July 15, 2003|
Glover’s Atoll, Belize
16° 44.605 North
087° 52.351 West
A Snails Pace
By Douglas Bernon
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.
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.
As long as the weather holds, well linger at the offshore atolls
of Belize, with their coral wonderlands close to the beach.
Because so few
cruising boats come here, and because so few Belizeans make the trip to hunt
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
Inside the atoll
there are also lots of decent-sized hogfish, my favorite meat. Hogfish like
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.
The spiny lobster and the slipper lobster
One of my greatest
joys in cruising is catching or spearing fish on a daily basis. Growing up
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.
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.
Ithaka on a typical summer day at Gloverswarm weather, light winds, with occasional thunder and rain squalls
hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus) has emerged as my favorite meal, but on those
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.
The delicious hogfish with its distinctive long spines on the
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.
Pretty helmet conch
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,
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.
Conch eyes take in the slow world
Even today we
have many friends who are happy to eat conch ceviche, conch fritters, conch
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.
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.)
Douglas returns to Ithaka after a successful hunt
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.
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.
You can use the tongs of a hammer to knock a hole in the shell
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.
but still inside the shell, you can turn the conch over and firmly grab the
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.
Slip a sharp knife into the hole, and cut the muscle
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.
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.
Cut away everything but the firm mass of meat
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
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
cruising is all about self-sufficient activities such as hunting and
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.
Ceviche: French Polynesian style
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!
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.
the cover, refrigerate, and stir (or turn upside-down)
every half hour to be sure all the meat marinates in lime
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.)
worry about exact measurements. Conch come in all
an appetizer, serve with crackers
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
resulting in a yellow, flavorful, crunchy rice)
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)