Hunting Large Sea Snails

Recently, I wrote about an evening boat excursion, which included hunting large sea snails. I promised a fuller description of what that entails, so here you go!

By way of background, I was never a huge fan of escargot (snails) when I would occasionally encounter them at a fancy restaurant in my former life in the States. (However, if you saturate anything in butter and garlic, I’m likely to find it tasty!) So, when an island local offered me bites of an even bigger Bahamian variety a while back, I was even less keen. However, in the spirit of Choosing the Better Life, I wanted to be open and try new things. Plus, buttery garlic was offered up simultaneously as a dipping sauce! While it doesn’t hit my love-ometer at the same high scale as lobster or hogfish, I did like it.

Since then, I’ve learned more about these critters. Bahamians pronounce the name so that it sounds like “Wilts” or “Vilts.” You may know them as Wilks or Whilks or Whelks. Or, you may have never heard of these large Caribbean sea snails! I’ll let Wikipedia provide the technical descriptions, but here is my layman’s version…

We headed out in the boat toward little rock formations jutting out of the sea. The wilks can be found on our island, too, but not as many these days.

Tide was low so we knew that the wilks, which adhere to the rock near the water line, would be exposed.

Before we focus on snails, let’s take a moment to admire the spectacular water. I never tire of looking at it.

See the different rock coloration marking the high water line?

We maneuvered as close to the rock as possible, leaned in (or got out of the boat on larger rocks), used a knife to pry the wilk’s suction loose and dropped it into the bucket.

Approaching with knife in hand.

Our first wilk in the bucket!

While my beau hunts in this photo, I was manning the camera and holding the boat off of the rock at the same time!

As soon as you pry it lose, the wilk squirts salt water out of the shell and quickly retreats back inside. If you look closely, the center with rings around it is the suction cup portion of the snail.

Up close and personal.

In ten short minutes, we’d gathered a great snack!

But we weren’t done. We kept cruising through the sparkling blue water along the line of little cays in search of more wilks. When driving closely – and knowing what you’re looking for – you can spot the wilks clinging to the rock before heading in closer with the knife.

In a very shallow cove with rock in a semicircle around us. Engine is turned off and up – we’re walking the boat along.

The next round of hunting took longer than our initial score. We passed several cays that had already been cleaned out by others. Or, as my beau put it, “Dis is hog road. Ain’t nuttin’ dere.” Translation from Bahamian dialect: “This is ‘hog road’ (meaning, well traveled). Ain’t nothing there.”

Still, in about an hour’s time – and with us trading spots while he drove and I gathered some wilks – we had a nice bucket of “groceries.”

I contributed about 10 to this pile.

As an aside, this excursion was also a great boat lesson for me. We were in choppy water and I had to slowly approach the rock, throw it into reverse at times, reach the targeted wilk without the current pushing me aside, watch the prop where it got shallow, keep the boat off the rock while he got the snails, sometimes even circle around on my own to retrieve my beau from the rock if he got out of the boat, and otherwise test my new skills. Challenging, but exhilarating and great practice!

Another line of small cays in the distance, over the choppy water.

Just another example.

As the sun dropped, we called it quits on the hunting and enjoyed the rest of the boat excursion. Eventually, we made it home. While I prepared a salad and sauteed the freshly caught Wahoo fillets from our friend for fish sandwiches, my beau prepared our appetizer – wilks!

We brought only a few home with us. (The rest, we put in an onion bag – strong netting with plenty of holes for water, but small enough that the wilks can’t escape. We sunk the onion bag in water near home and tied it up so the wilks wouldn’t crawl off. This kept them alive overnight until we could share them with other friends in the coming days.)

First, he put the wilks and some water in a pot to boil.

That’s salt and seawater scum that boiled off around the edge of the pan.

After 30 minutes or so, he deemed them ready. I confess I’m not entirely sure how he knew! After draining them, he took them one by one and popped the snail out by knocking the shell against the cutting board.

The part in the center of the photo is the snail’s tail that pushes it along. We discarded those.

With a kitchen knife, he then took each snail and removed the suction cup and tail. With the remaining meat, he sliced it into bite sizes for us to dunk in melted butter with lime and garlic. We did all of this standing up – it didn’t last long enough to make it into a bowl at the table.

The dark round discs in the middle of the photo are the suction cups, hardened after being boiled.

These are large, good-sized shells. Any that were smaller, we left on the rock to keep growing. We don’t hunt babies!

Of course, throughout this entire preparation, Angel was never far from the action. The smells of the fish in the pan and the wilks on the counter tantalized her quivering nose. In case you had any question about it, fish is not just for cats. Angel and the other island dogs love all varieties of seafood!

If I sit nicely, maybe he’ll take pity on me or at least drop some little morsel?

So, the next time you hear about or see escargot, you can forget the fancy French stuff and remember our island-style wilks!

6 Responses to Hunting Large Sea Snails

  • Anonymous says:

    OK. I get the boat maneuvers, rock knifing, even the pot boiling – 30 minutes – all possible. But do they really just pop out with a knock on the cutting board? I have a feeling that may be the hard part! And they're HOT too? What a fun adventure. Thanks for including us!

  • Dawn says:

    Well, I was fixing the salad and making fish sandwiches, but yes! There was a fork involved to help pry out after the initial knocks. And my hands can't take that heat – I suspect we mortals would rinse them under cold water first. So glad you enjoyed the adventure! Thanks for your comment.

  • Patty says:

    Wow! Those are enormous compared to the [what I now realize are dinky] ones I wrote about on my blog! And I was intrigued by the details you had about removing the inedible parts…I don't think anyone did any of that during my one whelks experience, they all just seemed to eat them whole. Great post – loved the pictures and the detailed descriptions of how to pick them! Thanks so much for sharing!-Patty (islandObsessions.com)

  • Dawn says:

    So glad you enjoyed the post, Patty! I enjoyed yours, too. Fun to see the similarities and differences in our island countries. Since then, I've had whelks beachside with locals, no butter, just eating them out of the shell. I suspect Beau was giving me a careful, gourmet experience for my first time. 🙂

  • Ponkaj Jha says:

    Do these sea snails have venom. I have heard somewhere that many large sea snails can use their tongue to sting. Is your snail safe to handle ?

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