I met Ted and Maggie, a young couple on board Sunday’s Child, while anchored out near Staniel Cay. They had been traveling since October with their dog Chessie and were working their way down the Exumas. We got along well and decided to travel together for awhile (we actually ended up staying together for over two months and making our way back to NC together!).
They were a couple days ahead of me (thanks to a running aground experience near Staniel Cay, that story will come later!) and had stopped at Galliot Cay. They ended up dinghying up to Little Farmer’s where I stayed the night and riding with me down to Galliot Cay. While in transit, we talked through our hunting expedition. Ted and I planned on going out to search for conch, lobster and fish. I had not caught any of these creatures yet on the trip and was excited to have an experienced teammate to lead the way.
We ate a quick lunch and hopped in their dinghy. We went around the corner towards the sound side and threw out the anchor. Ted found a few conchs here last time so it seemed as good a place to start as any.
Conch Side Note
In some ways conch are the easiest of the three food groups to find. They do not move fast at all and don’t put up much resistance once in your possession. The primary trick is being able to spot them in the sand and being able to dive down deep enough to grab them. They can be in almost no water in some areas and deeper than we can dive in others. The lip of the shell flares out once the conch is mature, making it legal to consume. Cleaning them is an entirely different issue I will cover later!
We spit in our masks, put on our fins and hopped in the water. The water was a little cool but we adjusted quickly. We began to swim around and look for conch. The water was about 20-30 feet deep with a slightly grassy bottom. We swam around for awhile without much success. I didn’t exactly know what I was looking for but I figured I would know a conch if I saw one. We kept swimming around and searching. Bingo! Conch spotted! It was in about 20 feet of water and looked to be a big one. I dove down, making sure to clear my ears as I descended and grabbed the conch. I swam to the surface with the large conch and presented my find to Ted. He immediately deemed it King Conch for its size and said he had not found one that large before. I swam the shell back to the dinghy and continued to look around. Ted dove down a few times and collected two or three more conchs before we moved on.
Our next stop was a shallow cove with a beautiful reef to look for fish. There were tons of beautiful fish but most were not ones that we would eat. I was following Ted when all of a sudden he pulled his sling back and speared a fish. It turned out to be a lionfish and I surfaced next to him as he was flinging the fish onto the rocky shore. He pointed at a couple more nearby and we went back down to go after them.
Lionfish Side Note
Lionfish are an invasive species that are a big problem all along the East coast, especially the Bahamas. They have venomous spines and no particular natural predators (except us!). They kill all the fish on a reef and are destroying the local fishing industry and reef ecosystem. I remember hearing of one study that says lionfish can kill three quarters of a reef’s population in just five weeks! Cruisers are asked to help eradicate them by removing as many as possible while diving. They can be eaten but you have to be very careful not to touch their spines as the effects of the venom are very painful.
We both shot a couple more lionfish and then swam back to the dinghy. It was around 2:30 pm at this point so we returned to Sunday’s Child with King Conch and his cronies to grab our cleaning tools. Now for the fun part! Ted’s first conch cleaning operation was performed in the cockpit of the boat a few weeks ago. Maggie and he quickly agreed that this procedure was best reserved for any sandy beach well away from the boat!
Conch Cleaning Side Note
I think there is an inversely proportional relationship for conch between the ease of collection and difficulty in cleaning. The conch retracts and holds itself in the shell using its abductor muscle. There is a long fingernail looking claw called the operculum that seals it in the shell and I suppose is used as some sort of defense. The trick to extracting them is to chisel a hole in the shell two rows of spires from the back so that you can access the abductor muscle. Once the hole is made you can take a fillet knife and sever the muscle. They should come out of the shell easily after that (I was not very good at this part). Then you take them to the water and begin to clean them. They are really mucusy, gross looking creatures! They have crazy, long eye balls and colorful entrails. I’ll skip most of the gory details but you basically remove everything that is not the muscle. The next step is to remove the brown skin on the muscle. At this point in the trip we were peeling them like a carrot (we found out later that there was a quicker way!). It would take about 10-15 minutes to clean one.
We pulled up to the beach and Ted prepared for his Conch Extraction and Cleaning demonstration. Ted took care of the first one and was able to easily remove it from the shell. I took the chisel and grabbed one of the smaller conch to try first. King Conch would have to wait! The shell was very hard but I was able to chisel through with a few strikes. I sliced what I took to be the abductor muscle and the conch came out easily. Nice! We cleaned the conch in the water and threw the cleaned portion in a bucket.
Now for King Conch! I chiseled through and sliced what I took to be the abductor muscle. I grabbed the operculum and tried to pull it out. Not happening! I tried slicing again, still nothing! I battled with it for about 10 minutes while Ted cleaned the rest of the conch. I finally had to tap out and call for backup. Ted worked with it for awhile and was finally able to remove King Conch from his shell. We finished cleaning all the conchs and went back to the boat to tenderize the meat.
The edible part of the conch is basically just a large muscle. We put it under plastic wrap and hit it with a hammer until it was soft. This takes awhile but is not difficult. Maggie planned on making Cracked Conch with it for dinner that night. She planned on making a beer batter mix to roll them in before frying. We needed an egg or two for the recipe but did not have any on board. We went over to the only other boat in the anchorage and asked if he could spare two eggs for our batter. Luckily he had plenty and gave us a couple to take to Maggie.
It was about 3:30 pm so Ted and I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon looking for lobster. Ted had found a few at a nearby island last time he was through so we started there. We threw out the anchor and hopped in the water.
Lobster Side Note
The spiny lobster that we were looking for are different than Maine lobster with the large claws. Their primary defense is a good hiding spot under a rocky ledge and the small spikes all over their body. You have to dive down and look under the rock ledges, being careful not to stir up sand on the bottom. Once a lobster is spotted (usually from its long antenna sticking out), you try to get as close as possible and shoot it through the head. The tail is powerful and sometimes they are able to shake loose from the spear if you shoot them through the tail. If you miss on the first shot they can retreat further under the ledge and it can be difficult to get a second shot.
We started swimming around and diving down to look under ledges and probable areas. We searched for a long time and did not have much luck. The reef around the island was beautiful though and I enjoyed seeing all the fish. I finally spotted a lobster and signaled to Ted to make sure it was large enough to be legal. He gave me an OK signal and I went down to take the first shot. Big miss! Not even close! I stirred up a little sand and it was difficult to see. Ted went in for the second shot and managed to hit it. It shook loose however and burrowed deeper in the cave. After several more attempts, Ted was able to get the lobster. He was a decent, medium sized one. We were able to get one more before heading back to the boat.
We climbed aboard Sunday’s Child and cleaned the lobster. The inverse relationship exists with lobster as well. They are difficult to catch but very straightforward to clean. The tail is the part we are interested in and it removes from the body easily. We poured our first batch of drinks (with ice!) and started prepping dinner as we listened to an ACC basketball game on their satellite radio.
We had a feast that night! The cracked conch was the first course and was delicious! There was plenty and we were able to eat our fill. Ted prepared the lobster tails with a garlic butter combo and grilled them to perfection! We sat around the rest of the night telling stories and enjoying a few drinks.
I headed out ahead of them the next morning on my way to Georgetown to pick up my next crew mate, Bill. We met back up in Georgetown a few days later. More adventures to come soon!