Page last updated: Deember 2012
Diving for sea urchins
A good catch, probably around one metric ton - left to right Noel Higgins, P.J Gaynor, Sean Higgins
This page will take you to Galway Bay, a third of a century ago. I dedicate it to my diving buddies and pub mates: Noel Higgins, a darn good diver from the Claddagh who could curse himself out of any pub, "Big Bill" Farrell, a dive instructor from San Diego who got stranded in Galway looking for the lost Atlantis, Oli Nevin the art student who showed me how the ignition key from a Vespa scooter can also start a Triumph Herald. Batty, the crazy boatman, who according to local rumors once borrowed a JCB power digger once and used it to dig a mount to hide it. To no avail, the garda are so smart...
Thanks to this page I have now found some of them, the Irish crowd: Oli lives in cottage in Clifden with 3 dogs, seven radio sets, and an old typewriter that is in permanent need of ink ribbons. He fell into the hold of his trawler a few years ago and lives on a disability pension. He hates TV, the Internet, and technology as a whole.
Noel now lives in Oughterard, and curses like he was still 30. To reinforce the point, he still dives for a living.
Batty is a bus driver somewhere near Galway.
Sean is in a retirement home near Clifden.
I shot all the pictures, which means I am not on any of them. Mostly I was using a Leica M5 with a Summicron 50mm lens, tri-x film. A couple were shot with a Nikonos II. Please don't reproduce or use without my permission, unless for your own enjoyment.
I first moved to Galway from France in the fall of 1974, to become an assistant teacher at the Galway Regional Technical College. My wages were £84 per month for about 20 hours of work per week, enough to rent a small bedsitter in Salthill near the newly built Leisureland - and uncomfortably close to the Garda station. That left me plenty of free time, with too little money to enjoy it to the full. Besides spending my evenings at the Cellar bar in central Galway, or more often at the Continental bar aka "the cont" in Salthill, I was taking advantage of some fine autumn days to do some diving and spearfishing around the bay. A keen diver at the time, I wasted no time in joining the Galway SubAqua Club upon my arrival.
Around early October, one of the club members told me that a small team of divers was recruting for the winter sea urchins season. The team revolved around the second, and much smaller, Galway diving club, the Nautilus sub aqua club. I met the club - at least the club's chairman Noel Higgins and most of the members, three or four in all, and we were soon en route to the South of the Bay to meet our buyer and sponsor, Paddy Rosney from County Clare.
In a week or so Paddy's team was put together, two boats with two divers and two boatmen each. The divers were paid by the catch, 10 pence a kilog for the urchins. The boatmen were paid a flat wage per day out. I was the second diver on Noel's boat, Batty Gainors and Noel's brother Sean were our boatmen. On the second boat the divers were Bill Farrell, a big US dive instructor, ex Marine, and a New Zealander whose name I forgot. PJ, Batty's brother, was one of the boatmen, together with Paddy Rosney's brother Mickey. The two boats were supplied by Paddy.
Waiting for the tide in New Quay's pub. left to right: unremembred local, Batty, Mickey Rosney, pub owner. The craick isn't on, or maybe I said "smile" and they wanted to embarass me.
Batty, me boatman. Quick tongue and a good way with the ladies. (We called them biddies).
Sea urchins divers' occupation between tides: digging spikes out of your fingers. Noel at it.
Sean brooding over his glass of Guinness. He thought we divers were overpaid and boatmen were exploited. Looking back he had a point. We did get wet and cold but he had to pull over one hundred 20kg baskets a day.
Noel enjoying a cup of tea. We kept the diving suit on, wasn't that warm in the pub anyway, with the old petrol stove. The seat were bolted to the counter, they were folding seats from an old movie theater.
Pub grub. Essentially we ate tinned food, the sophisticated few would heat them on the petrol stove. When I got money I made myself foie gras sandwiches, one shop in Galway sold canned foie gras. Not very good but better than tepid irish stew.
Noel just about to curse the pub into oblivion. He is pulling at the string from his diving suit's zipper, I suppose to try and restrain himself.
Most of our fishing initially was done in Muckinish Bay, a tiny bay with a narrow inlet and a fierce current that limited our dives to about an hour at each tide. The sea bed was a thick layer of crushed shells and tiny concretions, with deep valleys and hills created by the current. In each of the "valleys", on an area not more than a few hundreds sq feet, urchins were piled up to two feet deep. I had never seen anything like that. The depth was only around 2 to 4 meters, and thus the going was excellent. Each diver worked two wire baskets on opposite ends of a rope held by the boatman. Ram a basket into the pile of urchins, fill it with a few strokes of a short rake, couple of tugs on the rope and the boatman would pull the basket up while sending the second one on top of your bubbles. A basket held about 20 kg of urchins, and I don't think it took us more than a couple of minutes to fill one. The best catch Noel and I made was just over 1,2 metric ton in one day! A whooping £60 each for a day's work.
New Quay, a happy return. Sean, Batty, Noel, and 800 kg of sea urchins
The season took a turn for the worse after a couple of weeks: competitors from Kerry came to spy on us, we could seen them watching us from the hill with binoculars. Soon three Kerry boats were fishing alongside us in our best spots. Some fighting and cutting of basket ropes ensued, though mostly Noel and I stayed away from it. Noel had four kids and a wife to feed, he did not want any trouble that would ruin our season. Finding urchins became harder and harder, and soon there was no urchin left in Muckinish Bay. The little fleet spread around the bottom of the bay looking for other beds. Noel and I found some in New Quay, and then around Kinvara and Lou Island. We surveyed a number of likely places in Connemara, both by diving, and asking the locals, which sorely tried Noel's Gaelic. (More cursing) Sea urchins typically went unnoticed, and people just did not understand what we were looking for. When they did they were puzzled why anybody would care about them "whore's eggs".
I occasionnally played my "crazy Frenchman ready to pay 10 pence a piece for them" and even sometimes sliced and ate one at the bar, a guaranteed attraction.
By December the business was still good, though not as bountiful as earlier in the season, and I had hired a French colleague to replace me at the College, a win win deal since she doubled her income, while mine had grown exponentially.
The season for me ended in early March, but not for lack of fish. Somebody apparently had taken exception to my fishing, and first reported me to the principal of the College - a very nice guy who essentially did not care much about delators. I was on a teacher's work permit, in these pre-EU days, not supposed to engage into any other activity. Since it did not produce any result, the anonymous tipster went to the bailiff, who one day waited for our return to our mooring in New Quay. We were lucky that day, we had to land at a different spot because of rough weather, but that was my last dive on the urchins. Noel continued on his own for a few weeks.
During the summer, we made a few pounds filling nitrogen bottles with our club's diving compressor for local pubs than could not operate their beer pumps due to the Guinness strike. We were lucky none of these rusted tanks blew up on us, I remember them on Noel's backyard, hot under the June sun being pumped to 2000 psi. It seems using air instead of nitrogen had little impact on the taste of Guinness.
I left Ireland in July 1974, headed South to Marseille where I was to train and become a commercial diver in the North Sea. But that's another story, and more pictures...
Patrick Bigand aka Paddy Brittany July 2008 updated December 2012
Copyright Patrick Bigand - Do not print or reproduce text or pictures without authorization from the owner
My email address: patrickATport-rhu.com