Thursday, 20 April 2006 00:00
Scapa-based liveaboard skipper Bob Anderson has also worked as a scallop diver for the past decade. Here, he lifts the lid on the less than glamorous working day of the scallop diver
Catch of the day
Heroic member of team
Scallops sell for up to £3/kilo
Sunset after a successful day
Diver with mesh net bag
Diver grabs his quarry
Members inspect catch
Contemplating a damp start
The trick, then, is to leave any other normally conscious sections of the anatomy dormant, because if you consider what is ahead of you with any level of intellectual alacrity, you won’t get anything done. After all, you are facing three dives in a cold sea, wearing a damp suit in equally damp surface conditions – awareness of this could trigger physiological rebellion, manifested by a swift and decisive return to sleep!
To actually get to sea, the scallop diver has to function on autopilot. You mooch to the boat, check oil and water, fire the engine, throw the ropes off and go. Actual waking-up does not occur until the spade bow and hull of your Offshore 105 boat begins slapping into the white horses. Around you, ‘the boys’, your colleagues are also slowly coming to, having followed similar morning routines. It may be rough, but days like these separate you from the hobbyist. Anyone can do the job when the sea is flat and the sun is shining, but if you aren’t prepared to work in most conditions, you don’t make money.
Your first dilemma is where to go. Bad days are easy: you go where you can get in the water – which little lees are sheltered enough to work? You have to choose your ground from the limited areas possible, and when the wind is screaming, your options are limited. The more choices you have, the better chance there is of a decent haul, and if you have ‘hit ground’ (succeeded in finding a productive site) the previous day, then everyone will be anticipating the dive with optimistic smirks. Everyone is eager to get in the water, and the boys jostle as they struggle into their suits – although someone has to draw the short straw and ends up doing the first shift as surface cover.
It varies across the UK, but the most profitable time for scalloping here in Orkney is in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s cold and daylight is limited, but at £3 a kilo ‘in shell’ weight, the price is good and demand is high. You know that everything you land will be sold, and make no mistake – it is a seller’s market! With the onset of New Year, people stop treating themselves to ‘luxury’ foods, and the slump in demand doesn’t redeem itself until spring, when the catch increases and buyers know they can call the shots. Around this time, the price bounces around the £2 to £2.50 mark. Fifty pence may not sound like a fortune, but multiply that over a 100kg a day, then a week, then a month and the extra work required to make up the lost money takes its toll.
A diver gets to keep three quarters of his own catch. The other quarter goes to the boat, whether you own the boat or not (like a ‘clam tax’). The incentive for each diver is clear: you only get paid for the scallops you bag, and any reward is a direct result of your own labour. With all the catch on deck, it is easy to compare hauls and there is an unspoken desire to be top man. The smug satisfaction of a quiet snooze (woolly hat over the eyes like a neoprene cowboy) on the way home, knowing you have caught more than the other boys is almost better than the money from the landing. Almost…
The winter water is crisp and clear, but that’s no compensation for the horror of having to bend the icy shell of your drysuit in order to render it usable. There’s no mistaking the feeling when that clammy, damp, neck seal draws over your face, but once you’re zipped up there is a semblance of warmth. Scallop divers traditionally wear outsize suits: I have a 58in torso suit that houses a skinny, 12-stone physique. Wearing 18kg (40lbs) of lead on my belt, I can bounce along the bottom wearing two undersuits.
I cannot recommend this as an approach for recreational divers, but I am quite comfortable inside my super-inflated cocoon. In common with many other scallopers, I wear lobster mitts sealed at the wrists with elastic bands to prevent flushing. We tend to wear the minimum gear, so BCs are not popular – just a bottle on a backpack and a computer on the wrist. Health and Safety (HSE) rules now require that we wear a pony cylinder for emergencies. Under HSE rules, each scalloping boat must have a special licence, and all the divers must have a minimum commercial-diving qualification of HSE Part IV.
Each diver carries a mesh net bag, with a plastic hoop to keep it open at the top and a lump of lead in the bottom (the weight of which varies depending on the tide: the more lead, the less the diver drifts). Attached to the loop is around 40m of rope, tied off with a DAN (Divers Alerrt Network) buoy that acts as an surface marker buoy so that the boat always knows the diver’s location. The bag is hooked onto a part of the boat, the buoy thrown over the side and the rope streamed from the boat until the mark is reached. Then it’s the typically elegant leap over the side and straight down as fast as everyone’s sinuses will allow. This is when the clock starts.
To get inside the scalloper’s mind, you have to think of the clams as 50 pence pieces lying on the sea bed. Think of a kid yelling ‘scramble’ in the playground and throwing a handful of sweets over his shoulder. Next, take a look at the bottom time on your computer and you see where the deal with the devil comes in. Somewhere in your mind, you are balancing the bottom time, your remaining gas and those infernal 50 pence coins. Now, I wouldn’t cast any aspersions on scallop divers cutting safety corners, but the fact is that a 50-bar reserve costs money.
Some boys seem to be able to find a clam in a muddy puddle. I always had to work at it, but there is a knack and, with practice, catches improve. The most visible part of a scallop is usually the mantle, as they bury their stern quarters in the sea bed as an effective camouflage. They can detect a diver drawing closer and will narrow their gape, becoming even harder to see: often, as they close, they emit a telltale discharge that is distinctive, if hard to spot. They will also orient themselves in a particular direction to maximise their filtration of the tide, so if you look into the mouth of one, you can see them all. Swim the other way and they remain invisible.
Everybody has a theory about where to find them and mine seemed to work for me: the spat are sessile and attach with byssal threads (similar to mussels) before attaining sufficient size to grow on the sea floor. Look for their former attachment points, and the adults are normally nearby. Areas of rocky bottom with kelp, abutted by a sandy sea bed, are always good starting places. It also helps if you can cover a lot of ground.
The best ground I ever saw looked like the mud in a farmer’s field close to a cattle gate. If you picture the imprints of all those hoof prints next to each other, then you can picture the distinctive crescents of endless scallops jostling for space, each open-mouthed and sandy backed. There were hundreds and hundreds of scallops, all nearly touching, as far as visibility allowed. When you come across such a ground, bagging fever takes over until the fateful bleep of your computer beep tells you it’s time to tear yourself away from a fortune that might end up in someone else’s bag tomorrow.
Strangely, the main pleasure in diving for scallops comes from all the incidentals that happen while you are trying to get on with the job. Even on harsh weather days, I took a perverse pleasure in watching what the elements can do, when under normal circumstances prudence would have kept a saner man at home. When you’re swimming along looking for scallops, you can see some amazing sights if you’re on three dives a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. I have seen nonchalant guillemots swim past at a depth of 30m, and immense skate resting on the bottom; I have seen killer whales hunting and killing grey seals.
When the scallop diver puts his head down after a hard day (and perhaps evening), there is definitely a sense of satisfaction from a bonanza catch on a sunny day when everything has gone your way. However, if I were to admit the truth, the absolute pleasure comes from simply being there.
Bob Anderson and his team fish for king scallops (Pecten maximus). These bivalve molluscs, which are up to 15cm in diameter, can be found all around the UK, hiding in sand or gravel in depths of up to 100m. Scallops caught by scuba divers, rather than dredged, tend to fetch a better price as they are landed in better condition. The word scallop comes from the Old French word for shell ‘escalope’, and the shell’s symmetrical shape has been used as a symbol for a number of contrasting groups and organisations, including the Shell oil company and for Christian pilgrims to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.