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Swim for Supper on Your Next Florida Trip, Where Scallops Are on the Menu

By Julie H. Case

Jul 14, 2020

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Spotting scallops isn’t always easy: Well-camouflaged, sometimes their 30 to 40 blue eyes, shining iridescently in the water, give them away.

Photo by Romona Robbins/Miles Saunders

Spotting scallops isn’t always easy: Well-camouflaged, sometimes their 30 to 40 blue eyes, shining iridescently in the water, give them away.

Firm and sweet Florida bay scallops aren’t sold in stores or served at restaurants. If you want to taste them, you’ll have to earn it.

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Note: This story was reported in 2019. Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, AFAR is continuing to cover the world through our coverage, because while you may not be traveling right now, there's always room for inspiration. Read more about Florida's travel restrictions.

The summer sun is high overhead and we’re on a pontoon boat, cruising a still Florida bay. Behind us, multiple manatees feed on the seagrasses carpeting the fresh water of the Crystal River. Ahead is the saline Gulf of Mexico, with its bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles, tarpon, snapper, and scallops.

Today, we’re here for the scallops.

Bay scallops exist in scattered populations along Florida’s Gulf Coast, largely in the nearshore seagrass beds between the cities of Port St. Joe, in Florida’s panhandle, and Tarpon Springs, just north of Tampa. For shellfish lovers, they are prime picking. On any given day, from July through late September, recreational scallopers ply these waters, swimming for their supper. Commercial scalloping is not permitted here, which also means bay scallops aren’t sold in stores or served in restaurants. Anyone who wants their own Florida bay scallops will have to catch them themselves—by hand.

Before our small group (including four eager scallopers, a guide, and the captain) leaves Kings Bay, which connects Crystal River and the Gulf, a pair of eagles wing their way out of Crystal River Archaeological State Park. Tom Burns, the captain for this half-day trip by local tour company River Ventures, slows the boat and we watch them soar. Then, as we begin to move on, another eagle chases the pair, calling as it tries to catch up, and soon its mate has also joined. “We never see eagles!” Burns exclaims. To spot two was a treat; four a rarity.

It’s not eagles we’re after but scallops, so we continue, only to meet another distraction less than a mile into the Gulf: dolphins circle past the boat, hunting and frolicking. One even breeches acrobatically.

Bay scallops hide out in the nearshore seagrass beds along Florida’s Gulf Coast, primarily between the cities of Port St. Joe and Tarpon Springs.

When we finally reach the first seagrass bed, less than three miles from shore, we don masks, snorkels, and fins, and drop into 85-degree water barely five feet deep. In normal years, these beds are lush with scallops, but we’d been advised that 2019 has been less abundant. Regardless of their numbers, each harvester is allowed two gallons of scallops in their shells, which translates roughly to one pint of shucked meat. This year, hitting that limit would likely take an entire day, if it would happen at all.

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It’s unclear what’s become of the normally sizeable scallop population here this season. Perhaps the scallops are farther offshore now (in waters too deep for snorkelers), or perhaps, as our tour guide Laura Ruettiman speculates, it’s a side effect of 2018’s Hurricane Michael. Scallops, which have a one-year life span, typically spawn when temperatures drop in autumn. In their tiny larval stage, they drift through the water column and can be carried for miles. During Michael, last October, the waters here in Citrus County receded far into the Gulf of Mexico, then surged. Still, the population could swell again at any moment. Perhaps they’ll appear en masse tomorrow; maybe it won’t be until next year, or the year after that.

We’re undaunted. If the scallops are here, we’re confident we’ll find them. So we float bellies down, finning our way across the acres of seagrass beds where the bivalves hide.

Dive on in to turn up dinner: Florida’s scalloping season runs from July 1 through September 24 each year.

Spotting scallops isn’t always easy. They live in the tall underwater seagrass, not on open sand, and are often camouflaged by the browns and greens of the grass blades and by angled sunlight filtering down. Typically, the bivalve’s top shell is mottled dark; its bottom light or white, but some bottoms—as many as 1 in 50, Ruettiman attests—can range in hues from yellow to vibrant orange.

“Slack tide is the best time to spot them, as the grass stands on end,” says Ruettiman. (During slack tide, the water is relatively still, with no tidal current flowing toward shore or out into the bay.) I quickly discover Ruettiman is right. As I drift, peering down and from side to side, it seems to be when the grass is tall and still that I can see the scallops best.

I’m a few yards from the boat, moving slowly, when I spot my first scallop. I hover above it, trying to focus, to make sure I’m seeing what I think I see. There, in the grass, is the rippled edge of the scallop shell. I take a breath, dive down, and before the scallop can squirt away, cover it with my hand. It’s smaller than it first appeared in the water’s magnification, yet at last I have my own prize.

Each harvester is permitted two gallons of scallops in their shells, or about one pint of shucked meat.

Over the course of five hours we set anchor at five different sites. At some locations, the water is translucent; at others, silt and particles agitated from the beds make it murky, and the scallops harder to spot. While some scallopers in the group find the bivalves halfway up the water column, hovering near the top of a seagrass bed, the scallops I find are nearly resting on the grassy sea floor.

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Sometimes, it is the shape that gives them away; other times, it’s the alien-like, 30 to 40 blue eyes that line the outer rim of their shell, helping them to detect movement. Under threat, the scallop contracts and relaxes its adductor muscle, opening and shutting its shell, thrusting out water to propel itself through the ocean. Those blue eyes can shine iridescent and be visible from many feet away. The scallops I find must be sleeping, though, because none is quick enough to make an escape. Instead, the shells clamp shut as my palm covers them and shoves them into the mesh bag dangling at my waist.

With the cooling waters of the Gulf buoying us, we have worked hard for our scallops, though by the end of the tour we haven’t reached our full limit. Still, as we make our way back in to shore, we shuck the haul we do have, separating the tasty, white muscle—bigger than a thimble, smaller than a half-dollar coin—that adheres to the top of the shell, from the surrounding intestines.

Later, in the kitchen of our rental apartment, I sear a dozen scallops just long enough for the meat to turn from pearlescent to paper white. Then, I arrange them atop linguine, deglaze the stainless-steel pan with a hit of white wine and drizzle the pasta with pan juices. (Vacationers without access to a kitchen needn’t miss out: Many of the restaurants in the small city of Crystal River will gladly cook your catch. Alternately, the scallops can be packed in coolers and shipped home from the town post office.) We quickly fall into reverie, eating and laughing, the meat of the scallops firm and sweet, made all the sweeter, perhaps, for being picked by our own hands.

Don’t have access to a kitchen on your trip? No problem: Take your catch to many of the restaurants in the town of Crystal River and they will cook the scallops for you.

Making It Happen

Scallop season runs from July 1 through September 24 each year. While boat rentals are available for scallopers who want to DIY, figuring out exactly where to drop anchor might prove difficult. Choose a tour instead and everything from the gear (snorkel, mask, and fins) to the fishing license (available for purchase online for those going it alone) is included. Multiple operators offer scallop tours and charters in the city of Crystal River and the old Florida fishing town of Homosassa, both less than an hour drive from Tampa or less than two from Orlando. Many outfitters also offer manatee swim outings on the nearby Crystal River (typically, from the city of Crystal River), allowing visitors to get in the water and within inches of the massive, prehistoric-looking mammals. Here are two of the best-reputed providers:

  • River Ventures offers five-hour scallop tours (from $79) and private charters on boats that accommodate up to six guests, out of both Crystal River and Homosassa; it also runs three-hour manatee tours, with a maximum capacity for 10 guests ($59).

  • Explorida operates out of Crystal River and offers five-hour scallop tours ($89) and charters on 14-passenger boats, as well as three-hour manatee tours for up to 10 guests ($55).

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