CRYSTAL RIVER — Scalloping is one of those time-honored traditions that every Floridian should do at least once, like trudging through the Everglades or throwing a hurricane party. But after spending more than half of my life in the Sunshine State, I’d never crossed it off my bucket list.
This summer would be different. Photographer Martha Asencio-Rhine and I booked an afternoon tour in Crystal River, one of the most popular scalloping spots along the Gulf Coast. We’d start at the Adventure Center of the hotel Plantation on Crystal River, boat over, splash around and hopefully find enough scallops to fill our dinner plates.
We met on the docks at 1 p.m. to get fitted for flippers and sign a waiver. There we met the crew: professional swimmers and siblings Rachel and Lucas Ebert, who have scalloped since they were toddlers, and Paul Cross, a captain with two decades of experience. All three grew up in the area and knew their way around the Gulf of Mexico.
“I say it’s like an adult Easter egg hunt,” said Cross, 44. “Sometimes it’s like Grandma hid them, sometimes it’s like Dad hid them.”
I didn’t know what to expect as we boarded Cross’ boat in Kings Bay and headed west. We cruised past strips of Tiki bars, clumps of mangroves and row after row of palms. Rachel Ebert, 35, handed us hydration tablets to crush into our water bottles; Lucas Ebert, 28, pointed out osprey nests and long-necked cormorants poking out of the water.
As the water of Crystal River stretched ahead of us, a canopy of clouds spelled out a warning. Pillowy white curls floated on the right side of the sky, gray smears filled the left — right where we were heading. To get to the gulf and its scallops, we had to push through the storm.
Cross floored it. We zoomed at 30 miles per hour, rain prickling our faces and necks.
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By 2 p.m. we made it to a sunny patch of the gulf, the clear water about 4 feet deep. Long fingers of sea grass fluttered under the surface.
“Welcome to paradise,” Lucas Ebert said.
He dove off the front of our boat to scope out the scallop situation ahead of us. Rachel Ebert dispensed pearls of wisdom: The scallops would be nestled in the grass and sand. You want to look down past the grass, into and through it. Careful not to kick up the bottom too much. Oh, and make sure to sunscreen your butt first.
“Even if you don’t find a scallop, you’re going to love swimming around and being part of the underwater world,” she said.
Lucas Ebert poked his head out of the water, holding a scallop over his head — the first of the afternoon. We oohed and ahhed and passed it around, squealing as it snapped shut. It was time for our turn.
We squeezed into our flippers and Cross passed out masks, the lenses freshly sprayed with a water and baby shampoo mix to prevent fog. The other folks on the boat, a local blogger named Natassja Prose and her family, took the plunge first. Then Rachel Ebert instructed me to sit on the edge of the boat and scoot off.
Below the water, shimmery silver fish darted through the beds of grass. Clumps of coral dotted the sand. I practiced sucking air through the snorkel and doggy paddling until I felt confident enough to hunt. Where were all the scallops, anyway?
According to the captain, there’d been hundreds out that morning, strewn along the floor of the gulf for the taking. Our afternoon party was not so lucky. I squinted down as I kicked. Was that blob a scallop? Or just a bit of sea goop on the floor?
Cross watched from the boat, pointing us to where the tide was pushing the grass upright.
I swam away from the group. After a few minutes alone I spotted one, gasping open and shut.
I’d seen the shape of a scallop a million times before, a curved row of lines fanning out above two triangles at the base. I knew it from the jar of decorative shells in my mom’s bathroom, from drawings of coloring book pages I devoured as a kid, from the stereotypical mermaid bra. There it was, in its natural habitat, a living creature sandwiched between two familiar shells. It chattered open as if to say hello. I was scared to touch it.
I poked my head out of the water and hollered to the captain. Was I just supposed to grab it?
Yes, he assured me. But next time, just do it. The second you take your eyes away, it could be gone.
Sure enough, back under the water I was lost. Where was that little guy?
I scanned until I found its gaping mouth among the grass.
I dove down and scooped it up by its back hinge. It was slimier than I expected. I screamed into my snorkel and dropped it.
Now I was determined. I would not let it go again. After inhaling a fresh lungful of air, I reached for the scallop, pinching firmly down on the shell without hesitation. I was giddy returning to the surface with a prize.
“Got one!” I yelled back to the boat.
Once you’ve seen one, I learned, the rest come a lot easier. You know what to look for, and you’re not as scared, even when the critters look a little scuzzy. I tossed about a dozen into the mesh bag on my wrist.
This went on for an hour and a half. Then the dark rain clouds — remember those? — started to creep in. Cross waved us back to the boat. We’d head out a little early to beat the afternoon storm. I was fine with that. Between Martha and I, we had nearly 20 scallops. Not bad for first-timers.
Lucas and Rachel Ebert had each filled a mesh bag. (They’d been hunting, too, just in case we hadn’t managed to find enough for a meal later.) All of our spoils went into a bucket to chill in ice.
As we headed back to the hotel, Lucas Ebert prepared a snack for us to sample. Thanks to their filter that keeps them free from bacteria and sand, you can enjoy scallops raw. He cleaned each over the edge of the boat, leaving the muscle attached to the bottom shell. He squirted lime juice, then sprinkled on a garlicky spice blend and a cilantro leaf (no added salt here — the scallops already came with enough). We slurped the whole thing and chewed, enjoying the peppery, tangy bite.
Back on shore we met Troy Stafford, a Homosassa pastor who was filling in at his daughter’s scallop-cleaning business. He sat under a tent holding a scallop in a gloved hand. The other worked quickly with a knife.
Three smaller buckets rested at his feet: One for the empty shells. One for the guts. One, filled with ice water, for the “meaty morsel” inside.
“I grew up on the water and I’ve probably cleaned millions of ‘em,” he said.
His family’s business charges $7 to work through a 5-gallon bucket. Depending on the size of the scallops, he can knock out a bucket in 20 to 40 minutes.
Stafford started with the dark shell side facing up. He slid his knife in between the shells, scraping the white muscle from the top shell, which he popped off. Then he scooped the black, stringy guts and eyes off with a flick of his wrist. A shiny nugget clung to the bottom shell.
We’d be enjoying those in a few hours at West 82° Bar and Grill, the restaurant inside the Plantation on Crystal River. For $16.95 per person, you can eat scallops prepared two of three ways: lemon beurre blanc, blackened or mushroom cream. We decided to indulge and try them all.
Executive chef Jason Perry let us peek inside the kitchen to watch him work, though he warned us that the process would be quick. Bay scallops, like the ones we caught, are each about the size of a mini marshmallow. If you overcook them, they get rubbery.
He heated oil and divided the scallops in three steel pans. First he started on his favorite, the blackened scallops. They just needed a dollop of his rust-colored spice blend and time to caramelize a bit. Meanwhile, he scooped in lemon beurre blanc and mushroom cream sauces into the next two pans. There was a splash of heavy cream, a sizzle and bubble as the sauces reduced, a plume of flame. He arranged the scallops in three rows alongside a bed of rice and summer squash and zucchini. Dinner was served.
Each method brought out the tender, buttery sweetness of our catch. The blackened scallops were smoky and slightly spicy, the lemon was sharp. Mushroom cream was rich and fatty. All of it was delicious — especially since we worked so hard for each bite.
We left with full bellies, already dreaming of going out hunting again.
If you go
Scalloping season starts July 1 and runs through Sept. 24 in Levy, Citrus and Hernando counties. The Plantation on Crystal River offers scalloping tours through its Adventure Center. Tours last about five hours, depending on the weather, and depart at 8 a.m. or 1 p.m. Prices range from $450 for up to four people to $600 for six people. 9301 W Fort Island Trail, Crystal River. plantationadventurecenter.com.