We slip into the water and, with 5mm of buoyant winter wetsuit squeezing our creases, there’s no exhilarating cold bite or chest-squeezing thrill of breath panic, just a peculiarly warm, if slightly immobilised marshmallow bob. I wonder what the bewildered seals think.
With one deep breath I dive to the seabed and, noting visibility is about 8 metres, I check the anchor. Although there’s not much to be done improving an anchors fastness I find it reassuring to have a picture in mind of the terrain it sits in. It’s easier to concentrate on breath holds without distracting visions of a kayak’s drift to Ireland.
I surface at the boat’s bow to grab the dive buoy and position it about ten metres from the boat, even if the kayak swings round in changing wind, the two items will remain apart and maximise chances of being seen. The idea being, if a concerned passing rambler sees the empty kayak at sea they might, on closer inspection, also notice the dive buoy and wait for a head to surface before unnecessarily ruining some poor lifeguard’s morning cup of tea. I take another lung-full of air and descend to make a sweep.
I had first noticed this reef from the cliff top in spring and have wanted to dive here since. As I pass over the bed it is just as I hoped: a smooth and rippled sandy floor interspersed with large boulders fallen from the cliffs above.
In places some of the rocks are stacked on each other creating gullies and hidden passages where kelp sways with the current. I reckon some boulders must weigh as much as a Stonehenge menhir and wonder if I should swim between them instead of above them should one of their cliff-ward friends decide to take the plunge and join the party. I return to the surface with my mind filled with thoughts of the film 72 Hours and not a scallop seen.
I descend again a further ten metres out. Here the bed levels out with fewer cliff-fallen boulders having rolled this far. As I pass over the sand I notice one, then two, three and four scallop. Too close to the shore for dredgers and possibly not dived yet this year by the scubas. I return to the surface satisfied but still with no shellfish in hand.
Sitting on a rock with a drink of water in hand I think about the scallop here. King Scallop molluscs filtering plankton on the seabed daily. A retired diver on the Isle of Mull tells me how scallop were once in such numbers he remembers them swimming about him doing a dance in the water between himself on the bed and the sun on the surface. They danced in the water like butterflies and are as affected by the current as are butterflies by the wind.
Now, even in the calm sheltered water areas with a good passing current, they are harder to find with solitary scallop a more common sight. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) protects the sea that surrounds us and ‘grades the fish we catch on a one-to-five scale of sustainability’ so consumers may make ‘informed choices at the point of purchase’.
I look down at the turquoise water below me, the point of purchase is looking unsettled, the wind is up and the topside is getting choppy. This afternoon’s weather forecast is for deteriorating conditions and I knew I must dive again soon.
‘Sustainability Rating One’ means the species is fine to eat and ‘Rating Five’ means that, as a fisherman, you really wouldn’t want to be seen with that in the back of your boat. Being new to the island I don’t want pubs to go silent as I enter so I tend to stick to the rules.
Currently MCS has classified scallop sustainability as ranging somewhere between Ratings Two and Four depending on where and how they are caught. Rating Four means that there is a ‘low stock’ level and that’s one rating before Five, which means the species, is ‘endangered’. I presume ‘extinct’ is the next rating but that’s a rather irresponsible food label even for our charmingly hard-nosed supermarkets.
I look out to sea. Rating Four scallops are further out – living in burrowed scarred fields regularly raked by dredgers. These here are Rating Two scallops, close to shore where dredgers can’t reach – sustainably hand–dived for their size, with no bye–catch waste and those smaller than the palm of a hand put back to be retrieved in later years.
One eye open
They sit on the bed slightly ajar half-covered in silt. This allows them to filter water whilst keeping an eye out for predators like the marshmallowed men in masks. If I swim very low and skim the sea bed I can see the scallops sticking out of the sand against the big blue beyond and, grabbing one at a time, I put them in my catch net.
With twelve scallop in the bag it’s time to paddle back to shore. I’m looking forward to eating them pan fried, seared in butter with wild ramsons garlic leaves from the shore and wild thyme from Ulva’s sun warmed dunes. It’s just the butter I’ll have to trade three scallop for at a farm, and maybe four will also get me a few eggs for breakfast.
Click here for blood orange seared wild scallop.