July 15, 2003
Glover’s Atoll, Belize
16° 44.605 North
087° 52.351 West

A Snails Pace

By Douglas Bernon

-Ithaka hasn’t budged in over two weeks, and Bernadette and I don’t feel a driving urge to move soon. That’s because the snorkeling, scuba-diving, spear-fishing and shelling at Glover’s Atoll are spectacular, the summer weather has been calm so far, and we’re feeling secure enough with the forecasts to linger here a bit longer, knowing the protection of mainland rivers are only two days away. Inside this 80-square-mile atoll, which is shaped a bit like the profile of a horse’s head, are more than 600 coral heads and patch reefs close to the surface. Immediately outside this mountain plateau, the water drops down thousands of feet, but nothing inside the reef walls is much deeper than 30 feet, and an awful lot of the coral heads come close enough to the surface that you can put on your swim suit and float over them for hours without much effort. What makes navigation worrisome and vigilance at the bow essential, also makes the diving here fantastic. Easily swimming from the boat in mask and fins, one can toddle about and choose among dozens of near-by spots, regardless where you anchor. The bottom here is deep rich sand, and the holding is what every cruiser prays for. In a vicious squall the night before last we held firmly in winds that exceeded 50 knots. Nervous? Yes. Confident about the holding? Pretty much, yes.

As long as the weather holds, well linger at the offshore atolls of Belize, with their coral wonderlands close to the beach.
Glovers is part of Belize’s national park system, and the authorities have drawn an ecologically sensible dividing line that protects the area closest to the inside of the eastern edge of the reef from all fishing and hunting. Once or twice a week, if the spirit moves them, the authorities motor out from the mainland (about 25 miles away) in a high-speed launch and explain the rules to any cruising boats who’ve ambled in here. Most weeks they don’t show up at all, but when they do, they’re a friendly lot, quick to point out where they like to hunt as well.

Because so few cruising boats come here, and because so few Belizeans make the trip to hunt these waters, the patch reefs inside the atoll still have plenty of lobster that make for pleasant mid-day snorkels and moderately easy-pickings. There are lots of the Caribbean Spiny Lobster (order: Decapoda; suborder Palinura; family Palinuridae). And there’s also a goodly supply of the less well-known Spanish lobsters (order: Decapoda; suborder Pailinura; family Scyllaridae). The Spanish or “slipper” lobsters, with their massive sweet tails, are harder to spot because they have stubby little antennae and terrific camouflage colors.

The spiny lobster and the slipper lobster
Inside the atoll there are also lots of decent-sized hogfish, my favorite meat. Hogfish like to mosey through the sandy rubble areas that surround patch reefs, so there’s plenty of them to go around. On the outside edge of the atoll, in deeper water, there are the usual, sneaky groupers and large snappers, and inside the atoll — everywhere, really and truly everywhere -- are the largest Queen Conchs I’ve ever seen.

One of my greatest joys in cruising is catching or spearing fish on a daily basis. Growing up in suburban Cleveland, hunting and fishing weren’t part of the Cub Scout program, and until Bernadette and I moved aboard I’d never done so, but once we made it into the warm waters of the Caribbean, hunting for dinner has become a passion. As soon as we finished lunch today, we took off to search for the fresh makings of our next feeding. My Personal Commodore won’t actually shoot fish (although she’s happy to eat the ones I shoot), but she’ll participate in conch-searches, because then she can deny it’s hunting at all.

Ithaka on a typical summer day at Gloverswarm weather, light winds, with occasional thunder and rain squalls
Slower than tectonic plates, these one-legged, giant snails lug themselves and their houses along the ocean floor. Because you can grab them with considerable ease, it’s probably more accurate to call it harvesting. Whenever we collect a number of conch, if we’re anchored in deep water, Bernadette puts them in a mesh bag and hangs the bag over the side on a long line until we’re ready to prepare them, sometimes for a couple of days. If we’re anchored in shallower water, sometimes we’ll punch a small hole in the outer shells, slip a string through and leash them together on the bottom so they can continue feeding. Independent creatures, conch can’t really see each other. They just wander in opposite directions on their leashes, going nowhere. I don’t like to leave them down there too long, however, because my fear is that Bernadette will start naming them and then we’ll never get to eat them.

The delicious hogfish with its distinctive long spines on the dorsal fin
Freshly-speared hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus) has emerged as my favorite meal, but on those days when the weather is stormy or my aim is amiss, conch makes for wonderful chow. Here at Glovers, we’ve found Milk Conch, Hawking Conch, True Tulip Conch, Atlantic Triton Trumpets, dramatic Flame Helmet Conchs (the prettiest around but with not much meat) and everywhere we turn there are hordes of Queen Conchs (Strombus gigas, subclass Prosobranchia). The Queens are the only ones we take. They have the most meat. Even then we leave the medium-sized ones alone because their meat-to-effort ratio just isn’t worth it. Plus, everywhere we turn are the big Queens — 10 to 14 inches — each one containing enough good meat for a dinner for two.

Pretty helmet conch
The great thing about harvesting conch is that if you can hold your breath long enough to snatch it off the bottom, you’ve got a meal. The larger ones, generally at 25 feet or deeper, are older and wiser. They may have fantasies of dramatic, broken-field zigzags to escape one’s grasp, but I always wanted to play second base for the Cleveland Indians, and that couldn’t happen either. Ability and ambition are not always the same.

In exchange for fortress-like lodgings, nature has denied conchs the ability to dart quickly into a hidey-hole, feint to the side or change colors to blend into a background. When in danger from predators, they retreat into their shells, retracting their eye stalks, proboscis and operculum, waiting for danger to disappear. In the everyday chaos of nature, conch must be among the most patient, optimistic creatures.

Conch eyes take in the slow world
Among mankind’s unrecorded acts of courage is the brave soul who first opened a conch, pulled the creature out, figured what was and wasn’t edible, cut away the bad parts, skinned the meat, pounded it enough to make it chewable, and then, in a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, put a piece in his mouth, munched, and swallowed.

Even today we have many friends who are happy to eat conch ceviche, conch fritters, conch fried rice, and Thai conch cakes on board Ithaka, but never — EVER — in a thousand years, would open one, clean it, deal with the ooze, skin it, pound it, and fashion it into supper. One friend said that on his boat, his wife’s dictum is “whoever catches it cleans it,” and this has dissuaded him entirely from fishing, conch-ing, and doing much else but buying groceries or eating with friends. I too have learned the difficulties of cleaning conch. At first I’d do the work on our foredeck, where I had the most room, but I made an awful mess up there and was ordered by the Commodore to either clean them ashore or figure out how to do it better. I tried cleaning them in the dink, but learned the lesson of playing with knives in inflatable boats. Now I’ve got the program under control, and my mess-making is minimal. I’m even allowed to work on the side-deck near our cockpit.

Douglas returns to Ithaka after a successful hunt
While conchs can’t ward off predators or put up any resistance, they can exact a modest revenge by making it a chore to get them from ocean floor to dinner plate. Once that’s accomplished, though, Bernadette and I enjoy fried conch with garlic, conch steaks, conch fried rice, conch chowder, conch fritters, and when we have plenty of fresh lime juice, conch ceviche marinated to perfection. (Bernadette’s recipe follows at the end of this log.)

Conch cleaning is like almost every other practical aspect of cruising. There’s no reason on earth why you’d know how to do it before you set out, but once underway there’s plenty of incentive to figure it out quickly. The initial step is to extract the meat from the shell, easy enough if you’re willing to smash it to smithereens, but that’s messy. Plus, if you’re not efficient in removing and killing the conch, it gets irked and slimes you, leaving a gelatinous sticky mess all over your hands.

You can use the tongs of a hammer to knock a hole in the shell
To begin, you have to hold the shell in roughly the same position it was when you plucked it off the sand, that is, opening down. Then, from the outermost point on the shell, count back to the valley between the second and third whorls (the little mini peaks that circle the cone). Using a steel chisel or the tongs of a hammer or, best yet, a rock or prospector’s hammer, bang a hole in the shell that’s wide enough to insert a knife blade.

If you peer inside the hole you created, you’ll see the conch’s powerful adductor muscle connected to the central, taped swirl, called the columella. Pushing the blade deep inside and keeping it close to the columella, cut through the muscle, detaching it from the shell. If you’re not sure which way to drag the blade, try it in both directions. One of them will work, and then you’ll know for sure.

Slip a sharp knife into the hole, and cut the muscle
Once loosened but still inside the shell, you can turn the conch over and firmly grab the operculum, a dark brown shell-like foot that the animal used for pulling itself through the sand. With a twist and yank, you can get it out pretty easily. After you’ve liberated the critter from its cramped existence, it’s not an entirely pretty sight. Nor is your job over. To keep going you just have to visualize the fried fritters with hot sauce and cold beer that can be part of your future.

Holding onto to the operculum with your free hand, use your sharpest knife to kill the conch quickly by cutting off all its external protuberances and loose material. Then pull out the digestive system and discard it, too. True aficionados carefully remove the several-inch-long crystalline style, or pistol, and suck out the juice. Legends abound regarding its magical sexual powers.

Cut away everything but the firm mass of meat
What you’re left with is a potential dinner that’s still covered with a thick, dark brown epidermal layer. This layer, too, is best removed with a VERY sharp knife. (An animal tough enough to pull itself and its house across the ocean floor has thick skin and strong muscle.) Some people make an incision and then cut away the skin or rip it back with their teeth. (The latter method is particularly impressive if you have guests from home visiting for a week.) Other conch hunters prefer a little device called a fish-skinning pliers, or catfish cleaner, available either through mail-order fishing catalogues or in tackle shops. It’s a thick-lipped pliers that you can use to grasp the skin and peel it back smoothly after you’ve made an incision. Until you’re well-practiced, this technique tends to minimize meat loss and avoids inevitable finger cuts with that sharp blade.

Fish-skinning pliers, available in most fishing shops, make conch-skinning easy

Once flayed, there’s plenty of good white meat. Still holding the operculum, and carefully watching your thumb, it’s time to tenderize the meat. The sharp-peaked, metal tenderizing mallets you have at home will work but also will tear the fiber of the meat pretty badly. A wooden mallet or a flat piece of wood will do a superior job without rendering the meat mushy. Once you’ve tenderized or “bruised” the meat, cut off the operculum and throw it overboard.

The only hard part now is deciding what to make for dinner. Take today, for instance. It’s almost 90 degrees, and there’s only a feint breeze. We didn’t have any luck spearfishing, and neither of us wants to turn on the stove and make more heat inside the boat. So tonight we’ll have conch ceviche. While Bernadette heads for the galley to start chopping up the ingredients, I’ll head to Ithaka’s stern, pull up our pet conchs on the leash, and get to work.

The coral heads at Glovers are everywhere, making motoring through the atoll a dodgy affair, but offering dandy snorkeling

Day-to-day cruising is all about self-sufficient activities such as hunting and do-it-yourself boat work. Here at Glovers, these past two weeks have been what think of as Zero-Dollar-Days. We’ve been lucky. Not too much has broken or worn out these two weeks. We’ve had the privilege of plenty of time face down in the water. The hunting’s been good, the snorkeling beautiful, and until the next system fails aboard, requiring me to be face down in Ithaka’s innards, or the next squall comes through and all hell breaks lose, all seems right with our world.

Conch Ceviche: French Polynesian style

Conch meat (two very large conch make an appetizer for 6-8 people, or dinner for 4)
Juice of 6-8 limes
Grated coconut (1 cup)
Coconut milk (1 cup canned, or more to taste)
Grated carrot (2 med)
Chopped onion (1 large)
Chopped garlic (8 cloves, more if you really like garlic)
Chopped green pepper (1 large)
Salt and pepper to taste

Bernadette with a Queen conch found near Ithaka’s anchor. Sometimes it’s almost too easy!

Slice and tenderize the meat by pounding with a wood mallet until it’s no more than ¼ inch thick. Cut it into small chunks (pencil-eraser size). Place in a re-sealable plastic container, and pour on lime juice. Stir, coating conch with juice, then mix in the grated coconut, carrot, onion, garlic, and green pepper. Mix again. Liquids in the plastic container should cover half the ingredients. Seal the cover, refrigerate, and stir (or turn upside-down) every half hour to be sure all the meat marinates in lime juice. This process should be repeated for a minimum of two hours. One hour before serving, pour in the coconut milk and stir again. (Refrigerated ceviche will stay fresh and delicious for two days.)

  • Don’t worry about exact measurements. Conch come in all sizes!
  • For an appetizer, serve with crackers
  • For a main course, serve over saffron rice (made from basmati rice that’s been cooked in water that has a pinch of saffron threads and a palm-full of cardoman seeds, resulting in a yellow, flavorful, crunchy rice)
  • You can also substitute fresh fish for the conch in this recipe, in which case there’s no need to tenderize; just cut into thumbnail-size cubes. (Firm-flesh fish – tuna, dorado, wahoo, etc -- give best results)