Scallop Diver for Life
Andy Mays of Southwest Harbor has been diving for scallops since his 20s. And now he lives for it.
It’s winter on Mount Desert Island. Temperatures are just above 20 degrees, and tomorrow a nor’easter will blow snow sideways into drifts. But today the sun is out, and the wind is about nil. That’s good, because we’re on the deck of a fishing boat at the mouth of Somes Sound, and diver Andy Mays is suited up and sitting on the deck rail. With an air tank on his back and a couple of mesh bags, he’s about to drop into the frigid water to dive for scallops.
The cold air bites my hands while I’m gloveless for a minute, trying to take a photo with my phone. I forgot to bring my warmer hat. These are small complaints. I’m not the one going underwater where the water is clear and chilled—the seawater here is just a few degrees above freezing this time of year. Mays adjusts his mask. And with a splash and then a flick of flippers, he’s in, and disappears into the depth of the bay.
Earlier, when driving to meet Mays at Dysart’s Great Harbor Marina in Southwest Harbor, we passed inlets frozen white, with crackling ice and what remains of a big February snowstorm. And across the water, I can see the Claremont Hotel on its hilltop perch in Southwest Harbor, shuttered for winter.
Scallop diving is known as a young person’s game. Mays took his first diving lessons when he was 26. Now 52, he still dives regularly in scallop season, which typically extends from December to March. The husband and father of three children is one of about 50 active, licensed scallop divers along Maine’s coast. Most harvesting of the wild shellfish is done by hundreds of commercial fishing boats— often lobster boats equipped with gear to drag or “dredge” a mesh bag along the bottom. A diver, on the other hand, swims along and hand-selects each scallop, picking them up one by one. There are benefits: the diver doesn’t disturb the sea floor, has no bycatch, and regulations allow divers to harvest scallops later into the season and in places that scallop drag boats can’t go.
Before long, we see air bubbles rise to the surface in bursts, and the buoy that Mays is tethered to moves across the water’s surface as he swims below. I see no other boats nearby. Mays’s nine-year-old son, Stanislaus (“Stani”), is also onboard and begins tossing spent scallop shells—what remains after the edible scallop is harvested—back into the water. Meanwhile, the sternman keeps an eye on Mays’s buoy, and tells me that this dive will last about 30 minutes, based on the capacity of air in the tank.
While getting ready to jump in the water, Mays had stepped into an enclosed part of the split wheelhouse, peeled off his heavy canvas jacket and pants, and donned a neoprene drysuit. It’s hooded and looks similar to a wetsuit, but rather than water providing insulation, the drysuit is sealed to keep water out. A few thin layers of long underwear and his own body heat help to keep him warm. His body is lighter than it used to be, because of challenges for Mays that are much bigger, even, than the rigors of winter diving.
The News Isn’t Good
It was February in the 2015 scallop season, a few weeks before the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockland. Just about everyone in the industry gathers for the marine trade show, Mays explains, to check out the latest fishing gear, socialize, and talk about fishery issues before the busiest months of lobster season.
But he wasn’t feeling well in the months before the forum, and it took several doctors’ visits to confirm the problem. The news isn’t good. With his wife, Michelle, at his side, Mays learned he has colorectal cancer. “I’m an optimist,” he says, recalling that day. “I remember thinking, I’ll just have some chemo and radiation and I’ll be on my way.”
It wasn’t that easy. Mays went for radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and finally, surgery. He was fitted with an ostomy pouch. He lost his hair—eyebrows and lashes, too— and nearly 50 pounds of body weight. (He’s since regained about half of those pounds.) Then, almost immediately, the trouble that began in his colon advanced. By summertime of 2015, the lymph nodes in his neck were swelling. Mays’s cancer had metastasized, and it was widespread. “That’s when the game changed from removing the cancer,” he says, “to just trying to keep me alive.”
Throughout his life, Mays had been mostly healthy—a tough guy. The eldest of six kids in a Vermont family, he moved to Maine to join the Coast Guard. He worked on boat crews and helped maintain lighthouses, and Mays admits he would also occasionally get into fistfights. He learned to dive from Mount Desert Island instructor Chris Eaton, and it was Eaton who taught him scallop fishing. He ended up working with Eaton’s dive operation and got his captain’s license. And when the scallop fishery declined in the 2000s, Mays built a lobster boat and christened it the Lost Airmen, after a war hero uncle whose plane was shot down in World War II.
Sometimes he found himself in dangerous situations. In 2014, Mays helped to tow a Northeast Harbor-based lobster boat to port when its engine stalled off Great Duck Island in high seas. “A giant wave crashed on top of the wheelhouse, breaking a window,” Mays explains. “I was holding on to the helm, squatting down with my right knee wedged under the rail so I wouldn’t get thrown into the sea.”
Everyone returned safely that day, and Mays says it’s an example of how the fishing community jumps in to help each other. Likewise, when news about Mays’s cancer got around in 2015, friends at the marina held a fundraiser to help with medical expenses. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association sent a check. Doctors and hospital executives who knew Mays because he’d dived around their boats to untangle moorings or clean the undersides of yachts helped him get appointments with the right doctors. He began chemo again every other week—a regimen that would leave him sick and weak for a couple of days every time.
But he continued the process—and still goes today. And between the medical appointments, often once or twice a week if he’s feeling well, Mays and a sternman fuel up his boat and motor out from Great Harbor.
We’d planned the wintertime dive trip around scallop fishing days—the season is managed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources—and around Mays’s chemo treatment schedule. Once we’re on the water, no one talks of medical issues. There’s too much else to do. Mays helps Stani put on a life vest. Cruising from the marina, the fisherman-diver steers the boat across the deep blue of the harbor toward Somes Sound. On the way, we pass the shores of Southwest Harbor, Northeast Harbor, and Greening Island. Once stopped at the dive location, Mays zips into the drysuit and pulls on his 45-pound weight belt and 35-pound air tank. (Once below, he’ll add air inside the drysuit for insulation and buoyancy.) Throughout, I see his strength, and a clarity of purpose in his blue eyes.
The goal of the day is to find scallops. I’ve been looking at a few of the hinged shells still on deck from a prior dive. Fan-shaped, they’re each as large as my outstretched hand. These are sea scallops from deeper water, and at least twice the size of the smaller bay scallops. While Mays dives, we join the sternman in watching the surface and making sure we can always see his buoy. Time ticks by particularly slowly when you’re waiting for a diver. And there’s a rush of relief every time you see him rise again from the water. We all walk to the rail for a closer look when he swims up, and Mays doesn’t return empty-handed. He’s collected two mesh bags full of the wild, live scallops.
Once onboard again, he tells us that while below the surface, except for dealing with a one-knot current and a line that was a few feet too short for the 65-foot dive, he felt no discomfort in the frigid saltwater. He felt a true sense of peace underwater, he says, just as he always does. “I’m focused on the dive, and it’s the only time I don’t think about the cancer,” Mays says. “I have to dive to live.”
Steve Bowman, who buys scallops from Mays and other divers for Browne Trading Co. in Portland, later tells me, “I know what goes into getting scallops. Most guys on their best days in their 20s and 30s would struggle to do what Andy can do on chemo and being in his 50s. He’s one tough hombre, I can tell you.” Bowman says the pristine water around Mount Desert Island, where scallops can spawn and grow, also makes Mays’s diving special. “It’s deep water up there, and the tides run pretty strong. There are lots of islands with nooks and crannies for scallops.”
We’re on the boat for at least another hour post-dive, and for much of that time Mays remains on deck in the drysuit, dripping saltwater, shucking and tossing the cold, quivering scallops into a five-gallon bucket. The adductor muscles are the “meat” of the scallop—the rest of the scallop body and innards are discarded overboard (per state regulations). He’s efficient at the task and is shucking about ten scallops a minute once he gets going.
“Everything eats the scallop,” Mays says, including lobsters, seals, sea stars, and crabs. He stops to use his knife to slice off thin portions for each of us to taste, sashimi-style. The scallop tastes like a fresh, cold kiss of ocean—absolutely light and bright, and with a little creaminess—unlike any scallop I’ve ever tried.
It’s later in the afternoon by now, and the temperatures are getting even more brisk on deck. Stani and I go into the heated part of the wheelhouse for a few minutes to warm up. Stani is curious about the cameras we’re using, so photographer Peter Frank Edwards hands him camera gear to try. The third- grade homeschooler aims the camera’s lens through the window toward his dad. Stani is the youngest of the three sons, and in the summertime he often goes out lobstering with his family. (His brothers are 11-year-old Edmund and Sylvester, who’s 13.)
I leave the marina that day with a small pail of the fresh scallops that Mays collected and shucked by hand. That night, Peter Frank uses some of his sous chef skills to make a puree of rutabaga, parsnip, potatoes, and celeriac from the Belfast Farmers’ Market, and we sauté the scallops in a little butter and French white wine. The shellfish quiver in the first moments in the hot skillet. I light candles, and the meal has an undeniable richness—a delicious finish to an unforgettable day.
A couple of weeks later, I check in with Mays as spring begins, and he tells me that he’s continuing to go to Eastern Maine Medical Center Cancer Care in Bangor for chemotherapy treatments. He has good days, and days when he’s queasy and doesn’t feel well. He dives whenever he can, and he hauls lobster traps. “We just don’t know how it’s going to go,” he says.
His Catholic faith and the prayers of friends and family buoy him. And at a chemo session early on, Mays says he met another patient who said something that has stuck with him. We’re talking on the phone so I can’t be sure, but it sounds like Mays is smiling mischievously when he shares the story. “Another guy in for chemo told me, ‘The bad news is that you’re going to die,’” and Mays pauses. “‘But it won’t f—ing be today.’”
Mays carries that bit of wisdom with him. He isn’t letting anybody tell him how much time he has, and he tries to let go of things that are unimportant. For as long as he can, this Southwest Harbor fisherman is determined to keep on living his life, and diving in the sea.