Crabs and crabbing
I finally got round to drawing crabs lately.
Hunting crabs is a big part of what made me and to see a crab even now, whatever species, brings a buzz of excitement deep inside that takes me back to my childhood. I don’t remember all the details but the feeling is a familiar old friend… the result of a satisfactory contact with other species! When you’ve read his you’ll understand why I had to have a crab t-shirt!
We used to holiday most years at Filey in Yorkshire. At some point very early on, around the age of 4, I was briefed for the expedition with a read through by my grandmother of the ladybird guide to the seashore.
Its cover was an enticing image of seashells and I was fixated, we worked through cockles, razor shells, periwinkles, whelks, limpets, mussels and barnacles, shrimps, sea weeds, fishes. All very, very interesting but then we got to page 26. Page 25 should have had a drum-roll because, unbeknown to any of us present, the turning of the page was a life-event. I was already excited by this book. I didn’t really want to leave the sand goby behind but also was impatient to know what was next. The page was turned. Stirring big band music please and CRABS ALIVE! The picture pulled me into the book and there I was on the shore with 3 clearly different crabs.
Until that moment, I thought a crab was a crab and I hadn’t seen a decent photo or illustration. At first I thought they were just different coloured crabs but from outside the book my grandmothers voice narrated that the top one was a shore crab, the bottom one an edible crab (from the deep sea) and the middle one was a swimming crab. Ooooooh, crabs, there’s no getting over them once you are hooked. There was now an urgency to get to the sea. Mum bought me a copy of I-Spy at the seashore to satisfy my lust for crabs but it only made things worse. Drawing crabs was pretty much all I did in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
My family had identified a love of nature (& the macabre but that’s another story) in me and encouraged it so I possibly was already destined to be a naturalist but this turn of a page was a definite tipping point. The artists Jill Payne and the writer Nancy Scott might just as well have given me a treasure map. They delivered a love of crabs to me, far inland and I wonder who else they captured? They told me about sideways locomotion, crustacean anatomy (the carapace entered my vocabulary), ecdysis and species identification in just a few friendly words. At the time I just wanted to hunt crabs but now I think if I could have that same effect on just one person then it is a life worth living.
I could go on and on about the ladybird book of the seashore and seashore life and the goddesses who put it together but let’s go on holiday to Filey. The journey, unloading suitcases, checking in were all a frustrating obstruction; “let’s just get to the sea!” The following is slightly embellished to link facts together but as close to the truth as I am able to remember.
Of course my passion for crabs was not shared by everyone else in the family. I assumed it was an obsession shared by all but, in fact, it wasn’t shared by ANYONE else in the family really and they were just humouring me.
Dad settled into a deckchair to enjoy his holiday, my sister began making sand castles and playing like a normal child and I headed out hunting with Mum in tow to ensure I didn’t drown or get lost. It quickly transpired that crabs are not always just waiting on the beach for you as they were in the picture and Mum suggested we find a rock pool.
Aaaaah, rock pools, aren’t they beautiful! We turned a stone. It possibly wasn’t the first stone but soon enough we uncovered a small green crab which came into focus through the wobbling reflections of our own faces. I assumed it was full size at about a thumbs length across. It was, as I expertly stated, a shore crab, exactly like the one in the book. I devoured its appearance with my eyes but wanted much more to do with it than that. My hand entered the water.
Now the goddesses had told me that crabs will nip your toes if you get too near but I was their friend and admirer and sort of expected them to come out of the sea to meet me or at least to walk onto my hand and show off a little. They say you should never meet your heroes and here I was with a hero. In the ripples of turbulence caused by my hand the crab scuttled back under the stone. A bit rude. We turned the stone again. I say we, I’m pretty sure Mum did it as crabs can nip your toes if you get too close. There it was again, in shot my hand again.
A bucket was being brought into play. The crab turned to face me. I swear it looked straight into my eyes and deep inside me and it raised its claws in threat like a boxer. I drew my hand back and in that instant it swung its claws inwards in a rapid bear-hug motion. It meant business! I twigged at this point that Mum really didn’t want to touch it but between us we wrestled it into the bucket and hurried back to the others, beyond excitement. I mean, very, very excited indeed.
If I could travel back in time and give that kid a decent camera and close up lenses to preserve the moment it would probably be worth it but I can’t so he’ll have to stay there in 1968 staring at the crab and drawing it.
Dad and the crab!
Anyway, Dad was napping but woke up as we returned. I may be remembering this inaccurately but until then he was a guy in a suit who was away all day, came home in the evenings, ruffled my hair had a little play fight and said “isn’t it time for bed?”. He played golf, drove the car and did important dad stuff like mowing the lawn and fixing things. All the nature stuff and reading was done by Mum and grandma but there was something I didn’t know about Dad.
I stared at the crab and confessed my desire to see it move. I shook the bucket a little but the crab just hunkered down.
“Pick it up,” said Dad.
“I can’t it will nip me, it has tried already.”
“You pick it up,” said Mum to Dad with an amused note in her voice (I have later identified it as goading). “Show him how it’s done.”
He said it was cruel as it is only a little one and the banter went on a while whilst I absorbed this new information that there are bigger crabs out there than this.
Finally Dad approached the bucket. He stared into it for a while. He got his right hand ready, breathed out and took a deep breath in and put his hand a little closer, at which we all tensed up, even the crab. In fact let’s look at a still of this moment; son and mother stare into bucket alongside father staring into bucket with hand poised. We look between their shoulders into the bucket where a small green crab looks back at us. Actually no, the crab is looking at the father and it has its own speech bubble. In the bubble it says “Come on then. Are we doing this, or what?”
At length Dad approached from one angle and then another, switching the position of his hand and from where around the bucket he approached. The crab manoeuvred accordingly and it was all very exciting and informative to watch. Crabs are beautiful and beguiling creatures but 100 times more so in motion. I told Dad that I thought so in words appropriate to my age and he hissed back a sort of agreement through his teeth. He was obviously concentrating. There was a dart of movement and a splash of water as Dad’s hand entered the water like a striking cobra.
As the ripples steadily cleared I could see that my father had his finger on the crabs back, pinning it to the bottom of the bucket.
“You’ve got it,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied again with a hiss. Mum and Tina now leaned over and looked into the bucket. Much was said but I was keen to impart some important information to my father that I had learned from my research.
“Your finger is on its carapace,” I said. “that big shell with its eyes and body in it is called a carapace.”
“Yes,” he hissed again. To great disappointment and sighs from all he released his finger quite quickly and the crab swang round expressing its annoyance and displeasure in a physical statement that crossed the boundary between species. Dad only knows what went through his head at that moment but if it were me in his position I’d be thinking (in slightly more colourful language)… “Oh my, I have an audience here, and due to the size of the bucket, the size of the crab, the intense pressure by those watching and… tiredness, it might seem as if this crab is getting the better of me and… or, that I am afraid of it or inexperienced or both.”
Any doubt that anyone amongst us, or on the surrounding beach towels was quickly extinguished as his hand plunged into the water again. A splash of it landed on my lip and I think , there and then, I experienced the intense saltiness of the sea for the very first time. All this happened in an instant and we leaned over to look into the bucket. I felt Dads left had gently but firmly push my head to the side so he could both see and appraise the situation he and the crab were now in. The ripples cleared and there, once again, was the crab pinned down beneath Dad’s finger.
“Now what are you going to do?” asked Mum helpfully and with genuine interest.
And then it happened.
The crab’s claws were held high up and waving menacingly but, holding the crab down with his index finger, Dad placed his middle finger on the right edge of the crab’s carapace, pinning the right set of legs down at the same time. That allowed him to quickly lift the index finger clear and bring the thumb onto the left of carapace and, in the same movement bring the index finger to the right hand side and replace the middle finger. I was spellbound. There was now less pressure on the crab’s back so it was able to wave its claws about all the more but Dad now had its carapace between his thumb and forefinger. All this was expertly done underwater and sometimes obscured by ripples but then… he lifted the crab out of the water.
Let’s not under value this moment. There had been a palpable moment of family tension. For a moment I had doubted he could do it but he’d come through. My Dad was a crab expert and crab wrangler and a wildlife hero. There in his hand, viewable from all sides was the object of my long-running fascination and obsession – it lead directly to the current drawings – but suddenly the events that got us there had their own importance. The hair-ruffling suit wearer had ascended onto a pedestal in my mind. He was no ordinary human, I hadn’t seen anyone else do this. Gosh, in his trunks there, subduing that wild animal he suddenly looked a lot like Tarzan! It was a proper father son moment enravelled with the animal I was obsessed with.
Obviously I needed him to hold the crab for much longer than he wanted to while I examined it all over. The Mum said, “Why don’t you take Ian rock-pooling, looking for crabs while I stay here? You can catch them for him and he can get a good look at them.” Dad’s head snapped round and he looked deep into Mum’s eyes with an intense and loving stare!
We went off rock-pooling and adopted various ways of catching crabs of various species over the years. The goddesses said I would never see a fully grown edible crab on the shore but there, at the top of the slipway was a hut selling fresh edible crabs. We didn’t just see it, we devoured it.
Taking care of crabs and their environment
My favourite activity became crab-watching. Dropping fish-meat or mussels into a rock pool and watching what comes out of hiding and what it does.
Along the way I learned a lot about crabs but still have a huge amount to learn. I think the most important bits are these.
- Crabs are living creatures, terrified of us and we should treat them fairly
- If we turn over a rock to find them we should replace it carefully. Always place another smaller stone beneath it so it slowly settles into place and nothing is crushed.
- If we catch crabs we should keep them in cool water in the shade. Crabs don’t sunbathe, they are largely nocturnal. They can survive short periods out of water but on the whole don’t like it.
- Crabs that survive being caught can go on to entertain and inform many more people. So please, unless you intend to eat it, put it back with care. Watching it wander to freedom makes a much happier memory than watching it die.
I was mortified at having to let my first crab go. I wanted to take it home to Nottingham and keep it in a fish bowl full of tap water. When I learned that only salt water will do, I thought we could perhaps dissolve some table salt to make the right water for it. My many attempts to preserve the enjoyment of crab hunting led to numerous, regrettable deaths which spoil the memory of a beautiful experience. The true enjoyment of crabbing, however you do it, is in the moment! It’s best preserved not by captors and trophies but by photographs and illustrations, written descriptions and other finds from beachcombing. You can preserve these without anything suffering.
I love finding crabs as much today as ever before, I photograph almost every one I find. I like to think as I sit in the evening relaxing in my chosen habitat (in my case on the sofa with my feet up and a glass of red wine) that the crab I met today at low tide is now deep under the waters of a high tide, hunting and avoiding predators in it natural habitat