Mayaguana Part 2: Conch

Our second day in Mayaguana was uneventful to the point of boredom. The weather was inclement, so we went into town, just to see what the island was like, and check our ever-elusive email. “Town” turned out to be a tiny settlement with very little going on. There was one small grocery store, a rain catch cistern, and a local wifi hot spot, which was a bar. Everything else was miles a way, so we grabbed a couple beers and spent a few hours catching up on what was going on in the world(it’s surprisingly difficult to do without internet these days).

John, Jackson and I went out snorkling again the following day, though Ellen had picked up a bug and was too sick to move, let alone swim. We found little in the way of fish or lobsters around our new anchorage, but after an hour or so we starting noticing some interesting shapes on the sea floor. We had heard from many fellow cruisers how prevalent conch is in the Bahamas, and how easy it is to find, but we hadn’t ever seen one of legal size before, and Mayaguana had been no exception up to that point. We had seen vast expanses of conch graveyards around coral heads, where cruisers had clearly chucked the shells after extracting the conch, but nothing that looked like it had supported a living being in the last decade.

We happened to be swimming across a sandy, grassy stretch, however, when we started to notice that conch shells had a habit of hiding underneath certain plant growth. Once we made that realization, we started spotting them everywhere, and we spent the next 20 minutes grabbing conch of all sizes and throwing them into the dinghy. If you are at all familiar with conch, you have undoubtedly noted that they are not the most elusive quarry. They don’t exactly move much, so once you figure out how to find them, the so-called “catching” could be more accurately described as “picking up”. We went a bit overboard in light of our success, I’ll admit, and so we grabbed whatever we saw, regardless of size, and only realized when we got back to the boat that we had definitely been over-exuberant. In order to be legal, the conch shell must have formed a lip(that description makes a lot more sense when you’re looking at the shell), and so of the roughly 25 conch that we picked up, we ended up placing 15 or so back on the ocean floor, which still left us with around 10 good-sized candidates.

Extracting conch from its shell is a tricky process, as we discovered when we began trying to coax them out. We fortunately have a fishing book that walked us through each step, which was invaluable, as our only recourse would have been to take a hammer to the shells. You must chip a hole at a very particular place on the shell and sever the muscle that’s exposed there, which will then allow you to pull the entire animal free.

Ellen was still feverish and achy, and as the wind had died to nothing, we delayed the rest of the conch-cleaning process to prepare for an evening departure. We thought that, should her condition take a turn for the worse, being in a (relatively) major city with an airport could hardly hurt. As we got under way, i set up a station on deck and began preparing the conch for our very own fritters. I soon realized that cleaning and skinning conch is a far more laborious process than either finding or extracting it had been. The first step is to cut off all the extraneous bits and scrape out the entrails. I only add that…vivid last image because of a certain conch tradition, to which you must adhere during that process.

Among the various organs of the conch, you find something called the “crystalline structure” a thin, cream-colored, tubular strand that our book exhorts you to under no circumstances throw away. Instead, it recommends slurping it up like a string of spaghetti in front of all your friends(though an informative non-fiction book, the author does have a flair for the dramatic), and it is said to “have properties that put Viagra to shame”. As we live on a boat with three guys and an Ellen, we were hardly in a position to put this claim to the test, but felt that we would be missing out on an important cultural activity if we didn’t try them, so we all shared a few, marveling at the unremarkable, slightly salty taste as we did so. Now, while we can hardly claim to have tried this delicacy under optimum circumstances(I’ll let you use your own imagination there), none of us noticed any marked libidinous surge as we made our way down to Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos that night.

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