There is a sheltered archipelago on the south of Ulva which regularly produces crab, scallops, mackerel and sea trout but I have never seen a lobster lurking. We decide to dive the area at night when lobsters feed, hopeful the area may have secrets to give up.
The kit list for a night dive remains the same as that for daylight with some minor additions: a powerful dive torch, spare batteries, a couple of hurricane lanterns, storm-proof matches, a thermos of hot tea and, because we are after lobster, a heavy pair of dive gloves and a crab hook.
Once at the shore I light the two lanterns and place them on the rocks ten metres apart where they can be seen from the water – when I surface in the dark, I will be able to orientate myself for an easy exit.
I sit for a while between the lanterns to control my breath-up, slowly oxygenating my blood and relaxing my mind – it has only been a short walk to the cove but stumbles in the moonlight have increased my heart rate.
Treading water and gauging my distance from the lanterns as best I can, I position myself above the area I want to dive. I control my breathing, take my final breath and duck dive, both hands in front of me holding the torch ahead. I know it might be a few moments until I know exactly where I am but the narrow tunnelled beam of good visibility stretches reassuringly ahead in the darkness.
As I descend to within sight of the bed I follow a narrow gully of undisturbed white sand with rocks and weed to either side. It doesn’t look familiar but I hope it will lead somewhere I soon recognise. I stay vigilant for eyes peering from the kelp forest to my sides – crabs’ sparkling eyes and moving mouth parts reflecting in torchlight often catch a divers attention from within the gloom. Ironically it is often this very process of a crab seeing a diver at night that can give away his position.
I distract my mind from discomfort building in my lungs by exploring a thought that crabs have much to learn from the ostrich with regards to danger avoidance strategies but my lungs are burning and I surface.
Wherever a lobster is caught in British shores there is a Minimum Landing Size to adhere to and, if a crab is caught smaller than the stipulated size, it is law to return it. This is important in allowing smaller lobsters to reach adulthood and breed before they are removed from the area. I return lobsters with a carapace (the shell containing the head, ending where the segmented tail begins) shorter than 85cm and the same for females with eggs.
Lobster potting however is as complicated as it is regulated – some areas allow six pots per person whilst others allow pots to be used at certain times of the year all the while others require a licence. If the rules are not followed local livelihoods are likely being adversely affected and offending buoys may be cut by angry, territorial and protective fishermen.
Again I descend and the same gully gradually opens to a circle of sand with a tower of kelp attached from its centre reaching up through the water column to the surface – reassured that I now know where I am I come up for air.
Surfacing is no easier with one hand holding a torch so, deciding to reduce my dive weight – I turn on the surface and swim towards the lanterns. On shore I remove a single weight and return to the kelp tower confident that any ascent holding a lobster will be easier.
A rock and a hard place
Swimming around the base of the kelp tower secured to boulders with good hand holds for pulling my way around, I glimpse a guardsman like lobster standing proud on the brow of the yellow Scottish sand like a soldier of the Black Watch. We watch each other and, despite me wearing gloves, I know a face off can make for a tricky snatch.
I position the crab hook behind the lobster to make him turn and make a grab around the carapace as he does so. Lobster move surprisingly fast underwater and, without gloves, a nip from the claws could lose one a finger.
As I hold the lobster with one hand and manoeuvre him gently into my net bag I can’t help but think what wonderful bait a finger would make for a lobster pot.