With my arms dangling like a jellyfish and legs floating effortlessly, air gurgled through my snorkel. My crew poked and tickled one spiny lobster after another into their nets. The whole time I kept my eye on one small hole that other divers seem to overlook every year. It’s where I sometimes catch the unusual shovelnose lobster. I had already looked and there was one in there, but I was going to see if my crew would spot it first.
A few minutes passed and they still didn’t spot it, so I climbed back in the boat and began putting on the scuba gear. It was only 10 feet deep, but if shovelnose lobster was going to be on the table that night, I would have to stick my arm in the hole up to my shoulder. Only a fool would do so without wearing scuba gear: If your hand is bitten by a moray eel or gets stuck, you have only a few seconds to get it free.
With the tank securely strapped on, regulator in mouth, tickle stick and net ready, I rolled in the water with a big splash. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dim light inside the hole, but soon enough I could make out the outline of a shovelnose lobster. It hadn’t moved and that was good; any farther back in the hole I might not be able to reach it.
I started by “tickling” it with my stick, but I don’t know why. I try this each time I see a shovelnose and it never works. Shovelnoses are not like spinys; you can just touch a spiny lobster on its tail and it will march right out of its hole. All the touching, poking and smacking I could muster wasn’t going to get this bug to do anything. I would have to get this guy the same way I have in the past.
I “rolled up my sleeves” and stuck an arm down the hole, groping around until I felt dinner, and just managed to break its hold on the rock. Then a twist of the arm, with a steady kicking of fins. Now I know what monkeys feel like when they get trapped in the old “monkey in the jar” trick, but there was no way I was going to let this lobster go. I had a full tank of air and was ready to use it.
It wasn’t long before I returned to the surface and put that prized catch in the livewell, along with our other spinys. We were in the Keys and a shovelnose lobster is a rare catch there, but for some reason I’ve been catching them during the past few mini-seasons.
A quick glance at my watch and I noticed it was only 8 a.m. We already had our limit of spiny lobsters and had a whole day ahead of us. We planned to dive a wreck, but I thought it might be cool to see if we could find a third species of lobster, the spotted spiny lobster. We took a detour from our planned dive and headed for a small cave I had found a few years ago. Occasionally, I have seen spotted lobsters in this cave and was hoping there might be one there today.
I barely got the boat on plane before I was backing down on the throttles; it was less than a half-mile away. We suited up and jumped over, and made the 15-foot free-dive to the cave. One glance inside and there was not one, but three spotties. Since we already had a limit of bugs and spotties are relatively small, all I wanted was a quick photo. Once again I returned to the boat for scuba gear and camera.
I returned to the cave with a tank, camera in one hand and tickle stick in the other. I gently coaxed one of the spotties out of its hole, but when it cleared the safety of the cave, it made a mad dash backwards and conveniently landed next to a beautiful sea fan and just sat there. I couldn’t have picked a better background if I had tried, so I snapped a few quick photos before it darted back into its cave.
Not a bad day at all. It was not even 9 a.m. and we had a limit of bugs and had encountered three of the four species of lobsters found in Florida. It was by pure luck we were able to pull it off, because the shovelnose is very rare in the Keys.
Caribbean Spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus)
Also known as Florida spiny lobster or simply “spiny,” this is the largest and most common lobster species in Florida waters. It’s also the one most regulations pertain to. Not many people realize it, but the size limit, bag limit and even the closed seasons apply only to the Caribbean spiny lobster. However, to avoid possible conflicts arising from mistaken identity, non-experts hunting “bugs” generally stick to the regulations published for Caribbean spinys.
The spiny lobster is found along all Florida coasts, with the largest population in the Keys. Florida Bay is an important nursery ground. That’s why the entire Everglades National Park is off-limits to any and all harvesting of spinys, and you had better believe it is patrolled adequately by park officers.
One female lobster can release upward of 300,000 eggs. After the eggs are released, the first nine months of a spiny’s life is spent drifting around as a tiny oceanic plankter. As it gets big enough to grab bottom, it makes its home wherever it happens to be.
Biologists have documented millions of these small larval lobsters passing through the bridges that separate the Atlantic from the Gulf in the Keys. From there they start their way north into other parts of the state.
This guy, also called bulldozer, slipper or Spanish lobster, is about as ugly a marine creature as you’ll find. Hats off to the very first person who was brave enough to try and eat one. If you had to describe this critter to someone you would have to say it looks a lot like a giant underwater cockroach.
With the large amount of harvest done around the Keys, spiny lobsters get little chance to grow large. However, as they travel north along the coast and the population of dedicated divers scouring the bottom dwindles, the harvest drops off. These lobsters tend to grow big, topping 12 pounds in some cases.
Spotted Lobster (P. guttatus)
These little guys rarely get any bigger than legal size for spiny lobster (3-inch carapace). Not very much is known about spotties. In Florida they are mostly confined to the southern reef tract and rarely do I see them outside of the Keys. They are also common in Mexico and the Caribbean; I’ll never forget a diving trip to Cozumel, Mexico. One night we borrowed a large iron pot and two sticks of butter from the hotel we were staying at and took off for a night dive on the other side of the island. The girls stayed on the beach and built the fire and the guys took off for the nearshore reef. We came back an hour later with 20 spotties and they went straight into the boiling pot. We’ve never had a better lobster and that includes those claw-bearing guys that live up north.
As already mentioned, rules regarding the taking of spotties are almost nonexistent, except for certain closed areas in the Keys. There is also a smooth tail spiny lobster (P. lauvicauda) in Florida waters, but it’s even more rare.
Shovelnose Lobster (Scyllarides nodifer)
Shovelnose lobster are found in all Florida salt waters, but the largest population may be in the Panhandle. That’s the only place in our state where shovelnose probably outnumber spinys. The species is also found in decent numbers along the northeast coast.
Shovelnose lobsters are a pretty rare catch outside the Panhandle, but I’m sure there are more than you think. They are masters of camouflage and love dark caves and the underside of ledges. They have no large antennae— sure giveaway for other lobsters—so they just sit there and look like a rock.
The meat is very sweet and tender, almost too tender and it is for that reason I try to avoid freezing them. If you are lucky enough to catch one, get that baby on a grill that night and you will thank me later.
The rules for shovelnose are straightforward: As long as you throw the egg-bearing females back you really can’t get into any trouble. In the Florida Keys, resist the temptation to probe for shovelnose lobster in live coral reefs; not only is it bad form, it’s illegal.
Whether it be a spiny, spotty or a shovelnose, the thrill of spending time with your family and friends catching these little marine crustaceans during mini-season is tops on my list.