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Diving for delicacies

I am not a good sailor. In fact, though I greatly enjoy sea angling, I have been sick on so many outings that the sight of a swelling sea, from land or even on television, is sufficient to set my stomach churning. So when I was invited by Darren Brown, professional deerstalker and scallop diver, to join him on one of his regular scallop-diving outings I tentatively agreed… provided it was a millpond sea without a hint of a ripple.

So, sea-sickness pills taken, on a blazing hot summer’s day I joined the milling holidaymakers in Lulworth Cove, Dorset, to meet Darren, Tom Reed, his co-diver, and Stuart Venables, who acts as skipper on Darren’s boat, Ynot, designed by Darren for scallop diving. The hull was bought from a company in
Plymouth and then decked out with the cabin built well forward to allow plenty of room for diving, grading and packing the catch. The engines are twin 60hp outboards and Darren explained that having two engines is an important safety factor. If you have one and it fails while a diver is underwater, it may prove impossible to manoeuvre the boat to pick up the diver when he surfaces. Flat out, the boat will do 32 knots, but normally cruises at a comfortable 20-21 knots in order to save fuel.

Darren dives for scallops whenever the weather allows. He has a stall in Borough Market, London, and supplies many of the leading restaurants as well. It is essential to dive in the early part of a week in order to get live supplies to the City as the stall is open for business from Thursday to Saturday. It is tough, demanding work, made even more difficult by competition from non-licensed divers taking large numbers of scallops for commercial gain. By law, there must be a minimum three-man crew: one supervisor, one diver working in the water and a stand-by diver. All dives have to be logged to show their duration and the coastguard must be informed every time the boat puts out to sea. Unfortunately, there is no policing or control of freelance divers who may be putting themselves in danger, quite apart from the fact that they are also overfishing the best scallop areas.

Another problem is scallop dredgers, which can plough up and down all night and day, picking up vast amounts of the shellfish while at the same time wrecking the seabed. Four tons of steel dragged along the bottom is inevitably going to cause immense damage to the environment. Dredging has now been banned in Lyme Bay but it is estimated that it will take a decade for the seabed to recover.

“Today we’re going to work a patch of ground about three miles off the coast,” said Darren, “and we’ll be diving in about 24m of water purely for scallops. Safety is a key priority and I always carry a knife just in case I get caught in a rope or discarded fishing net. We also fly an internationally recognised blue-and-white diving flag, which is supposed to warn boats to keep at least 200 yards away, though the majority haven’t a clue.” Later, while we were gently cruising round a submerged diver, a motorboat roared past only 50 yards away, quite unaware of our operation or the meaning of the signal flag.

The sea remained relatively flat and, with Portland Head on our starboard side and Lulworth Cove to our stern, we headed out under a cloudless sky to reach the diving location and scallop beds 20 minutes later. Here, drifting on one engine,we slowly circled, while Darren, diving first, struggled into his wetsuit. Huge fins were fitted, some 32lb of lead weights strapped round his
waist, a knife sheathed to one leg and then, helped by Tom, two gas tanks, weighing eight stone, were hoisted on to his back. Clutching four net bags, each with its inflatable balloon, plus a pink marker buoy on a rope, he rolled backwards into the sea.

The inflated marker buoy indicates the exact position of the diver, now on the seabed, who holds on to the rope as he moves forward on his knees to scoop up and net the scallops. It is necessary to work into the current so that the disturbed sand drifts behind the diver as the scallops are scooped up. This means he is always moving forward into clear water. Today, visibility was about 7ft, but on a rough day, when the boat is really rocking about, the diver can sometimes barely see his hand in front of him.

For the next 70 minutes or thereabouts we drifted close to the buoy, its movement indicating to us Darren’s passage underwater, while our photographer, Paul Quagliana, fished for mackerel to pass the time. About every 25 minutes a net would bob to the surface, its passage marked by a balloon inflated with a shot of gas from Darren’s cylinders. As each net was winched aboard, dripping and crammed with scallops, Tom and Stuart set about the business of grading the shells. Using metal sizing forms, they worked their way through the nets, rejecting any shell that was too small, and separating those that were extra large. When the last net had been drawn in, the pink float bobbed four times, the signal that Darren, too, was coming to the surface. The haul from the four nets was around 70 dozen scallops and was, Darren explained, an average number for a dive.

Now it was Tom’s turn to go overboard. After the same kitting-out procedure he vanished with a splash. Tom had been diving for some 14 years and used to be an instructor, while both Darren and Stuart are ex-Navy divers — a background that, in a business potentially fraught with danger, is a comforting safeguard. However, something seemed to be amiss, for after an hour and a quarter not a single bag had surfaced. At last, to our relief, the marker buoy jerked its signal and Tom bobbed to the surface. However, it seemed that he had only been able to fill one bag for, as he explained, the reef of scallops had suddenly run out of the shellfish. Nevertheless, we returned to Lulworth Cove with a good-enough quantity of scallops for the effort and investment involved.

This day’s catch would be kept alive and taken to Darren’s stall in Borough Market for sale and distribution on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On days such as this, when the sun shines and the sea is relatively calm, diving for scallops may appear relatively simple, but the hazards of rough and unsettled weather have to be faced if the business is to be maintained and scallop lovers appeased.

In the winter months, there are days when it is impossible to go to sea and that’s when the rifl e takes over. Both Stuart and Darren each manage a large estate for sika and roe and, having a cold store and approved premises, Darren is also able to deal in venison, and works with a number of local stalkers. He is assisted by his partner, Annette Headedge, who deals with the paperwork — an essential part of the enterprise.

So, the next time you salivate over a plate of scallops, if they are particularly succulent and tasty, they may well have been hand-picked from Weymouth Bay by the Ynot team. Give a thought to the effort, skill and potential danger that has brought them all the way to your plate.