July 3, 2008 · Updated 3:41 PM
By ERIC BERTO
With Images of Jacques Cousteau in their heads, approximately 20 people gathered to hear the slimy details of clamming on Whidbey Islands beaches Tuesday afternoon.
Maybe the images were not of the famous French sea explorer, but those of a tasty meal, as clams and other shellfish are edible treats from the ocean.
The class is part of an ongoing educational outreach program the Washington State University / Island County Beach Watchers program sponsors called Digging for Dinner. Diggers learn the species of shellfish available in the sand and gravel, proper techniques for harvesting the bivalves and the proper etiquette to avoid a shovel to the kneecap.
Eugene Thrasher is a volunteer for Island County/WSU Beach Watchers Adventures in Nature class. He takes his clamming seriously. After moving to Whidbey Island from Pennsylvania 40 years ago, he discovered his love for clamming and eating the fruits of his labor.
Some potential clammers were not as enthusiastic about digging in the sand. Coupeville resident Neil Sorenson was shellfishing for the first time.
I think the best way to get clams is to go to the store, an exasperated Sorenson said.
Digging is hard work. Specialized shovels allow people to focus their search. Shoveling through layers of sand, silt and gravel can make the clams and mussels taste even better.
Thrasher shared tips and tricks with the students to help them clam smart and be able to share the shellfish with future generations. After imparting his wisdom on the onlookers, Thrasher proceeded to demonstrate what he knew.
After spotting a hole in the sandy silt on the beach at the west end of Penn Cove, he quickly noted that since the hole was oblong, a clam could be found below. Not just a clam but that the hole meant a butter clam, approximately 2 inches in size. After two plunges of his shovel, the sand revealed exactly what he said was there.
The class was for young and old alike. Ten-year-old Jessy Meier accompanied her father and grandfather out to the beach. This was not her first time chasing the delicacies in the sand. She said she has dug up geoducks, which can grow to more than four pounds, and horseshoe clams, which are only slightly smaller.
Meier shunned the conventional wisdom of the shovel as a means of extracting the shelled creatures, opting instead for her hands. It worked too. She exited the beach with a bucketful of different types of clams. The best part?
The part where I to eat them, she said.
Clamming is a popular pastime on Whidbey Island, and is continuing to grow. Licenses can be purchased for one day , or for the entire year. Diggers can hunt clams year round, but are encouraged to call the red tide hotline before slogging through the mud.
The next class will be Aug. 31.
You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at email@example.com.