Diving for Lobsters
By Marty Adler
After relocating to Bermuda, Barry Zurbuchen learned of an exciting local pastime—diving for lobsters. It sounded interesting and was certainly not something he could do in Chicago. Getting started was not easy. On numerous occasions, he tried to get Bermudians to tell him some of the secrets or take him out diving with them but was never able to get them to open up. He had to learn everything through trial and error.
The Bermuda Spiny Lobster has no claws and is like an overgrown crayfish. It feeds at night and hides in caves under the coral reef during the day, so it is almost never out in the open where it can easily be spotted. In order to catch a lobster, a diver uses a pole with a noose at the end. The object is to slip the noose around the tail and pull it tight. Scuba equipment is not permitted, only snorkel gear, so the length of a dive is limited. One also needs to obtain a license each year. Typically, Bermudians dive in waters that are 15 to 30 feet deep. Some divers will go even deeper, but 30 feet is about Barry’s personal limit. He estimates that his dives are about 25-45 seconds long—10-15 seconds to get to the bottom, 10-20 seconds to look for and catch the lobster and 5-10 seconds to get back to the surface. Although he can hold his breath for two minutes if he remains still, diving uses a lot of oxygen.
Bermuda is surrounded by shallow waters that extend for miles beyond the coast. These shallow waters are peppered with coral heads. Barry has stored in his GPS the location of many coral heads that have produced lobsters. In a typical day, he and a friend (he learned quickly that it is better and safer not to go alone) might explore one uncharted coral head along with two or three of their tried-and-true locations. The first step is to find the lobsters by looking inside caves. Often he will see a lobster so far inside a narrow cave that it cannot be caught. This can be very frustrating. The lobsters do not always react the same way upon seeing him. Occasionally, they will actually seem curious and move slowly toward him as if to investigate. This makes them easier to catch. More typically, a lobster backs away as a diver approaches. In some caves, they will have no safe hiding spot, and it is only a matter of time before they are caught, though it might take several dives. However, they normally have an escape route in mind, and the diver will only have one chance to catch the lobster. This is especially true of larger lobsters, who have undoubtedly seen this whole routine before. The lobster is almost always facing the outside of the cave, and the goal is to get the noose behind him without touching his sensitive feeler. Touching it will normally yield a quick retreat on the part of the lobster, which swims quickly by flapping its powerful tail.
Barry Zurbuchen and the catch of the day.
The first lobster Barry caught was actually a team effort. The group was all novices. None had ever caught a lobster. Luckily, they found one at the first reef they looked at and the lobster had no good hiding spot—they just didn’t know how to catch it. They chased it back and forth from one cave to another for almost two hours. Eventually Barry noosed the lobster, but as he came out of the cave, he lost hold of his noose. Barry rose to the surface and shouted to his friend to go get the lobster, but his friend was already underwater. His friend saw the noose floating in the water and, being a nice guy, decided to get it and bring it back to Barry. The friend was quite surprised when he noticed the lobster on the other end of the noose!
While lobster-hunting is very challenging and the scenery quite beautiful, however, there is some degree of danger involved. Many colorful reef fish and other creatures inhabit the water. Barry has seen sea turtles several times. He once saw a green moray eel, an octopus, and a lionfish, an extremely venomous fish that has become somewhat of a nuisance in Bermuda’s waters. He once came too close to one inside a cave he had swum into searching for lobsters.
The greatest danger, however, may be getting stuck inside a cave. There is one cave in particular where Barry has often seen, but rarely caught, large lobsters. He nicknamed it the Moby-Dick reef because, for several weeks in a row, he saw the same large lobster living there but was never successful in catching it. The cave’s layout is such that you need to swim through a small opening, and then the cave opens to the left, which is where the great beast would hang out. The lobster was smart though and would always back into a small nook—uncatchable—before Barry could get his noose around it. On one occasion, Barry tried to back out of the cave and could not manage to get his feet through the opening. In the process, he had churned up the sandy bottom so much that he could no longer see inside the cave. In desperation, he managed to turn around in the small cave and was able to feel for the opening with his hands. That was scary! Now he won’t go into that cave unless his friend waits outside and watches.
For the last month, Barry and his fellow lobster hunters have been seeking a lobster they call “Osama Bin Lobster.” It is very large and resides in a spacious cave with sentries (smaller lobsters) near the cave opening. So far, it has eluded capture on a number of occasions.
Barry never saw a lobster the first year he had a license. At the time, he did not own a powerboat and tried going out in his kayak. One day was rather windy, but as he had done a lot of kayaking, that did not faze him. As he shoved off, a woman walking on the beach asked, prophetically as it turned out, if he was really planning to go kayaking in such weather. He shoved off and was instantly capsized by a breaking wave. Still unfazed, he emptied the water out of the kayak and made another go at it. This time, he made it over the initial breaking waves. He kayaked about a mile out to a promising-looking reef. A wave broke over the reef and capsized him once again. However, now out at sea, recovering was not so easy. He had neglected to bring a bilge pump and had no way to get the water out of the kayak. He had to swim back to shore pushing a kayak full of water. That took about an hour, and he was exhausted. To add insult to injury, the police approached and questioned him when he came ashore, ultimately letting him go. He thinks they suspected that he had gone out to receive a drug drop.
Despite these early setbacks, he stuck with it and is now so successful that his wife, who enjoys lobster, begs him not to bring home any more. He has started giving most of them away, but there are still several in his freezer.
Barry Zurbuchen is senior vice president and chief pricing actuary of Allied World Assurance Company in Pembroke, Bermuda. A video of lobster diving in Bermuda may be seen online.