Article and photos by Authentic Florida guest contributor, Joyce Sparrow
“Get ready. Who is going in?” This is the summons heard just after daybreak every August 6th aboard the Kelly Lynn, a 28-foot recreational fishing boat with a crew of six family members and friends. It marks the first day of the regular spiny lobster season in Monroe County, the Florida Keys. I’ve been fortunate to serve as the unofficial deck hand on the boat for the past 12 years.
We launch at dawn from a dock on the Atlantic side in an area called the Middle Keys. The boat is equipped with dive fins, masks, snorkels, gloves, hand nets, tickle sticks with gauges, and the required diver down flag, along with the a Global Positioning System (GPS) with electronically marked spots identifying where the crew has harvested lobster over the last 20 years.
The sun rises in the east, casting streaks of white, yellow, pink, red, and blue across the sky. The air is humid. We can smell the salt water. As the boat moves 300 feet from shore to its first marked spot, our admiration of the beautiful sky and tolerance of the humidity is soon replaced with an eagerness to catch the first lobster of the new season.
We assess the wind, the current, visibility, and tide. In ideal conditions, the winds are calm and the ocean floor is visible from the boat. Not this year. There are “washing machine” conditions caused by brisk south west winds and strong currents, creating cloudy water.
A diver on the quest to catch a spiny lobster requires strong legs to dive into the 6 to 12 foot deep water, powerful lungs to swim underwater long enough to locate a lobster, and quick hands to net the lobster that tends to dart back into the closest hiding spot.
Two divers wearing snorkel masks, weight belts, gloves and fins, and armed with hand nets and tickle sticks, answer the “Who’s going in?” call and jump from the boat into the 87 degree water. Two reserve divers stay on board to serve as spotters, as do the captain and the deck hand. The boat captain carefully circles the divers as they search underwater for lobsters, while the on-board crew repeatedly shouts out each diver’s location in relation to the boat—and which diver has surfaced with a lobster.
To catch a lobster, the diver does a jack-knife kick under the water to reach a designated hole, pocket, ledge, rock or obstruction, such as a submerged pipe. With a tickle stick the diver moves the lobster from the ledge or crevice. When alarmed, lobsters scurry backwards, so the diver carefully places the hand net behind the lobster or opposite of where the lobster has room to scoot. Even though they are tickled forward, they usually retreat backward and into the diver’s net. Once the lobster is captured in the hand net, but still in the water, the diver is required by law to use the measuring gauge to verify that the lobsters carapace is at least three inches long. When the length is verified, the diver surfaces and raises the netted lobster for the spotters and captain to see. The captain carefully motors to the diver and shuts off the boat engines for the all-important hand off between the diver and the deck hand. The lobster is shaken out of the net onto the boat deck; the empty net is quickly tossed back to the diver in the water, so the quest can continue. On board the boat, the deck hand measures the lobster’s carapace again to confirm it is at least 3 inches and tosses the lobster into the boat’s fish box full of ice. If a carapace is not confirmed to be three inches, the lobster is returned to the water.
Novice divers often feel fortunate to catch one scurrying lobster; experienced divers aim to catch their daily limit, which can take anywhere from 45-minutes to 8-hours depending on conditions. To move from location to location within a 100 foot radius divers grab on to 30-35 foot floating ropes off the back of the boat. This way divers can conserve their energy, especially if they have to find new holes that have not been picked over by other divers.
When the lobsters are brought back to the boat dock, the divers clean their catch by twisting each tail from its carapace. A spiny antenna is then broken from the lobster and used to push out the sand vein from the lobster tail. The carapace is tossed into the water. The tails are immediately rinsed and refrigerated.
Each year, this crew of family and friends celebrates the first successful day of lobster season with a surf and turf dinner, with grilled rib-eye steaks and fresh lobster tails that are carefully boiled, brushed with butter, and lightly grilled. As the sun sets, we discuss our safe and productive day—and plans to get up before dawn the next day to do it all over again.
Notes for Lobster Divers:
The legal catch limit for Florida spiny lobster in Monroe County is six lobsters per diver, per day. Each diver must have a Florida recreational fishing license with a lobster stamp. The 2-day sport or mini-lobster season is held the last Wednesday and Thursday of July; the regular lobster season runs August 6 – March 31. Regulations differ in various Florida water regions. Fishing and dive shops usually have brochures available outlining current rules or check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website at www.myfwc.com. The Monroe County Bureau of Tourism estimates that 30,000 people come to the Keys annually between August and March for lobstering.