So, What Is A Shelldigger Anyway?

I recently had to fill out a questionaire regarding my work history. I had filed for disability a couple of years ago, and the SS administration wants you to complete this form at least a couple or three times through the process. As per my normal expectations, meaning that no matter what the situation, nothing about filling out a standard form would be an easy job or in any way standard. They want you to list all of the duties you performed in a teeny little box about 2 inches wide and 1 inch tall. Well, I took one long look at that little space and decided to write them a report. Here it is with a few things added recently in parentheses:

Duties of a Commercial Diver

Daily routine:
Up by 6:00. Pack a lunch. Hook boat up to truck. Drive to service station to top off gas tanks. Grab a biscuit with something in it for breakfast. Drive to river, considering wind and weather conditions to maximize work efficiency on the way. Launch boat. Park truck, don wet suit. ( I used to joke among my diver friends that just getting to the river and into a wet suit was the equiivalent of a half days work for most people) Drive boat to pre determined location, again analyzing river current and wind en route (I have web sites bookmarked with this info, I know before I leave the house where I want to go, but often the wind you actually see does not jive with what the weatherman said. Sometimes conditions require rethinking intended location) Arrive at location, anchor off when you get there. Start (air) compressor. Throw out air/life line (and hang shell bags on the side of the boat). Buckle up weight belt harness, 50 lb. of lead. Prepare for dive (which consists of making sure all your gear is ready and functional) put a shell sack around my neck. (I also have a helmet with a very bright halogen 12 v bulb. They don’t call river diving “Black Water Diving” for nuttin) Raise anchor. Start dive.

A dive consists of descending hand over hand via air/life line to bottom (This ain’t Scuba!This kind of diving is classified as Hookah, using an oil-less air compressor mated to a Honda 5.5 horse engine to provide air, and using a “lifeline”. Basically an air hose attached to a good stout rope, that attaches to the weight belt. Wet Suits and regulators and masks you would recognize, they are the same as regular scuba gear.). Begin harvesting shell. Harvest shell till bag is full usually averaging 100 lbs sometimes more. Move bag to shoulder, instead of around neck (just in case of anything going wrong you can dump the bag easier from the shoulder instead of it mercilessly dragging you to the bottom), ascend line to boat, again hand over hand pulling yourself up, hang bag on side of boat, grab another bag and go right back down. Fill 2nd bag with shell. Ascend and hang 2nd bag. (If the river current is slow I can leave a bag hanging with no issues, if the current is strong, I have to go ahead and get in the boat, and drag the bag in before I fill another one. The hydrodynamic drag created by the bag in the water makes it much more difficult to pull the boat along behind you, upriver against the current)

Back in the boat you now have to heave the heavy bags of shell over the side and begin grading them for legal sale. Having many years of experience I cull very few. Shell are graded by size/species as per buyer preference and stored in 5 gal buckets. Add water to buckets to prolong shell life, and cover with burlap bags to protect from sun. Lunch time.

Make another dive just like the first. If there is enough time in the day after the 2nd dive to get one more bag, you get one more bag. Grade and store shell as before, time to pack it in and head for the truck. Load boat on trailer, put on street clothes. Head for shell buyer. With any luck there will not be a long wait, get boat as close as possible to shakers. (Shakers are long 20′ at least, steel tubes. These shakers have multitudes of holes in them sized for various sizes of shell. These shakers often can grade up to 2 or 3 sizes.) Transfer shell from buckets to the shakers. The shell proceed through shaker, grading shell to legal sizes and/or buyer preference (if you have them graded well and buyer trusts you you can often dump straight into wheelbarrow, either way this is the 3rd time they are handled) Manhandle the wheelbarrow to the scales (4th time they have been handled), get your weight (400-600 lb avg.), dump the shell. Get paid.

Drive home. If you are lucky you drag back in by 6:30-7:00 PM, hoping the wife has supper ready, watch the news for the weather forecast, go to bed to get up and do it again tomorrow.

This was my life for over 30 yrs. I worked through winter, summer, and all kinds of weather. Strong current, high winds, you name it Ive seen it. When things got rough, the waves were rolling, and the sky turns black I was there, only giving up when the lightning demanded common sense enough to run. I worked in water as shallow as 5 feet deep, and as far down as 70 feet deep. I worked the Tennessee river, the Cumberland river (both in Tn.), the Mississippi river up in Iowa/Illinois, and made a trip to Texas a long time ago to work the Guadalupe river. Also hit a lake in Texas on the way home from the Guadalupe, I forget the name now…

Self employment also means you have to be a mechanic. Trucks need fixing, trailers need lights, air systems require maintenance, boat motors have bad days, and you better have plenty of tools, parts, tubing, fuel line, air fittings, hose clamps, duct tape and bailing wire if you don’t want to go home early. Sometimes having these things means you get to go home, instead of being stranded on the water. Even being as prepared as possible however, there were many times in my career I had to sit on the bow of the boat and paddle my way in. One quickly learns it is wise to pack some extra water and a few snacks in your lunch box. They do come in handy when things go wrong.

These are the duties of a shell harvesting commercial diver. It is a rough way to live, but I miss it. Very few can say they have enjoyed darn near every day of work for 3 decades. Every day a new adventure, and a tale to tell. If my body were able, I’d be seeing you on the river. (end of my SS report)

What do shells look like? This is 2 shell sacks worth of shells. Close to 250 lbs of shell here, it is hard to tell how deep this pile is from this angle. Trust me, I was on ’em this day, the pile is probably close to a foot deep in the middle. The large ones are called Washboards, the roundish ones are Ebony, the other ridged shell here are known as Three Ridge, for obvious reasons… These shells were of a very good quality and hardly any were too small to keep. At far left in the pic is a pair of “Coke” cans. Stainless steel tanks used to make fountain cola drinks. They have been repurposed as air tanks. Top left is my helmet, you can just barely see the edge of it, as well as a small part of the halogen light. That strap there top right of center is part of the weight belt harness. Of course the mask and regulator are obvious.


The shell are bought by the local buyers and resold to buyers overseas, mostly Japan and China. The local shell buyers process the shell by cooking the meat out of them. The meat, sad to say, is discarded. The shell are shipped to the overseas buyers who then cut through the thick part of the shell and make mother of pearl squares. These squares are then made into perfect circles. Now you have mother of pearl beads. These beads are then implanted into oysters. The oysters are kept in hanging baskets for a year or two. They then bring up the oysters and harvest the cultured pearls.

So, after 30+ years of this life, I guess you could say say it was a tad hard on my back. I suffer from degenerative arthritis in my lower back, sacral region. The body reacts to the arthritis by stiffening up all of the muscle groups in the area. Which creates a double whammy chronic pain issue. I have been suffering from this pain for many years. I started off self treating with over the counter stuff, Bufferin, Advil, etc, a long time ago. Thinking, it’s a long day and a tough job, of course it’s going to hurt a little. Little did I know then what was coming down the road. Had I known I probably would have sought out another profession.

I began complaining of pain to Dr’s back in my twenties. The first Dr. prescribed Ibuprofen, in 600 mg horse pills. I took those for a while, till I figured out I could get them cheaper OTC rather than from the pharmacy. Later on I complained to yet another Dr. (the first one had retired) This guy got me going down the medical history path, I saw a neurosurgeon, a sports medicine Dr., a physical therapist, had an MRI in there somewhere, all to no avail. The last guy I saw was the sports medicine surgeon, after a few visits they said “well you are not a good candidate for surgery.” They showed me the door.

Back to square one, I continued to self treat with OTC stuff, after getting a new Dr., I complained to him about the pain. Finally someone referred me to a pain specialist. After a couple of years of crap I was finally getting something to help with the pain. I continued to work however. The bills don’t stop coming in. I worked for 6 more years with the help of the pain meds…

Until I started having muscle spasms. My first one (as they all do) hit me like a bolt of lightning from the sky. Dropping me like a sack of potatoes in the kitchen floor. I could not move or exist in any way other than total fucking agony. My wife and kids were quite concerned, I got help to the bed where I stayed for 2 weeks. I finally got better…and went back to work. I had another spasm. This time I was back up and running in about a week and a half. Went back to work. After 3 more spasms and continuing to work, I had the grandaddy of spasms. I was down for 6 weeks this time. I finally realized I had pushed my body so far that it was pushing back, in a bad way. I knew I was done. I had to hang it up.

Oddly enough after I quit working, the spasms while they haven’t stopped, are much smaller, and much easier to get through now. I continue to manage the pain, and get through the day as best I can. I didn’t mean to turn this into my life story, but it is an interesting tale to tell and so much more left unsaid…

My disability claim was approved back on the 13th of this month. It was a long hard road to travel, but now I can safely say I have been retired. With the disability approved I’ll get a small check coming in, at least I can feel like I can help out around here now. I tell ya after a lifetime of self employment, where your worth is directly related to your output, being relegated to the sidelines makes you feel like a worthless bum. I gotta say, I sure am grateful my wife was able to keep us afloat these last few years. Should be smoother sailing around here if we can all stay healthy.

This was one of the many views from my old office, that ridgetop there is the highest point in W Tn. Known as Pilot Knob. It is located in Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park. :



At least I can still go fishing…and blogging. 🙂