Night snorkelling (or scuba diving) for me takes one of those logic over instinct leaps of faith where little over half my mind that says ‘do it’ triumphs over the rest that sees the idea as crazy. As your head dips below the surface, you scan frantically with dive torch and eyes to ensure that some unknown horror isn’t right there already waiting for you. But there are just slowly moving fish, half confused and seemingly half hypnotised by the narrow rod of light coming from your hand; a thick misty underwater light sabre though of little defensive utility. It seems like there are fewer fish than in the day although that might just be a sampling bias as all you can see is limited to that one beam of visibility. You stay close to your partner, so that there is at least one other direction where you at least know what is there. Keeping to shallowish water you slowly but surely gain confidence in the logic that it is safe, fascination takes its hold, and you are free to roam the bay.
The fish are mostly different than in the day – goatfish, eel-tailed catfish, those orange ones with the big eyes, green moray eels and the one to always hope to see, the crested horn shark (Heterodontus galeatus), snaking along the bottom after the nocturnal grazing invertebrates. Sea urchins for example, and they are out on almost every bit of exposed rock, mowing down anything that grows. These are in fact the reason that so many places you might snorkel around Sydney are like undersea deserts – North Bondi, Camp Cove, Little Bay, Clovelly. With many of their predators diminished for various reasons by us, many places are all out of whack with these urchins, especially the long-spined one, Centrostephanus rogersii. At the shoreline where we enter the water it is a fairly delicate negotiation to even get in without treading on one, and the same getting out. So there at the end of the snorkel, I prise two off the rock and gingerly exit with them cupped against my wetsuit with a gloved hand.
It is, strictly speaking, illegal to do this where I do it because it is within the Bronte-Coogee Aquatic Reserve, and I know it. But I also know that it is not just a harvest that the ecosystem there can bear, but one that it would benefit by were it done enough to actually make any difference. The only invertebrates that can still be taken in the Reserve are a key urchin predator, lobsters, the result of lobbying by the fisheries industry, whose lobster pot buoys can often be seen offshore. Two sea urchins for me are poached with a clear conscience, and hopefully full of roe.
Sea urchins are a remarkably underutilised resource in Australia, despite being popular in the countries of origin of many Australians like Polynesians (who call it kina) and many from the Mediterranean. Tasmanians would no doubt like to see this change, with our NSW species invading them with kelp-devastating consequences – something put down to a combination of climate change and lobster overfishing. They are a delicacy you may pay top dollar for in a Japanese restaurant (called uni by them) but still recoil from with distaste at the idea of getting your own. And despite their appearance of vicious defence, it is a reasonably easy thing to do.
With gloved hands and a meat cleaver or whatever is your biggest knife (blunt or allowed to become so is best), you simply work around the shell (properly known as a ‘test’) trying to crack it like you might a soft boiled egg, similarly doing it high up one end (towards the opening). Snipping a section out around the opening with kitchen shears is another option. You then lift off the top and hope to expose the perfectly radially symmetrical insides intact. All of this has to be done very delicately as the roe inside are really very fragile. These roe are otherwise known as ‘coral’ because roe implies they are eggs when they are in fact gonads that could be either male or female. With care and some luck you should have exposed five orange segments of coral that you can gently lift out with a teaspoon. Rinse these, again, gently, to remove any broken bits of spines, guts or half digested seaweed. With perhaps just a squeeze of lemon (or the infinite variety of offerings online), you are ready to go.
Urchin roe has become a taste of night snorkelling for me now, rinsed with lemon juice and laid on squares of buttered bread. When I am back home, salty skinned and still buzzing from what was at stages an adrenalin-flavoured outing. Spines may still be moving on the test and my hair still wet by the time I am done, it is as fresh as that. With a glass of white wine, perhaps what was left in the bottle from mustering up some Dutch courage for the event in the first place, and I am a happy forager.
See also: The Gourmet Forager,