A spiny lobster lurches out of the Caribbean, flies ten feet through the air, and lands with a sickening crunch into a pile of slowly suffocating crustaceans at my feet. It’s opening day of lobster season on Ambergris Caye.
For weeks I’ve been happily swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking off the coast of Belize’s most-visited island without realizing the ocean floor is littered with lobster death traps. Now, I’m sitting in a tiny fishing boat with two seasoned fishermen on the biggest money-making day of their year. I’m pretty sure lobsters can bite.
Raul and Garcia picked me up from the dock at dawn. I had packed my camera, sandwiches, and sunscreen. They had packed beer, spears, and snorkeling gear. Usually, when I’m nervous, I talk too much. Today was no exception.
Raul revved the engine and we roared out towards Belize’s Barrier Reef. Somehow, the guys knew exactly where in the wide waters their hundreds of lobster shades rested. In Belize, lobsters aren’t trapped. Instead, fishermen construct handmade boxes, called shades, out of mangrove wood, and sink them to the bottom of the ocean. Lobsters are attracted to the shades as a source of protection from the sun and predators. Poor, stupid lobsters.
Lobster diving requires at least two people: one person to drive the boat and one person to jump into the water, hold their breath, dive down to the lobster shades, pick up the lobster by hand, swim it to the surface, and chuck the terrified lobster into the bottom of the boat. Then repeat. Hundreds of times. Occasionally, Raul uses a spear hook, not his hand to grab the spiky delicacies. Lobster diving doesn’t require I do anything but stay out of the way.
On his first dive Raul comes up empty-handed.
“Too small,” he explains.
“Pregnant,” he says the second time. Like true gentlemen (and law-abiding citizens) Raul and Garcia don’t harvest underweight or pregnant lobsters. They take mostly the big males so there’ll be a lobster season next year, too.
The steady rocking of the boat, mixed with the stillness of the early morning, is lulling me to sleep. That is, until an eight-pound lobster falls out of the sky and lands two inches from my flip flop. I try not to shriek, but I’m a startled girl, so I do just that. Garcia laughs, “they won’t bite.” Maybe they won’t bite, but this irritated lobster is scuttling across the front of the boat, sharp claws raised in defense. I pick my feet up, just in case. Soon, it’s raining lobsters.
I’d like to think the ugly creatures don’t understand what’s going on, but after watching hundreds of lobsters face death, I noticed a pattern.
First stage: anger and confusion. The lobster is no longer resting under his shade and he’s understandably ready to fight. Claws are bared, battles are picked.
Second stage: acceptance. After maybe twenty seconds of confusion, the lobster accepts that he is now resting on a sea of lobster bodies. He attempts to find some shade and settles into this new environment.
Third stage: sleep. Okay, I know they’re not sleeping. But they close their eyes and get permanently still after about a minute.
Raul asks me if I’d like a turn at grabbing a lobster from the shade. And honestly, I do want to try it. But I fear that I will somehow mess up and cost Raul and Garcia a lobster, which would take money directly out of their pockets. I decline, and eat a sandwich.
After four hours of lobster fishing, Raul and Garcia began to clean their catch. They have about 400 lobster, but they’re only interested in selling the tails. The men share a beer while they cut the tails off each lobster, dumping the remaining thoraxes and heads back into the sea. Surprisingly, the process is neither messy nor smelly. A tortoise swims up to the boat and snacks on the detritus. After only a half hour of cleaning, Raul and Garcia have 400 lobster tails over ice, ready to be sold to restaurants on the island, several hundred dollars’ worth.
I’m spent. The heat, the death, my constant nervous chattering – all have taken their toll. Another fishing boat picks me up and deposits me back on land, where I head to the nearest beachfront restaurant. The waitress comes to my table and informs me that lobster ceviche is on special to celebrate the opening day of lobster season. I order chicken.