The Next Generation of Watermen
Derek Wilson of Easton and Nick Hargrove of Wittman became lifelong friends as children, but fate brought the two together as business partners as adults, working together as watermen on the Chesapeake Bay.
The owners of Wild Divers Oyster Company of Wittman became friends while playing Little League baseball in the Bay Hundred area. Years later, the two became partners in diving for oysters in the winter and crabbing in area creeks and rivers in the summer–taking part in a traditional Eastern Shore career.
Wilson, originally from Tilghman, is a fourth-generation waterman. His family has done everything from crabbing and oystering to pound-net fishing and conch fishing in the ocean. He started crab potting with his uncle at a young age. Eventually, he got his own skiff and began crabbing with a trotline in the local creeks in the summer months. For a time, Wilson worked on scallop boats in Ocean City with his cousins and uncle. But his father, who dove for oyster for 18 years, perhaps had the most influence on his life, and he decided to try diving for oysters. It stuck. At age 17, Wilson offered his friend Hargrove a job running his boat while Wilson dove for oysters.
Hargrove took a different path after graduating from high school. He went to a small college in Greenville, N.C., for a year, and decided it wasn’t for him. Wilson recalls a phone call from Hargrove about how excited he was about his small engine class at college. Hargrove then came home and started diving with Wilson for a year before starting a business called Total Home Performance with his brother Matt. At the time, Wilson was working at a local restaurant in St. Michaels, taking a break from the water.
In 2014, Hargrove bought a boat and asked Wilson if he wanted to work with him again on the water. The two began with oyster diving in the winter, but separated in the summer and fall, with Hargrove crab-potting off Tilghman Island and Hargrove crab-scraping in the southern Chesapeake Bay and soft-crabbing and trot-lining off Tilghman Island and in the Choptank and Miles rivers.
Because Wilson was familiar with local restaurants, the two were able to sell their oysters to restauranteurs on the Eastern Shore. In 2016, they decided to get their shellfish shipper license to aid their business sales, washing and boxing the oysters themselves to sell from their boat. Wilson and Hargrove then had an opportunity to renovate Hargrove’s family’s property on Harris Creek in Wittman to process their oysters. The abandoned packing house – once Ray Jones Oyster Packing and Crab Picking House–on Howeth Road was bought by Hargrove’s family in the 1990s but had been left unoccupied. The packing house now serves as home base for Wild Divers Oyster Company where the two wash and shuck about 50 bushels of oysters a day, most of which go into gallon containers and are sold to area restaurants.
“We also buy anywhere where from 100 to 300 bushels of oysters a day from area watermen,” Hargrove said. “Some we clean and box, but most we sell to a large shucking house in Virginia.”
In 2018, the two got their seafood processing license to increase sales for the company. They now buy oysters, which are trucked to the packing house from about 15 local oystermen.
Although there is no oyster tonging on Harris Creek today because it is an oyster sanctuary, the two are looking at developing oyster aquaculture so their oyster business could run 12 months of the year there. They also hope to get Wild Divers oysters into small local markets and grocery stores in the future.
Wilson, who dives for oysters from three to seven consecutive hours a day, said, “I get about 6,000 oysters a day while diving, but the key is being able to select the best.”
Hargrove, who was taught about oyster diving by Wilson’s father, a master diver, mans the boat while Wilson dives. Hargrove’s job is to watch Wilson carefully, paying attention to his motions and rhythms while he works the bottom to be sure he stays safe and comfortable, while also pulling up the cages and culling the oysters Wilson selects. According to Wilson, there are more older guys diving for oysters than younger guys today.
“It requires a different skill set than dredging for oysters,” Wilson said. “You need to know what to look for, how to work the bottom, how to use the tide to your advantage, and you need to feel a comfort level under water.”
Equipped with a constant supply of air from the surface, along with hot water generated by the engine and pumped into his wetsuit, Wilson is able to endure the freezing winter waters on public oyster beds in Eastern Bay and in the Miles River. Visibility is important and helps determine where he can dive. Oyster divers dive anywhere from six to 60 feet, but a depth of 12 to 20 feet is ideal.
The company name, Wild Divers Oysters, reflects the wild oysters the two men collect from the public bottoms. Using this nonintrusive method of oystering allows them to select only the best quality oysters, while not disturbing the surrounding ecosystem. The oysters are then sorted, cleaned and delivered daily for peak freshness.
“We are really getting brand recognition for our oysters,” Hargrove said.
Both men love what they do every day and are proud to be making a living and providing for their families as watermen.
“It’s good money, but it is all what you put into it,” Wilson said. “We have seen watermen come and go.”
“I love that I am changing as a person,” he said. “I used to enjoy the competitive nature of diving. Now, I am trying to help other people out along the way. This is the only way to preserve this ‘dying industry’ – to help others coming up into it do well. I learned that from my dad.”
Wild Divers oysters are available at Bistro St. Michaels, Theo’s Steaks, Sides and Spirits, Ava’s Pizzeria and Wine, Carpenter Street Saloon, Awful Arthur’s, and Foxy’s Harbor Grille in St. Michaels; the High Spot and Rock Lobster in Cambridge; Mitchum’s Tavern in Trappe; and the Talbot Country Club.