By Tony Sampson
As winter sets in across the Atlantic provinces from the tip of Newfoundland at St. Anthony all the way to Cape Sable Island, the colours change on the mainland and islands from a rich green to beautiful gold, orange and red and then to snow, ice and bare trees. The temperature drops, and ocean folk around the South Shore of Nova Scotia start preparing their lobster boats and traps for lobster fishing season. As most summer boaters are now out of the water, our hardy group of divers find ourselves with about a month of the ocean pretty much to ourselves before the bobbing mass of lobster buoys appear. Even though the air temperature in the late fall has dropped, the water is still warm, (as can be attested to by the large number of sharks and schooling fish still around). The colder the water gets into winter, the better it is for diving as the visibility increases dramatically. For the bargain basement fee of just $12.53 taxes inc., you can purchase online your recreational scallop licence from the Fisheries and Oceans website. In the Mahone Bay area, that means we can dive for scallops from the 18th of October to the 30th of April.
Armed with our scallop licence, (you have to keep it with you in case a fisheries officer decides to have a chat with you), the lads head out in search of the delicious shellfish. We all have our favourite spots, that secret spot X that will only be passed on to a dear friend or loved one by a whisper in their ear from our death bed. Today, Jamie, Jeff and I will be hitting a spot we have not been to in a couple of years. Because of the shallow reefs and channels we will be navigating and diving between, we have opted to take a 14.5 foot Seabright inflatable with a trusty 30hp Johnson. We have given this boat hell for over a decade in all kinds of weather and sea conditions and just can’t kill it. It is now patched and faded, weathered and worn and doesn’t look pretty anymore but nor do the three guys in it, so it’s a perfect match.
Leaving the boat ramp we are at high tide slack with minimal current and are able to cross a shallow reef area that takes about 20 minutes off a low tide excursion. The wind is from the west, a gentle breeze flattening out the bay and bringing with it the smells of the home fires from the nearby shore. It is 3°C (37.4°F) air temperature and 5°C (41°F) water temperature, the visibility is about 20 feet and we are all excited to be out together again. It has been far too long since our last adventure, we all have our own businesses and work commitments, we have been crazy busy , but I have realized that life is what passes us by while we are too busy; time for a change methinks. Jeff will remain in the boat following our buoy lines whilst Jamie and I are on the bottom, a solid safe plan and, God willing, we will be back on the surface in just under an hour.
Checking and double checking our gear and helping each other kit up in a small inflatable can be a challenge, but we have done this for many years and routine and keeping the deck as clear as possible is the key. Jamie splashes first and gives us the ok signal as he starts to descend. I roll backwards into the water, give Jeff the ok and start my descent. I have just had new wrist seals and a new zipper put in my Abyss drysuit in preparation for winter diving and as usual Gim has done a great job. The suit begins to squeeze against my body as I slowly see the bottom coming up to meet me. I have no water entering my suit so am warm, dry and happy in this alien world beneath the waves.
As I approach the 25 foot mark in depth, another couple of quick shots of air into my drysuit slows my descent but I can feel my heart beat quicken and have to slow my breathing down as my eyes adjust to the dimming light and the image of beautiful big scallop shells comes into view. I level out to a hover just above the light gravel and sand bottom and start placing these edible treasures of the deep into my catch bag. As my catch bag fills it gets heavier and so I attach a small 20kg lift bag and give it a couple of shots from my regulator. I do this not only to make it easier to swim with the scallop bag but also as not to drag it along the bottom causing damage to other marine creatures and creating a silt out condition for Jamie slightly down current from me. The handle on my bag is 120mm (around 5”), a great measuring tool, legal size is between 75mm (3”) and 100mm (4”) depending on where you are gathering. Today we will have no problem getting our limit of 100 each and all well over 100 mm (4”). In just 20 minutes taking only the biggest scallops, my bag is now full with 50 scallops. As I carefully unfold my second bag from my dry suit pocket I catch movement from the corner of my eye, it’s a large lobster backing away from me with his claws up in defence slowly moving toward a small cluster of rocks, diving between these reefs and rocky outcrops this is a common sight. Seeing numerous lobsters in this shallow reef area is good news for one of my lobster fishing buddies whom I will share this information with. Being from a small community, we help each other out when we can. I will cut him out of line around his prop or dive for his lost pots and give him info on where I have seen lobsters, and he looks after me and the family when we come to buy a lobster feast. I can feel the current from the outgoing tide slowly increasing making it harder for me to swim against and crisscross this narrow channel. I check my dive computer and see I am sitting on 45 minutes of bottom time, perfect. I decide to turn and drift with the current for five minutes, I love this feeling as the current takes control of me. I can feel myself moving at one with nature, twisting slightly to avoid rocks or breathing in to rise over an obstruction or out to drop back down, innerspace is what we call this. Suddenly my trance-like state is gone, snatched from me by the sound of the boat above, my visibility vanishes to almost zero and I realize that Jeff must be pulling up Jamie’s catch bag from above. I check my computer, 52 minutes and 1000psi of air left, I add a shot of air to the second lift bag so the scallop bag is just holding negative on the bottom then slowly make my way up the twisting yellow buoy line towards our surface life. At 15 feet I stop and gently drift in the current for my three minute safety stop, hanging here in mid murky water in mid channel my buddy Chris Harvey-Clark’s, a shark expert at Dalhousie, words flash through my brain “hanging in those channels as the dope on a rope, you are just shark bait my friend,” I block these thoughts reassuring myself that most of the sharks are now on vacation in Florida, then I close my eyes, hang and dream of the delicious feast I am going to create with these yummy morsels.
On breaking the surface, I notice Jamie is already back on the boat, the weather is still nice with a flat calm bay and an outgoing current. From the smile on Jamie and Jeff’s face I know he has his limit too. The lads help pull my gear onto the boat and stow it, while I, like some sort of demented seal, kick myself out of the water and back into the inflatable. Once I am back onboard, we retrieve our glorious treasure and slowly cruise back to the boat ramp. Days like these are what life is all about.
Photo credits to Jamie and Jeff Hiltz