Writer Paula Disbrowe embarks on a journey to Florida’s Forgotten Coast in search of the Gulf's most delicious treasure.
By Paula Disbrowe
1 of 14Photo: Gately Williams
A Trip of a Different Color
Don't get me wrong; I've never met a log ride that I didn't like. But after a flurry of theme parks, water slides, and all-inclusive hotel packages, it was time to shake up our family vacations. For my still-young-but-growing-fast children, I wanted a more authentic experience, and the opportunity to connect with something wild and beautiful. Which got me thinking about the first time I went scalloping.
The Gulf's rich scalloping grounds: St. Joseph's Bay
2 of 14Photo: Gately Williams
The Scalloping Setting
I had traveled to Port St. Joe, Florida, with acclaimed New Orleans chef Donald Link (he of Herbsaint, Cochon, and Pêche) to research the second cookbook we were producing together. For that book (Down South), we'd wanted to explore the Gulf's salty spirit and traditions, which had led us to Florida's "Forgotten Coast," 130 miles of quiet Panhandle shoreline tying Mexico Beach to St. Mark's on Apalachee Bay.
The high point of that trip had been snorkeling for scallops—a first for both of us. From the cool, brackish waters of St. Joseph's Bay, we'd hauled up a legitimate bounty of bivalves by the dozens. Later that night, as we grilled the scallops on their half shells, I felt like we'd scored the Gulf's ultimate treasure.
3 of 14Photo: Gately Williams
When I learned that just off this forgotten coast was a resort on its own little island—with cozy bungalows, a legit pirate history, scalloping excursions, and grills right on the beach—I hatched my plan. Boats? Snorkels? Tales of bootleggers? Seafood, foraged with our own hands? Kids, meet your truly amazing vacation.
Our hosts from Black's Island Vacation Resort, Capt. Jeff Bowman and Wanda Bright, meet us at their dock just off Florida's Highway 30A. The light has begun to fade, and we're weary from a long day of travel, but when the ferry motors us toward a streaky pink-and-periwinkle sunset, the adventure chemicals begin to kick in. (The cold bottle of wine in my bag doesn't hurt, either.)
4 of 14Photo: Gately Williams
Black's Island Resort
We awake the next morning to birdsong and a Robinson Crusoe setup: suspended walkways connecting wooden bungalows with Gulf-view balconies and fully equipped kitchens, creating a liberating DIY approach to vacation. (There's no restaurant here, but the cooking-averse can ferry into town for dinner.) We're food-centric travelers who frequently fill a suitcase with our own coffee, fancy olive oil, flaky salt, and a pepper grinder, so we've hit a few key stores on the mainland and are ready to roll.
5 of 14Photo: Gately Williams
The Scallop Hunters
Mercifully, our morning bivalve hunt is not a crack-of-dawn pursuit. The best scalloping is done midday, Capt. Jeff tells us, because the direct overhead light makes it easier to spot the shells. So we meet him at 11 a.m. on the dock and set a course toward Cape San Blas. Jeff keeps his eyes on the water, looking for just the right spot: a depth of 2 to 3 feet and a confluence of sea grass, where scallops love to nestle in sandy potholes. When the grass is too dense (think shag carpet) it's difficult to see the scallops, and the only option is raking your fingers through the growth. Because prickly, mauve-colored urchins love to hang out with scallops, you want a little space to see what you're reaching for.
Team Scallop: Paula, Wyatt, Jeff, and Flannery
6 of 14Photo: Gately Williams
Our captain finds a sweet spot, so we drop anchor, pull on our masks, snorkels, and flippers, and then slip into another world. Scalloping is a meditative and peaceful endeavor. It takes patience (they're masters of camouflage), and that's a piece of the pleasure. As you become submerged in dreamlike quiet and refracted light, time slows down. Gliding through the shallow water, running fingers through undulating sea grass, and scanning the details of the Gulf floor is the slow-moving antidote for our frenetic family life. I spy a baby starfish no bigger than a quarter, and lift it to show my kids. My husband discovers two giant whelk shells that now reside on our back porch.
Sea urchins cohabitate with scallops on the sandy bottom.
7 of 14Photo: Gately Williams
The Hunt is On
But the biggest thrill still comes from pursuing that elusive object of our desire. Unlike oysters and clams, scallops can swim. I spot a few jetting along through the water a foot or so from the bottom. (If I were quick enough, I could pluck them with my hand.) Others are nestled in sea grass, half-buried in sand. A quiver of their shells or sudden stream of escaping bubbles betrays their hiding place, and then the chase is on—me grasping, and my quarry making their getaway.
8 of 14Photo: Gately Williams
Bounty from the Sea
We return just before dusk, our mesh bags full of mollusks, our tan lines fresh and defined. After a quick change, we meet Jeff at a set of sinks for prepping. The captain shows us how to use the tips of our knives to tease open the shells and trim the scallops quickly and efficiently, leaving only the sweet-tasting muscle behind. He's impressed that my children join in. "This is too gross for some kids," he says.
9 of 14Photo: Gately Williams
We fire up a grill, and daylight lingers just long enough to illuminate a beach picnic with grilled bread, cheese, salad, and a bottle of cold rosé. And our scallops, grilled in their lovely half shells just long enough for the butter to sizzle.
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Feasting on Fresh Scallops
Savoring these rewards—cold and hot, sweet and salt—is a luxury that a Gulf Coast pirate might have overlooked, in search of doubloons and jewels. But what a treasure this is, on this forgotten coast.
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Get Here: From Panama City, it's a one-hour ride to Black's Island Vacation Resort's dock in Port St. Joe, where resort staff will ferry you 15 minutes out to the island.
We call this one an end-of-summer salad, but as long as you can get the ingredients, you can make it in any season! Citrus flavors define the salad: A homemade Citrus Vinaigrette and orange slices as toppings give this dish its summery flair, but fresh bay scallops skewered and grilled steal the show.
Pro tip: Do not overcook the scallops—they’ll become tough and rubbery if left on the grill for too long.
Grilled Scallop Tacos with Smashed Avocado and Charred Corn Pico
This quick taco filling is perfect for weeknight dinners—or last-minute weekend get-togethers. Scallops bring their own unique flavors to the dish, and charred corn pico and a smashed avocado spread make perfect accompaniments.
Pro tip: Be careful grilling the corn and the scallops—you want them to be slightly charred, but there’s a fine line between charred and roasted to a crisp. They cook quickly, so keep an eye on them the whole time they’re on the grill.