Dancing with Sheep Crabs

One of our more comical California underwater creatures is the Sheep Crab. It is closely related to the spider crabs you see in the marketplace or in restaurants but its shell is so thick that the sheep crab is not commercially desirable. Sheep crabs are frequently seen by divers and often very large specimens are observed—as much as 30 inches across!

While they are big and powerful, they are very slow. They do not hide well and do not scurry off quickly. As a result, they become the victim of diver prodding and poking. Sheep crabs would rather confront than back off. They will rear up with big front claws spread wide and challenge any taker. Stay clear of those claws! They can easily crush fingers. But, alas, as I said they are painfully, comically slow. Should you come within their striking distance they will lunge at you with full force, but slow speed, in an attempt to grab that is doomed to failure (provided you react in a reasonable amount of time). It is in this way you can make them dance.

Handling them is a whole different story. You could debate the ethics of handling this particular species of marine life, but I think I can tell you with reasonable assurance that the hard and hardy sheep crab is none worse for wear after such an encounter. It is often the diver that comes away from a sheep crab physical encounter with injuries. That said, pursue this activity at your own risk. Most crabs can be held safely by grabbing them from behind. But what the sheep crab lacks in speed it makes up in nimbleness. With help from its legs, it will reach around and grab a hold of its assailant and tear at the flesh, even through gloves. If you insist on grabbing, grab the claws themselves. The poor sheep crab is too slow to react and now you have totally subdued the crab’s only weapons. The crab is powerless.

Are sheep crabs good eating? Yes, but why try to take them? Only the big ones have enough meat to make it worthwhile and who at home has a crab steaming pot two feet in diameter? Then you have to bust through the thick shell to get at the meat. My suggestion: leave the funny guys on the ocean floor for the next diver to enjoy a dance with one of the sea’s most comical underwater inhabitants.

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