The Joys of Dredging

by Peggy Williams

I don't remember using that dredge very often. Finally it rusted so badly it nearly disintegrated.

A few years ago, Ken and Gladys Fehling gave me a dredge, nearly identical to mine, which he had made when they lived in Andros in the Bahamas. Gladys didn't swim, so they used it quite a lot to find shells in the shallow grass flats between the main island and the keys offshore. They were quite successful, I gather. Ken's dredge was stainless steel, which didn't rust, a great asset as far as I was concerned. Instead of arms making the "V" he attached a chain to the six-inches sides to help keep the dredge on the bottom. The rope attached to the chain.

I never managed to use that dredge in Sarasota waters, but I did use it several times. I took it to Mexico the first time I went to Baja California and we hired a guy with an 18' open boat called a "panga" to take us to some outer islands in the Sea of Cortez off La Paz. He was strong and willing, so we dredged a little inside the islands. Again we were in sand, but we managed and hauled about three times, finding almost nothing each time. Finally we gave up. We did better when we spotted a shrimp boat and went over to it. The guys on the boat looked around and found some shells that had come up in the hauls. We got some very nice specimens from them for almost nothing. I'm sure they were amused at the Americans who wanted these useless things.

Ken's dredge next travelled to Panama. I was visiting Jimmy Ernest, who is a shell dealer and does a lot of dredging in western Panama, in the Pacific. However, this time we wanted to dredge in the Caribbean, and I brought my dredge, since his was out on "the Island" - very remote.

We went to a relatively unpopulated area, down horrible dirt roads to a small village where Jimmy knows several people. After a lot of hemming and hawing we found someone willing to take us out in his boat. We dredged very close to shore but in about 30 feet of water near a dropoff and found quite a few species, including a gorgeous member of the murex family, Typhis perchardei, some cones, olives, and many bivalves.

We all started out walking the beach looking for shells. Then we graduated to wading in shallow water for better, live specimens. Some of us began snorkeling, then scuba diving for shells that can't be found by wading and looking in lobster and crab pots for trapped shells. The next step is dredging in deeper water.

Sounds like fun? Think again!

First, you need a dredge. My husband made me one years ago from plans I found in a shell book and talks I had with other shell collectors. It was about two feet deep, 18 inches wide, and six inches in height. It was made of wire mesh on an angle-iron frame and had to be welded. There were two arms coming from the six-inch sides making a "V" to which we attached the rope. Depending on the depth at which you wanted to dredge, you needed at least 100 feet of rope, three to four times the depth of the water.

Next, you need a boat. We had one: a 21' Mako open fisherman, a pretty good boat for dredging as long as the water is pretty calm (don't bother if the waves are high at all!)

Then, you need a strong guy to pull the dredge in, or an expensive winching apparatus. I had a strong guy, but he was less than enthusiastic about the pulling in part, and I wasn't strong enough!

All equipped, we set out to try our hand at dredging. To be safe, we stayed in Tampa Bay and dredged just inside Egmont Key in about 15 feet of water. The bottom was sand, so we knew we wouldn't get the dredge hung up on rocks.

Within a minute or so we had an anchor behind the boat! The dredge filled with sand and nearly stopped us dead in the water. The strong guy had to use his muscles pretty quickly, and he could hardly lift the thing off the bottom. He cleated off the rope as short as he could and ran the boat so the dredge lifted off the bottom a little and pulled behind us, with sand drifting out of it like a jet trail in the sky.

Finally, most of the sand was gone and he managed to lift the dredge into the boat and dump it on the deck. We got lots of tusk shells and some nut clams, as I recall, and little else.

Our dredging boat in

Unfortunately, we were a group and we had a system of sharing out that - and I didn't get to keep the Typhis. I was happy enough with the haul that I brought that dredge back a second time the next year, and this time I got my Typhis.

The last trip Ken's dredge took was to Brazil. I went there for the second time and visited Mauricio Andrade-Lima, a shell dealer. He owns a resort right on the beach in a lovely location. We had collected the year before by wading and snorkeling and done well, but I wanted more, and Mauricio wanted to explore dredging the area.

He arranged for a boat - and what a boat! It was made of thick wood planks, with a big diesel engine that started with a pull cord. Every once in a while we had to stop while the guys cleared air out of the lines. The bilge pump was a stick stuck through a pipe down into the bilge which you pushed up and down like an old fashioned water pump. Everything worked well if you knew how to make it work, and we got out into pretty deep water (60-100 feet).

We brought along several strong backs. Instead of pulling the dredge they just put it overboard and let the wind (which was considerable) pull the boat along, up and down in the swells. That worked pretty well, but one of us nearly got seasick (not me). After the hauled up the dredge they dumped it onto a piece of plastic on the deck at the stern (where it was somewhat stable) and we looked through it for shells. Well, I looked through it - the others couldn't manage with the movement of the boat. I had enthusiastic help from one of the crew who got "into" finding shells and was having fun. The second day I went out without the rest of the group.

We didn't find a lot of shells but what we got was good. There were some carrier shells and a couple of vase shells but everything else was pretty small. Some fairly rare cones - 5 species - came up, some marginellas, a newly-named Tritonoharpa, some dwarf yellow cowries, and lots and lots of bivalves. There was some pretty pseudo-coral and coralline algae too. I enjoyed it a lot and left the dredge with Mauricio.

Dredge boat's bilge pump with primi


bucket. Tiller for steering is to the right.

Dredge and dumped shell material - Brazil.

Dredged shells - Brazil