 15 minutes away, along with a pre-scalloping day dinner at intimate Katch Twenty-Two, owned by Richard Wiggins (formerly the executive chef at several exceptional restaurants, including at the Hyatt Grand Cypress in Orlando) and his wife Tiffany.
2) Arriving At The Sea Grass
You’ve made the pleasant 45-minute journey out to the scalloping grounds, and now it’s time to get in the water and start hunting. But wait…there are a few decisions to make before you jump overboard (one is actually whether to jump overboard or use the ladder).
Wacky noodles were available for swimmers who were less confident in the water, which aids in buoyancy but can’t be used when diving for the scallops. The eight-year-old on our tour used a noodle, and swam buddy-style with his mum so that she could hold it while he dove.
Every scalloper is fitted for flippers before departing, but that doesn’t mean you have to use them. We started by wearing flippers, but soon found them cumbersome and ditched them for “bare foot” swimming. Everyone else on our tour was more comfortable with them.
The next step is de-fogging your mask using the solution provided by your captain, then adjusting it for a good seal. Casey checked everyone’s fit before we entered the water, and none of us had ‘leakage’.
Finally, you can choose between harvesting by hand, or with a small dip net. Either works, both are easy, so it comes down to how much you want to wrestle with dropping the scallops into your net bag (hint: hands work best).
Then, it was into the water!
The waters off of this part of Florida are warm and shallow, measuring 6-8 feet when you reach the sea grass (even up to four miles out!). The water is beautifully clear, so it’s easy to see the sea bed in great detail, and those who can’t or prefer not to dive will be rewarded with superb views of the grasses, coral, and fish, some of which are quite friendly (we’re looking at you, remoras!).
Once you’re in the water, it takes a few minutes to adjust to seeing the scallops, but don’t worry if you’re struggling a bit. Casey was quick to help novices (in this case, us!) spot the first few, and after we’d seen two or three it was easy to spot them. And don’t be surprised if you spot some of their tasty neighbours, too!
It was very easy to float along searching for dinner, and highly amusing when a trio of friendly remoras kept us company, apparently drawn in by our bright blue scallop bag. Once we spotted a scallop, it was just a matter of diving down and plucking it from its perch. Then, into the net bag it went.
4) Tips For Finding The Elusive Little Critters
Float slowly, and scan both the sea grass and the sandy areas. You’re looking for the distinctive scallop shape, but you can also spot them by their many iridescent blue eyes, which shine when the sunlight hits them (creepy, we know, but they’re actually quite beautiful!).
If someone in your group isn’t a strong swimmer or diver, give them a wacky noodle to float with and make them the ‘spotter’. We increased our take greatly by having one slow-moving spotter and one diver. The other benefit is, when the diver gets tired they can ‘rest’ by sharing the buoyancy of the noodle.
Scallops are plentiful in Homosassa, so don’t worry about whether or not you’ll find any. And remember, they often travel in pairs, so take an extra-deep breath and grab two—or more!—while you’re down there!
5) Taking Your Haul Home (Or Not)
You are advised to bring a cooler, or purchase one at River Safaris for under $4. They also sell bags of ice for keeping your scallops fresh for the trip back to your accommodation.
Unless you’ve cleaned scallops before and have somewhere to dispose of the shells and the incredibly ugly animal inside (and we do mean that most sincerely), it’s a job you’re going to want to delegate to someone else. Happily, there are several local businesses that will perform the unsightly task for you. We used MacRae’s, just a few minutes’ drive away, and it cost all of $12 to have our entire haul cleaned. If you opt to have a professional clean them, buy ice from them so it doesn’t melt while they’re being cleaned.
Don’t want to bother cooking them up? No problem. Some local restaurants will do that job for you too.
There is a limit of 1 pint of scallop meat per person, so don’t worry if experienced scallopers in your group bring in most of that catch, and you bring in less. The haul is divided up at the end of the tour so that everyone goes home within the legal limit.
There is no doubt your time spent scalloping will be a huge hit with all concerned. It’s family-friendly, it’s ridiculously exciting and addictive, and, like us, you’ll come away from it saying, “Why didn’t we do this sooner!”
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