by Shirley Vanderbilt

How do you tickle a lobster? Well, not with your bare hands and certainly not by telling the latest crustacean joke. Catching lobsters is certainly a ticklish business and tickling is what separates the true lobster hunters from the wannabes. No matter what your hunting weapon of choice, if you haven't mastered the art of tickling, you might as well hang up your tools and head for the local seafood market.

Were not talking big-clawed, Maine Lobsters caught in a trap by the guy in bright yellow all-weather gear. Were talking Spiny Lobsters (Panulirus argus) from the south Atlantic coast and Caribbean;the ones with the sharp horns along their antennae and head;and the hapless divers who singlehandedly face them in a test of wit and skill. To catch a Spiny Lobster, one must display patience, courage and dexterity. Patience to wait until just the right moment, courage to risk having ones hands pierced by the spiny thorns along the lobsters head and dexterity in executing just the right movements to tickle and capture.

It looks so easy; until you try it. Every year, thousands of potential lobster hunters dive into the South Florida waters during the lobster mini-season in hopes of bagging a freezer full of lobster tails. Many come unprepared. They bravely gear up with gloves, tickle sticks or buggers, nets and the determination of a true lover of lobster flesh, only to find themselves staring into black hole after black hole where only a moment ago there were antennae. You see, it's all in the tickling. When you spot antennae, the next step is tickling. Very gently ease the end of the tickle stick right behind the lobster's tail. Watch the antennae to determine which area it is intent on defending and try to predict which direction it may take. Just a very gentle tap on the tail is usually enough to get the animal to move forward from the hole. If not, a few good, firm taps on the tail will convince the lobster something is attacking from behind and it's time to move the troops forward. Here's where tickling becomes a real art. At this stage, the lobster could still bolt in the wrong direction but the skilled tickler will direct the lobster's movement into just the right position, ready for the net, bugger or hand capture.

All of this information and more is available free to the novice lobster hunter at the beginning of each and every Florida mini-season (this year it's July 23 to 24). This two day celebration of the return of lobster season (August 6 to March 31) is dedicated solely to sport divers, who are allowed a hunting frenzy on the reefs before major commercial traps are set. Through the efforts of Dixie Divers, one of the nation's foremost diving store chains, the how to seminars are offered during weekday evenings and on Saturday and Sunday for the 10 days prior to the season.

Dixie Divers educational seminars (in all participating stores) teach potential hunters the techniques of capture and the finer and more crucial points of environmental awareness. As exciting as the hunt is, the future of the lobsters depends greatly on our awareness of protecting undersized and egg carrying females from harm. In addition, other marine life we encounter can be affected by the hunters zeal, so the instructors at Dixie Divers have great tips for maneuvering your catch without harming other critters.

Dixie Divers has been catering to the needs of lobster divers since 1979, when owner Nestor Palmero first conceived the idea of a prize for the biggest lobster brought in during mini-season. That single $100 prize has now expanded to include a whole bagful of prizes totaling more than $30,000, with some of the latest products in dive equipment and accessories being offered. But the prizes are no longer just for lobsters! With an emphasis on balancing sporting fun with ecological conservation, divers are encouraged to clean up the reef and enter in competition whatever trash and treasures they find. Superlative categories range from most unique and most humorous to the most of whatever it is. With gloves and a catch bag in tow, every lobster diver is already perfectly dressed for cleanup detail. And, with unwanted trash removed from beneath the ledges, there's more room for the lobsters. As caretakers of nature, it's a way for us to give back in return for what we use.

But there's more to Lobstermania than just diving. Families may also participate in snorkeling and beach cleanups;and the famous tailgate parties;at participating Dixie Divers stores. There are two full days of continuous activity, with $1 airfills being offered to contest participants; the proceeds are donated to charity. Registration for competing in the lobster hunt is open until 6:00 pm the evening prior to the beginning of mini-season and lobsters must be weighed in at the site of registration. While each participating store offers first, second and third prizes, winners from each store compete for the overall Granddaddy prize, based on cumulative points for size and weight. Over the years, entries for the Granddaddy prize have sometimes exceeded 14 pounds, not an uncommon catch for areas north of the Palm Beaches.

Dixie Divers locations include seven franchise and five company owned retail stores;all PADI Five Star facilities;spanning the state from Key Largo in the Florida Keys to Panama City along the panhandle. You may call any of these locations for more information on Lobstermania or for helpful, friendly service in making reservations for charter boat trips, hotel packages or any of the educational and recreational services offered through the dive center. Or call Dixie Divers travel line (800) FLA-DIVE (800-352-3483) or travel desk (800) DIVE-US-1st (800-348-3871).