Summer — that sweltering sizzler of a season — is here.
Unless you're a stranger to these parts, you've certainly heard that the highly anticipated Florida scalloping season rides in on summer's coattails.
Each year from June 28 to Sept. 24, residents of the Sunshine State and visitors from around the world flock to the unspoiled waters of the Nature Coast, near the open bay, to hunt for these delightfully tasty mollusks — and afterward cool off in the refreshing 72-degree springs.
Although there are more than 700 natural springs in Florida, the waters of Homosassa Springs and Crystal River are considered among the most enchanting, with moss-covered oaks, cedars and palms lining the shores. Only 90 minutes north of the Tampa Bay area, they're also some of the closest springs to home.
Scalloping is an aquatic adventure suitable for all ages. All you need is access to a boat, a snorkel and mask, fins, a $17 Florida fishing license (easily obtained same-day online), a required dive flag and a handy-dandy mesh bag in which to stash your scallop bounty.
Also known as “The Great Underwater Easter Egg Hunt,” diving for these sea treasures is simultaneously exhilarating and peaceful. Scallops typically thrive in 4 to 8 feet of crystal clear water. During the season, they pepper the tops of turtle- and seagrass, tantalizing even veteran scallopers with their fluorescent beady blue eyes, beguiling temptresses beckoning to be caught. Simply use your hands or a small dip net to scoop them up.
When the sun's golden rays shimmer on the blue and green sea vegetation, you'll almost feel as if you're in the swirling center of a submerged aurora borealis. An added benefit to searching for these delectable bivalves is that you're likely to have a face-to-face encounter with other friendly critters, including barnacled manatees, sea horses, starfish, sea turtles, crabs and fish.
Scallops should be put on ice immediately between snorkeling sessions. Each person is limited to 2 gallons of scallops in the shell or 10 gallons per vessel per day. Shuck them yourself to extract the succulent meat, or employ an eager local to do the dirty work for a small fee. Then end the day frolicking in the springs, where billions of gallons of cool underground water bubble up from our state's aquifer.
Likely the only thing more rewarding than a day of scalloping is devouring your catch. You simply can't go wrong preparing scallops breaded and deep-fried, sautéed in butter, blackened, grilled, or marinated with lime and peppers and served uncooked ceviche-style.