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If you ask lobster fisherman Fred Penney, hauling up a lobster trap is like Christmas.
“You don’t know what’s in the package until you open it up,” said the Revere native, who’s also known as Captain Fred.
Penney is the captain and owner of Two Buoys Lobster Tours of Boston, a lobster boat tour service in Boston Harbor. He and his son Wes, also a captain, conduct two-hour tours on the Tuppence, a 40-foot-long Down East-style boat made in Maine that accommodates 23 people.
Every guest on the tour gets a chance to learn all about the life of a lobster and how the lobster fishing industry works. And when those Christmas packages, as Penney calls them, emerge from the water, guests can find anything from hermit and spider crabs to sea urchins to starfish. Many of the critters go into the boat’s “touch tank” for examination before they’re returned to the sea.
Of course, the star of every trap is the lobster.
Once the lobsters are banded so they can’t pinch anyone, guests are allowed to hold and touch them, Penney said. Every visitor goes home with an “alive and kicking” lobster. Penney, who is a commercial lobster fisherman with 800 traps, said he’s never conducted a tour on which he hasn’t pulled up lobsters. He said his crew typically brings up six to eight traps per tour.
Up in Bar Harbor, Maine, on the popular Lulu Lobster Boat Tour, guests also handle live lobsters, but they can’t take any home. James Allen and his brother Andy, both captains who grew up in Maine, own the business and have operated it for two years. The Lulu is a 40-foot-long Down East-style boat that accommodates 35 people.
“We have a demonstrational lobster license,” James Allen said. “That’s different than a commercial fisherman. It allows us to have up to 20 traps. We have to throw everything back. We can’t keep anything, which is fine with us because we certainly don’t want to be in competition with the lobster men and women who make a living [doing this] every day.”
The brothers bought the business from Captain John Nicolai, who built a successful tour that’s garnered national media attention.
“The reviews are as good now as they were back when he owned it,” Allen said. “So I think we’ve done a pretty good job of continuing on a tradition of a well-respected tour.”
During the two-hour experience, Allen said his crew shows how to bait and prep a trap, pulls up the traps bearing lobsters, and removes and measures the lobsters, just like commercial fishermen do. He employs four captains and four narrators to run his tours.
“Most boat tours, you are sitting in the boat seeing scenery,” Allen said. “But this is giving a close-up look to a whole industry.”
The Bar Harbor views aren’t bad, either. Guests see Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island from the water.
“It’s pretty spectacular, the scenery,” he said. “We go to Egg Rock Lighthouse. There are a bunch of ledges around there where seals like to hang out and play and lay out on the ledges.”
Back in Boston on the Tuppence, Penney’s guests are treated to a cruise around the Boston Harbor Islands.
Penney, a retired automotive technology teacher, likes sharing historic facts about the islands with his guests, who he said have visited from around the United States and as far away as China. He tells them about Fort Warren, the Civil-War era fort on George’s Island where the famous patriotic marching song “John Brown’s Body” was written in 1861, and about how Edgar Allen Poe was once stationed on Fort Independence on Castle Island.
Naturally, the captains share plenty of facts about lobsters with their guests, as well.
Lobsters have to measure at least 3 1/4 inches from the eye socket to the back of the shell to make it onto your plate, Penney said. If they are smaller than that or if they are larger than 5 inches, they are thrown back into the ocean so the young can grow and the large can breed. Lobsters carry their eggs for a year, Penney said, and lay thousands at a time.
“The brain of a lobster is about the size of a tip of a ballpoint pen, which is pretty amazing,” Allen said. “About half of that brain is taken up or used by their sense of smell, so their sense of smell is incredible.”
Guests ask what the green stuff inside a lobster is, Penney said. It’s the lobster’s liver, and it’s called the tomalley.
“It actually is somewhat of a delicacy,” he said.
Penney shows guests how to tell a male from a female lobster: The female tail is wider because she needs room under her tail to carry her eggs. His guests also learn that lobsters, like humans, are right- or left-handed — the larger claw, or crusher claw, is the dominant one.
As for unusual lobster sightings, Penney said it’s rare, but he’s made a handful in his lifetime.
Lobsters are generally dark green or brown. While fishing commercially, Penney has caught a two-toned lobster that was half reddish and half dark green.
“It was just like someone painted the lobster,” he said.
He’s also caught bright orange and red lobsters that looked as if they had already been cooked. He said he once caught an albino, or white, lobster. Last year during a tour, he caught a calico lobster.
And then there was the time he caught an elusive blue lobster.
“I’m 70 years old; I’ve been fishing on and off since I was 11, and I’ve seen two blue lobsters,” he said. “One, I caught. And one, somebody else caught.”
He said he was just a kid when he caught the blue lobster.
So, after spending so much time with lobsters, how does Penney feel about eating them?
“I love lobster,” he said, adding, “I have a real appreciation for what it takes to get it on the table.”
(Two Buoys Lobster Tours, Boston; $325 minimum for up to six people and $30 additional per person after that; all ages / Lulu Lobster Boat Ride, Bar Harbor, Maine; $35 adults, $20 kids ages 6-12, kids under age 6 not permitted)