A Day Along the Gulf Coast
Have you ever wanted to feel like the Little Mermaid? Don’t lie. As kids, we all pretended while in the pool. Well now is your big hair-flippen chance. This is the perfect opportunity to don some fins and swim through the open seagrass along with the turtles…and maybe a barracuda. No worries, their toothy grin is just a poor first impression for these misunderstood creatures. Encounters boil down to simple staring contests. But onward…to Florida.
In general, the best way to experience Florida is outside. And that’s quite easy with the state’s variety of unique ecosystems like the Everglades, salt marshes, and maritime forests. Pair those wild areas with diverse fish and wildlife populations and the opportunities for adventure become somewhat endless. And it’s not hard to argue that one of the easiest and most rewarding outdoor activities is scalloping. Participation in this seasonal and uniquely-Florida tradition will take you into the shallow waters, submerged grass beds, and warm tides of the Gulf of Mexico. See? Little mermaid right here. Plus, you’re not far from Disney. But also you’re far enough from Disney.
As a whole, scallop season runs through most of the summer, June to September, so plan accordingly. The eastern edge of the Gulf where this all takes place, from Pensacola to the Florida Keys (though unfortunately, their range has considerably decreased). This area has been partitioned into zones by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in order to protect scallops from being over-harvested. These zones run from Gulf County all the way down to Pasco County. FWC has a helpful webpage here with a full zone map and a list of specific dates for each area. Each area is a bit different and might be subject to particular rules such as a bag limit.
One you know when you’re going, you’ll need to figure out the how. Aside from the obvious gear (snorkel, mask, boat, and more), you’ll need a saltwater fishing license. However, choose the right charter and this won’t be an issue. There are many master captains willing and ready to take folks out onto the Gulf. If you’re visiting Crystal River or Homosassa, try out Captain Frank. He’s available for fishing tours as well.
Once the logistical details are set, the fun really begins. Scalloping is much like an easter egg hunt, but for adults. It’s already a bit of a hunt to get to the right seagrass bed. The locations alternate each year and are heavily dependent on the amount of fresh water available. Too much or too little and a population can be wiped out. Bay scallops thrive in a specific ratio of fresh- and saltwater.
A quick heads up, these mollusks are also unique in that they can swim. Unlike clams and oysters that remain stationary, scallops are capable of swimming by the rapid opening and closing of their shells to generate thrust. Again, it’s an easter egg hunt…but the eggs can roll away. And they have rows of electric blue eyes like little aliens. It’s the best way to identify a scallop as otherwise they quickly blend into the brown and greenish backdrop of the seagrass bed. Just look for the blue sparkle. And a word of warning, scallops can pinch. The same movement of their shells that lets them swim makes for a killer nip as a defensive move. So yes, it’s an amazing easter egg hunt and…the eggs might fight back. Just a little.
But don’t worry. The final result is delicious and worthwhile. But let’s recap:
- Step 1 | Pick your dates. Check the FWC page to find out what date range and location works for you.
- Step 2 | Book your charter! Depending on timing, tours can fill up fast. It’s best to secure a guide and transportation before getting into town.
- Step 3 | Choose accommodations. This is where the Florida experience really hits the road. There is something unique about the little towns and keys along the Gulf. The residents are a sunburnt delight of strange stories, cheap beer, and good times. Cedar Key is a great standby with quite a few AirBnBs to boot. There’s a lovely coffee shop called 1842 Daily Grind & Mercantile that’s worth a stop, if not multiple. And the downtown bar scene literally sits off a strip of land over the water. Can confirm, you’ll be sure to hear some fun tales at the Big Deck Raw Bar or The Tipsy Cow.
- Step 4 | Get in the water! You are the little mermaid and now you’re part of their world. And by their, I mean the scallops.
- Step 5 | Start dinner. When you’re back onshore, the work continues. Fresh scallops can be prepared in a variety of ways, from grilling to frying. Find a recipe to try and start shucking. The quicker they’re prepped, the better.
- Step 6 | Repeat. Scalloping is a chance to experience some of the best Florida has to offer. So come back again. And in the spirit of shared adventure, take a few moments to learn about the FWC’s efforts to keep scallop populations healthy and viable.