Subscribe Now

Ray Bates is very protective of his best spots. A lifelong scallop diver and lobsterman, he never shucks near his dive site. And before talking to Northshore magazine, he secured an agreement from writer and photographer to excise any reference to where he harvests his prize catch.

“Write that we went down to Nahant,” the North Shore native says with a laugh, on his boat somewhere offshore. “Otherwise, when this story comes out, I guarantee there will be half a dozen boats parked right here.”

Bates has favorite locations from Magnolia to Nahant, which he guards both to protect his livelihood and protect the fishery. Few people actually hand-harvest scallops any longer, and state regulations allow collecting of mollusks that are much smaller than what Bates himself will take.

“I went to public hearings to try to get the [state-regulated] shell size increased,” he says ruefully, adding that much of the state and federal regulation these days seems to favor large-scale dragging operations out of New Bedford, rather than small fishermen. In fact, Bates gave up his federal license, and the right to fish international waters, after the government changed its regulations to require expensive equipment that made little sense for a small operator with a single 35-foot boat.

When Bates first started diving in 1970, he and the three or four other divers working the North Shore had what he calls a “gentleman’s agreement” to limit their harvest to scallops over four-and-a-half inches across, and not to take too many in a day.

“I’d go back the next season and the bed would be fully rejuvenated,” Bates says, noting that back then, it was not unusual to find scallop shells that were eight inches across—a rarity now, he adds.

That “gentlemen’s agreement” was good for the fishery, says Dr. Joe Buttner, a professor in the Department of Biology at Salem State University. “Scallops larger than four inches shell height will have had opportunities to spawn multiple times,” he says, while those smaller ones may not have spawned at all before appearing on dinner plates.

Even on the North Shore, where many people make a living from the sea, hand harvesting is rare. So-called “diver scallops” command a premium in seafood markets and restaurants for good reason. Scallops are found in a minimum of 50 feet of water, preferring the gravelly seabed to the sandy shoreline.

It would seem that Bates prefers that same environment. He was drawn to the underwater world from an early age and first got a taste for SCUBA diving while watching kids dive for octopus in the South of France, one of many ports where his father was stationed in the Navy. His book, Shipwrecks North of Boston, Volume 1: Salem Bay, which was re-released as an eBook last year by Trajectory, Inc., features a picture of Bates at age six, wearing old-school snorkel gear. He paid his way through college by diving, and then after a year of a “real job” and much to his father’s chagrin, sold his Jeep and headed to California, where he devoted a year to studying “hard-hat diving”—commercial underwater construction and inspection. Since then, he’s spent most of his working life either on or in the water. Bates even tried harvesting sea urchins, but he says the spines get stuck in your hands and are difficult to pull out.

Bates harvests only scallops that are of a certain size so they can spawn

While the fisherman jokes that “making money” is what drew him to diving, it’s clear that he appreciates the unique perspective he gets underwater. His book about shipwrecks, first released in 2000, is well-respected and combines his love of history with his love of diving, chronicling some 30 sunken wrecks off the coast of the North Shore from 1710 to 1978. His second book, Shipwrecks North of Boston Vol. II: Cape Ann, will be available this summer.

Respect for personal history also runs deep. His boat, the Laurence H. Constantine, is named for his grandfather, who worked in the Marblehead aviation industry. And he is proud to note another ancestor, George A. Constantine, also worked as a hardhat diver. Sadly, he met an unfortunate end. In 1885, George Constantine was carried over the falls of the Holyoke River while working on the Holyoke Dam.

Along with deteriorating hulls of long lost ships, Bates has a special affinity for the marine life, occasionally spotting torpedo rays and manta rays. But it was a three-day encounter with a beluga whale that really made an impression a few years back. Bates had heard about “Poco” as the whale came to be known, playing with boats, blowing spray at kids and generally interacting with people for a week or so around Boston. Diving for scallops one day, he noticed the sky darkening overhead. He looked up and found not clouds passing in front of the sun, but Poco, who remained a companion for three days, bumping him in the backside and toying with his tools, before heading north along the coast.

Not every dive is so frolicsome, however—as with all fishing, it can quickly turn dangerous. Last summer, a scallop diver drowned after getting caught up in his line a few miles outside of Marblehead Harbor. Bates understands his limits and has layered on precautions over the years—not to mention a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t. The fit 62-year-old used to dive from January to June but has since limited his season to the warmer months after a few treacherous winter encounters when his boat came loose from its anchor. Each time, he found himself in bone-chilling January water, a half-mile or more from his boat with limited air left in his tank. “There were no other boats around,” Bates says, explaining that he considered swimming to a nearby island, but knew the waist-deep snow would offer little protection. “It was my youth that saved me then,” he says, recalling that long frigid swim back to his boat (and the 100 pounds of scallops he had to drop to make it back alive).

The chances of a sudden unpredictable change in wind and weather are much smaller in spring and summer, Bates says—not to mention the bay is usually teeming with boats that may keep an eye out for a distressed diver. Bates is used to working solo—he hooks one end of the zipper on his dry suit over a cleat so he can zip up the back on his own. Gearing up also involves a massive dive watch, mask, and flippers—rubber, not plastic, which is lighter, less durable, and less powerful.

Bates has been diving since he was six years old

To sink down the ocean bed, about 60 feet or so where he is anchored this day, Bates straps on a 40-pound weight belt, then adds his tank—another 40 pounds—before slipping into the water. When he surfaces about 20 minutes later, he is laden with 100 pounds or so of scallops as well. The shells look battle-worn, the instantly recognizable shapes covered with barnacles and vegetation. Each likely took six or seven years to reach the 4.5-inch shell size that Bates collects. Some occasionally also harbor finger-sized mud hake that have a symbiotic relationship with the scallops.

Shucking scallops comes with little of the pain of oysters—the crate full of bivalves makes a snapping noise as they clap their shells open and closed without any outside force. Unlike clams and oysters, scallops can’t clamp their shells tightly closed, which is one of the reasons they are much more perishable than their bivalve brethren. The creamy pinkish-white adductor muscle—the only part we generally eat—is much more developed in scallops than other shellfish, giving it the ability to open wide and close. It can use that skill to travel along the seabed.

Bates’s hands fly as he wields his scallop knife, a slender curved affair without a sharp edge. The action is such a muscle memory that he can’t slow down even if he wants to. Scallops are much more than the market-able round white muscle—and the gulls circling his boat know it. Because of contamination concerns, it is illegal in Massachusetts to sell whole scallops, so what appears to be about half of each, including the organ meat considered a delicacy in Europe, is tossed overboard to the scavenger birds’ delight. Some days, gulls line the side of the 35-foot boat and eat out of his hand.

 Most striking about a live scallop may be the dots that line the inside edge of the shell. They are 50 or so photosensitive eyes that allow the scallop to see light, dark, and movement. Scallops do share a similarity with their oyster cousins in that they, too, produce pearls, as Bates’s wife, Eileen, can attest. Her engagement ring includes pearls on either side of the diamond, and she also has two necklaces and a pair of earrings featuring Bates’s lucky by-catch.

Eileen is not the only member of the Bates family to benefit from his five decades underwater. His oldest son, Devin Bates, will get his charts when his father retires, marked with all the best spots. Our lips, meanwhile, are sealed.