Between the Tides

Daniel Crockett

PHOTOS: Austin Simkins and Daniel Crockett

The first time I took spider crabs and mussels from sea to table taught me the impact of what it means to actually lift your food from the water yourself, to kill it and cook it.

It took a long time to stop and ponder the inter-tidal zone, the area between extreme low and extreme high tides. Most of the places I surf are highly subject to tide, shutting off and turning on in a matter of minutes. For a long time I took pride in being surgical about when to be where, and rushing through the surroundings (whether it was 100m from the car or a three mile hike) to get into the sea. In this kind of mindset, everything else becomes invisible; the fringe landscape where the land meets the sea is just an access route, like the road you drove in on. Increasingly, I’ve been looking at what else connects me to the inter-tidal zone and I’ve found some answers in foraging and spearfishing. I guess my interest has gone beyond the swiftest journey into the best waves, and focuses more on trying to better understand the environment I am passionate about.

Foraging in the inter-tidal zone is an ongoing journey. It is a seasonal, regional and site-specific pursuit, itself deeply subject to the whims of the tide. For instance, in Iceland, seaweeds are safe to eat. Because they absorb nutrients with incredible efficiency, seaweeds also absorb and concentrate heavy metals toxins and other pollutants. Experts estimate that there are as many as 40 good edible seaweeds in the UK, but I only know a few, each of which has its own quirks in flavour. Studies have found edible seaweed on sale that contains arsenic, lead and cadmium. Seaweed foraging can yield sea lettuce, dulse, laver, carragheen, bladderwrack and many others. Eating seaweed can be as simple as picking (again, each species needs its own approach to repair sustainably). Collecting seaweed helps you understand the network of life floating all around you, every plant part of a web of cycles. Certainly, seaweed has an immense and under-utilised value as a human food (as many as 2 billion people are iodine deficient), but beyond that, when we see ourselves as part of a network, our attitude to the environment also starts to shift.

Looking under the surface makes this even more evident. The first time I took spider crabs and mussels from sea to table taught me the impact of what it means to actually lift your food from the water yourself, to kill it and cook it. To me, it’s not a matter of taste, it’s one of impact. I thought about every single mouthful of that meal and decided to step it up a notch.

I spent a couple of months spear-fishing on a little island in the north Atlantic. Surrounded by savage tidal races, and rarely flat, getting in often meant choosing your moment well. The flat rock that gives the region good slabs plunges into crevasses of moving water, light falling into the depths to show twisting labyrinths of kelp. Fish in this environment are fast-moving, fleeting, rarely pausing. I had the shock of my life when a huge seal snaked around a bed of kelp hunting the same Pollock as me. Below the water the seal looked nothing like they do on land. She (I’m fairly sure it was a she, for they grow much larger) seemed more like a lion.

Passing through this terrain let me understand waves far better. Little swells bending around the island could be clearly seen drawing water from the same beach and reefs I’d surfed the day before. What I had thought was a flat slab was full of pits and crevasses, some gaping holes through which fish dart. I peer into the gloom and swim down under the rocks, hoping for the glimpse of lobster antennae. Invasive green crabs do an aggressive dance, claws snapping. My friend who lives here told me that scallop dredgers went through the bay recently, decimating the seabed. These mobile fishing factories use rolling mesh that completely destroys the environment, leaving nothing intact. It’s strange to be amongst all of this life that we order up on menus, that we eat with garlic and bread, and smack our lips at the delicate texture. The actual world in which it is drawn from, most people will never see.

I finally get a shot on a suitable fish towards the end of my journey. I’d had the opportunity for a few smaller ones, but decided against the shot at the last second. But a school of large coalfish just ten foot under the surface were prime targets. I dove deep and lined up the very biggest, getting as close as I could to make a certain shot. The spear fizzed out and stopped about six inches short, to dangle glinting. As I ran out of air and had to return to the surface, the school of fish gathered around the spear, almost like they were laughing at me.

Shorelines are edgelands, brinks. To me, they have always been places of opportunity; stepping-off points into the brilliant, living water. My curiosity to know this realm beyond the limitations of surfing feels like a natural point in a lifelong journey. And the certain knowledge that I will never really know it, that my understanding will be more basic than that of the seal, of even the razor clam or the spider crab crawling out of the deep.