Diving for Oysters on Vashon
In which an undersea adventure yields tasty treats at moderate risk to life and limb. Lessons are learned.
I visited Paul and Hillary out on Vashon Island early in September. Vashon Island is a beautiful, agrarian-feeling place a very short ferry ride from West Seattle - an easy way to get an island outing as a day trip from the city. Paul and Hillary have a little walk-up place right on the south west shoreline of the island. The weather was great and Paul suggested we try dropping some crab traps using a couple of sit-on-top kayaks he had at the cabin. By now you may have noticed that I was having a great time last summer attempting to catch crabs from increasingly diminutive water craft. Sit-on-top kayaks offered precious little deck space for stacking crab pots, almost zero mobility for fighting crabs on deck, and no place to store a paddle while doing all of this -- an entertaining challenge to say the least. But if you can't crab in the boat you want, honey, crab in the boat you're with.
We managed to get the traps out to the crabbing grounds just fine, and after dropping mine I came cruising slowly in towards the beach. The water was crystal clear, the sun was warm and bright, and as I got into shallower water I could see every detail of the bottom. I remembered the stories of northwest forager Langdon Cook (a terrific writer and resource for PNW foraging), whose preferred method of securing seafood is to don a wetsuit and snorkel or dive for fish, crustaceons, and mollusks. When I got to the beach I asked Paul if they ever collected oysters in these waters. "Oh sure," he said, "when the tide is low enough you can just wade out and find them."
"How about we try to dive for some?"
Paul was game. We rummaged through a basket of beach supplies and came up with snorkel masks. Very small snorkel masks. Children's snorkel masks. And no wetsuits in the beach supply basket. But we were not deterred. After all the sun was warm and the water clear, so armed with our masks we pushed off again on the kayaks and paddled a little ways out, scanning the bottom for signs of our prey. I thought I saw an oyster below me. I slipped into the water, pushed the mask on tight, and dove in maybe 12 feet of water.
The Puget Sound is cold - on that day probably 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which is cold enough to bring on hypothermia in 1-2 hours of exposure. But the water was exquisitely clear, and with the mask on my view was panoramic the moment I got below the surface. I kicked down to the bottom, grabbed the large oyster I had spied earlier, and kicked back up to the surface. I immediately pulled myself up onto the kayak. My skin was covered with goosebumps, but the sun felt amazing as I lay there. I examined the oyster I had pulled up, then held it aloft for Paul to see. We were in business!
We repeated the activity for about an hour and a half, cruising on the surface to try and spy oysters on the bottom, then diving down to investigate. No small percentage of the time the shells we found were half shells, long since separated from their inhabitants. But by the time we both staggered to shore, shivering violently and thoroughly chilled, we had collected a half dozen large oysters.
Onto the grill they went, where after a few minutes they sputtered briny water and opened up to reveal their contents.
A little butter and tobasco, applied with discretion...
They were delicious. Absolutely wonderful! I haven't had many foraging outings as fun as that one. Diving for oysters was an absolute blast - something I'll look forward to doing again this year.
It turns out that oyster harvest on Vashon Island beaches was closed that day, due to measured levels of marine biotoxin that exceeded state management standards. Marine biotoxins are no laughing matter, offering a selection of outcomes that can include diarrhea, blindness, degradation of short-term memory, and death. That's a pretty grim multiple choice test when diarrhea is the outcome you're rooting for. This information was readily available on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website, which persistently reminds beachcombers to check before they collect. Neither Paul nor I experienced any negative effects from the oysters we ate, but we were definitely treading in risky waters. Check before you collect!
When harvesting oysters the WDFW asks that all oysters are shucked on the beach. The goal is to keep oyster shells in the seabed where they were harvested, as shell material is an important part of the oyster ecosystem (among other things). We did ultimately return the shells back to the water where we collected them, but to be totally "legit" we should have shucked and chucked before these critters hit the grill.
Setting aside the risk of shellfish poisoning for a moment, this particular outing really hit some good more real things territory: time spent near, on, or in water; hunting and gathering; shared meals, to name a few. It's no wonder it was a memorable day, and a super-satisfying experience.