“Me bahn ya,” Brian Bishop, first generation Crucian, states proudly. He loves to eat and dive for conch and has been since he was nine years old when his father introduced him, along with his older brother, to diving in Coakley Bay. Having learned to snorkel at an early age, on his own, he had been practicing holding his breath.
“I trained myself to hold my breath for a long time,” Bishop relates, as he reminisced about his first successful conch dive, and the exhilaration of ascending with a conch pressed to his chest. He also practiced swimming with a heavy load, as he fast learned to bring up more than one conch at time.
“Back then, in the 1960s, conchs were more abundant than they are now so you didn’t have to dive very deep,” Bishop reflects. He would collect conch at the depth of anywhere from 8-10 feet, in one dive and without a tank. He would take a deep breath, then plunge down, collect as many conchs as he could carry, by stacking and hugging them to his chest then kicking hard with his feet to propel him upward. He had no formal training, but learned from trial and error and from the basic guidance that his father provided.
Also, his father taught him how to extract the mussel, the meat of the conch, and clean it. Back then, they used a machete or hatchet to break the shell, then used a knife to cut the mussel. Often, this meant the shell was destroyed or ruined. Young Brian, with an eye for art, and appreciating the beauty of the shells with their raw pink coating against the white, decided there must be another method to release the meat. So at the cusp of adolescence, only 12 years old Brian developed a more effective method to detach the conch from its shell by using a hammer and a punch to insert a small hole at the spire or head of the shell. Once the hole is applied, Bishop uses a wire with a smooth end that causes the conch to release his grip on the shell, and then he is able to pull it free with minimal damage to the shell.
An entrepreneur at heart, even at that age he realized he had a ready market for clean shells that didn’t have a large hole chopped in them. He would scrub them with a brush so he could sell them to tourist for between $5-$8 per shell, and he got to keep that money for himself. He was particularly motivated after one experience.
“There was one shell in particular, it was an extraordinary shell, with an extremely pronounced paddle. I did not want to sell it. I wanted to keep it for myself. But as I was walking an elderly tourist offered to buy it. It was so beautiful I refused, but the tourist persisted. He dug into his pocket and said, `Boy, here; this is all I have. You can have it for the shell.’ Imagine getting $48 dollars at the age of 12. I sold it to him, and told myself I will find another one just as beautiful.” The wonder and awe is still evident in Bishop’s voice as he relives that experience. Smiling, he shakes his head, “I will never forget that day!”
After that day, realizing the money to be made, and enjoying the attention, Bishop made this a part of his routine. “It was fun sharing it with tourist --surfacing after a few minutes with some conch in my arms, and seeing the look of awe on their faces.”
Brian Bishop speaks proudly of feeding his family from his catch, so adept did he become at diving for conch. He loves the ocean, and after a while diving was a high, a sense of victory for him. He says, “Not only was I able to make the depth, but also I had to make it back to the surface with my prize. I have seen sharks and eagle rays that jumped out of the water, and I have been scared and startled, but I have always kept control. My father taught me well.” Bishop never dove with the boys from his school as they didn’t dive, but it was a mainstay activity that he did with his older brother.
Tutu and Value of Conch Shells
Not only did Brian dive for conchs, his father also taught him how to clean it for eating, and how to make a horn, or tutu, which is Crucian name for the conch shell horn. Bishop has been making tutu and other things with the conch shell for over 40 years. Cutting a hole in the spire of the shell near the apex, then blowing as you would a trumpet accomplishes making a tutu.
Initially, Bishop desire to blow was marred by his anxiety and haste to release the sound so he had to practice and practice until he perfected the sound. Blowing a tutu requires the same lip movement as blowing a trumpet.
Bishop knows the significance of the tutu for African-Crucians, who first used this wind instrument as a call to rebel against an unjust system that oppressed them. He respects its role as an instrument of freedom, and takes deep pride that he can share in this cultural tradition.
Brian’s Conch Cocktail Dish.
Similar to most Crucians, Brian likes conch in a variety of forms, whether cracked conch, which is pounded and fried in a light batter, or conch soup, or conch in butter sauce or conch Creole, or conch as one of the main ingredients in the traditional dish kallalloo.
However, it is with special fondness that he recalls his mother’s fabulous conch chowder, that “first she would put in a meat-grinder to mince and tenderize. It was really delicious, and even though there were nine of us siblings, there was always enough for me to have seconds.”
Brian’s conch cocktail is a favorite among friends and family, and he is willing to share his preparation and recipe.
First, I pressure cook the conch, 6-7 depending on the size, for approximately half an hour with an entire garlic, not just a clove. Pressure-cooking makes it easy to skin and then slice. Next, I soak the sliced conch in lime juice for several hours, even better if prepared in advance and left overnight in the fridge. About ah hour before the party I drain then place them on a platter that I had placed to cool in the fridge. The cocktail sauce is the key: combine ketchup, West Indian pepper-sauce, horseradish and a ripe lime and blend thoroughly. Now the conch cocktail is ready to be served.
Where to Find Conch in St Croix
Concho is found inside our outside the reef in grass beds and conch are collected from 10-45 feet deep without tanks all over. Conch season is opened typically from October through May, and the legal size is 9 inches otherwise you can be fined. Each unlicensed diver is allowed six (6) conchs daily.
Conch diving by boat is restricted in some areas and it is advised that those interested in pursuing this activity contact the Department of Parks and Natural Resources (DPNR) or the East End Marine Park to learn more about conch and the laws governing the territory.
Basic Free Diving Technique
Diving is exerting as well as exhilarating and requires that one rinses the excess Co2 by taking deep inhalations and exhalations. Just before submerging, one must inhale and hold one’s breath to expand one’s lungs. Diving is not just about plunging below, to avoid rupturing the eardrum one must equalize by squeezing the nose and blowing.
Once you dive you will discover that you have to learn how to spot conchs as they camouflage on the floor of the sea. Often, grass grows on the shell, the same grass they are eating. Sometimes, they move if you are lucky, but you can also swim right over them, so one must have discerning eyes and learn to look for their profile.
There are lots of different kinds of territories in the sea floor, and in some
places they are large and abundant and easy to retrieve, but other places they will elude the most seasoned conch diver. The average conch yields about three quarter pounds of meat.
In 1994 in St Croix, a law was passed that fishermen had to bring their catch to the beach in the shell for regulation, and also to determine when to open and close the season. However, there was a public outcry from the stench that rose up from the mound of stacks of empty shells on the beach.
Bishop saw the pile and decided to collect some. “I knew this was too good an opportunity to pass up,” he muses. “I had no idea what I was going to do with them, but I went and got five truck loads and threw them in my backyard. After several months I began slicing them and designed and built a mosaic entrance-way to my home.” Bishop blended blue and green pigment with cement, which gives the effect of a series of fishes in water being swallowed by a sea monster. Every section is either a longitudinal or cross sectional slice of a conch shell. It took him six months of diligent working to produce this work of art. “It was a real feeling of accomplishment.”
Brian Bishop’s love for conch continues and had benefited his life and those of his progeny in multiple ways. “When I first opened Crucian Gold on Company Street, my sons, whom I taught how to dive for conch, made good money selling the shells, and they were able to pocket that money for themselves. Also, I used the shells as decorations and to display the jewelry I created.”
Brian Bishop wants to encourage the men of the community to teach their sons and daughters how to dive for conch and respect the ocean and the life it produces that sustains us. “There is going to come a time very soon, when we will all need to know how to feed ourselves, and the sea, provides one of the greatest source of protein.” All children in St Croix and the entire Virgin Islands need to be taught how to fish and dive. Bishop is teaching his grandchildren, as his romancing with the conch has not waned. If anything, it has grown stronger and sweeter with age. “It is a staple food item in my diet during its season, and I have a passion for diving.” Brian Bishop concludes.
The Morphology of Conch
- Conch is a sea snail that belongs to the marine gastropod mollusk in the family Strombidae.
- Mollusk are animals that live on the seashore, devoid of bones, with soft bodies that are protected by their shell.
- A conch has four (4 )body parts that consist of a head, visceral mass, foot and mantle. Their foot, sickle-shaped with a pointy ending and a horny operculum allows them to throw themselves in leaping motion to move.
- Conchs are hermaphrodites that reproduce sexually during April – August, but not before they are about three to four years old.
- They live on sea grass and algae .
- Conchs have a high spire and siphonal canal.
- Conchs have pearls, although rare, consequently are considered collector’s items. The pearls come in a range of hues, white, brown, but pink is color most associated with the conch shell.
- Throughout the Caribbean, and in many other parts of the world, conchs are used as decorations for both inside and outside the home.
- In many African Caribbean communities they are considered sacred and are placed on graves.
- They are also used as horns to announce that fishermen have returned and fish has arrived.
- They are popular wind instruments, which are used throughout the world.
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