Kayak fishing isn’t just about sitting on top of the boat and dropping a line down below. There are a dedicated band of kayakers who use them to access what is below on a far more ‘face to face’ manner – diving for scallops.
Invited along as an observer, I get to find out more about this method of kayak fishing madness by joining Pete Ritchie and Dom Thompson. Pete’s an old salt of kayak scallop diving, with 25 years dive experience including charter boat operation. He now runs “Easy 2 Hook Australia”.
Dom is on his maiden kayak scallop voyage, but has dive experience as well.
Pete notes a good dive plan varies with each dive. For the moment, that entails a 45-minute dive in around 12m of water. With slack water, minimal dive exertion should be spent.
“The deeper the water the faster you consume air and build up nitrogen in the body,” Pete states. “A 45 minute dive should leave plenty of back up air in the tank should something go astray, or if a return voyage is needed to pick up gear accidentally dropped overboard”.
The other main element of the dive plan is to organize separation. “If dive buddies separate, there should be a system in place to revert to,” Pete reports.
On the beach, both divers go through a last minute check of their gear before zipping up wetsuits and heading out. Included in the gear is a dive bag attached to about 20m of rope. Just above the catch bag is a yellow inflatable lift bag, which can be filled with air to assist pulling a haul aboard. It’s an important combination of equipment, as it allows divers to work with their kayaks as opposed to against an anchored and stationary craft.
Once over the scallop ground, the dive and lift bag combination gets dropped overboard. Atop his kayak, Pete fits fins and weight belt. His buoyancy compressor (BC) and tank are fitted once in the water. Gloves and mask are also donned.
On the surface divers should be neutrally buoyant. But as water depth increases a wetsuit compressors, and the BC needs to be inflated in order to maintain neutral buoyancy.
Pete then descends the catch bag rope, prospecting for scallops as the kayak trails behind. Working across the residual current helps keep exertion to a minimum.
“Sometimes the scallops are sitting up on top of the sand, and are pretty easy to spot. Other days they’re partly buried, and that takes a slightly keener eye”, Pete says.
“Scallops migrate around. Sometimes they’re in only 3-4m of water, available for free divers.” Pete affirms.
“Scallop condition is generally best prior to spawning season, after this time the red and orange gonads reduce in size. Spawning is affected by water temperature, but generally takes place during October and November. One scallop can produce up to 1 million eggs”, Pete states.
Back on the surface in my own kayak I watch on as an unmanned Hobie Outback equipped with blue and white dive flag is seemingly adrift. But at times it comes to life and heads off on a predetermined course with purpose. From my view the kayak has a mind of it’s own, and is spasmodically chasing bubbles in pursuit of a mild hull spa.
Down below Pete is busy gathering scallops, picking them up like cherries from a tree. The odd one attempts a waving shellfish escape, awkwardly pulsing through the water as two-shell valves open and close creating a small water jet. It’s a futile comedy act, and it’s unlikely Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins will ever be involved in the movie.
Alternate species are also encountered, and largely depend on the type of ground worked. Sand flathead are common, and can at times be hand fed an opened scallop. Smooth ray, crab and octopus species are likewise on the guest list.
“I got checked out by a dolphin pod one day, once I realized what they were, it was a hoot,” Pete says.
When dive time has been reached, or enough scallops have been gathered, Pete executes his exit strategy to resurface. Depending on the quantity of scallops assembled, the lift bag may be inflated. Today the bag was around 70, and the lift bag didn’t get used.
Pete then ascends the rope to 5m for a 3-minute safety stop. This allows nitrogen build up to dissolve back into the blood stream, avoiding the bends.
On the surface, Pete first takes off his weight belt and mask, placing them in his kayak. His BC and tank are removed, and tethered to the side of the Outback. Pete then remounts his craft from the side, reaching across to grab hold of the handle on the opposite side before hurling himself upwards in a splashing frenzy. While kayak remounting has an art to it, none of it is graceful. It’s seals finding ledges kind of stuff; no one scores points on how you get there. His fins are removed on board.
The BC and tank is hauled aboard, and lastly the bag of scallops is heaved to the surface. With a more than decent plate set Pete exhales, as I ponder a bit of scallop research.
His 70 bag contains Pecten fumatus or southern sea scallops. They’re also known as commercial, sea, king, and Tasmanian scallops and they’re one of 350 scallop species worldwide. Living for up to 15 years, they can grow up to 14cm in size but average 8-9cm. Filter feeders, scallops consume plankton and detritus (non-living organic material). They’re capable of detecting motion, and even have rudimentary eyes.
With Pete settled and inspecting his scallop loot, I ask about his tips to dive from a kayak as opposed a boat. He rattles off a list.
“Become efficient at putting on and taking off dive gear in the water. Plan a dive and stick to the plan. Tether everything on the kayak. Leave an easy trip back to the shore. Have a surface time and let someone know you’ve surfaced. Use an extra large dive flag. Tell someone onshore where you are going and when you’ll be back, and be aware of wind, tide, and weather, ” said Pete.
Back on the beach I catch up with Dom, who managed an impressive first up kayak dive bag of around 20 scallops. Dom had enjoyed the experience and was in no doubt he’d plunge off the yak again.
“I had a good chat to Pete before I went out, so that helped. There were a few things that were cemented in my mind. If you anchored rather than worked a drifting kayak, you’d be separated from your craft,” Dom cautions.
“And I came across a small octopus inside a scallop shell, I’m not sure it was a blue ringed octopus, probably not, but it could happen. So decent gloves are essential.
“Finally, I was struck by a sense that the current seemed to have a greater impact on the surface than down below. I’m not sure if it actually happened that way, but that’s what it felt like,” Dom finishes.
As the dive gear is put away, it’s clear that being a kayak scalloper is out and out grunt work. Both mental planning and physical exertion are involved. But with gourmet results like Pete and Dom have produced, it’s reward for effort kayak fishing. And these guys will be back another day, the banana lounges can wait for awhile.
Pete Ritchie runs two Go Pro cameras, and managed to capture the dive. It showcases kayak re-entry, and escapee scallop effort. His You Tube clip Scallop Diving from the Hobie Outback Kayak can be found by searching www.youtube.com.