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Adventures on the Lynnhaven at Pleasure House Oysters

Captain Chris Ludford checking oyster cages. Photo Credit: Amber McCluney

“Dress for the beach” Captain Chris Ludford said to me in a text message. We were scheduled to hop on a boat in a few days so I could see the inner workings of oyster farming firsthand with his company, Pleasure House Oysters.

Somewhere between that text and the day it was time to head out, I forgot to put on sunscreen while basking on the beach on an uncharacteristically warm April day. Needless to say, my idea of dressing for the beach quickly changed from bathing suit and shorts to a long sleeve tee shirt and jeans to avoid burning my already scorched skin. This made things interesting.

When I arrived at the Lynnhaven Municipal Marina in Virginia Beach, Ludford graciously let me borrow his wife’s boots. I managed to balance my five foot nothing frame into the knee high things and, with some assistance, shuffled around and aboard the farm’s 24’ tour boat the Cap’n Lee.

With the wind whipping, Ludford navigated the boat out of the marina and into Wolfsnare Creek. Amidst mansions adorned with beautiful landscaping and sculptures, one owned by musical artist Pharrell Williams, I forgot where I was for a moment. My lack of appropriate fashion escaped me as I was engulfed in the beauty and briny air. As I looked around, Ludford explained that many of the canals through the waterfront neighborhoods were created by German POWs who were held at Camp Ashby between 1944 and 1946. The government compensated prisoners with coupons which could be exchanged for goods at the camp’s canteen.

Traveling even further back in time, Ludford says that on April 26, 1607, after months at sea, 104 British men and boys landed at Cape Henry about four miles (as the crow flies) from the marina. They remarked on the size of the oysters and said that they saw Native Americans roasting them over open fires. Over the years, oysters from the Lynnhaven in particular became quite the hot commodities, later renowned by royalty and presidents alike for their superior flavor. Ludford says, “The unique flavor of the Lynnhaven is influenced by its proximity to the bay and the ocean.” Located in the last estuary before the ocean, the oysters absorb no mineral-like flavors, have hints of sweetness, mild salinity, with hints of seaweed and cucumber. He continues, “It’s an oyster that persists on the palate but doesn’t hit you in the face with the flavor.” 

Ludford and his team work around the clock. Bags of young oysters must be tumbled, cages must be inspected, and the mature oysters must be sorted and counted – all tasks that make up what is referred to as oyster husbandry. Ludford, a full-time firefighter admits, “It is a constant process.” By the time a Pleasure House oyster reaches your plate, it has been handled about fifteen times over an approximate two-year span. Despite his demanding schedule, Ludford says, “We’ve never missed a delivery.” Pleasure House Oysters supplies local restaurants like Terrapin, Shiptown, A.W. Shucks, and others.

Frequently checking on the farm is imperative to the operation because oysters are at continual risk of predatory animals. One predator, a snail, aptly named oyster drill, uses a tongue-like organ called a radula equipped with sulfuric acid which is used to “drill” into the oyster shell. Through a near perfect circular hole, the oyster drill digests the soft tissue of the oyster. Stingrays and crabs also commonly prey on oysters.

After a short trip, we arrived at the farm where his watermen were already tumbling and organizing oysters. Ludford and his associates pulled the boat in as far as it could reach just so that I could step off onto the marshy land in the middle of the Lynnhaven. As I approached the edge of the boat, waterman Captain Lee Gregory, after whom our tour boat was named, waded nearby. He smiled and said, “Oh honey, you’re gonna get wet” but everything was so captivating I didn’t care. With help, I backed down over the side of the boat and tip-toed in my boots to land. Standing in the middle of the river, completely surrounded by water with high tide quickly approaching is just as arresting as it is liberating.

Ludford and his team worked quickly shaking bags, inspecting cages, and organizing. Between tasks, I learned that oysters are so much more than regionally flavored gems of the sea. Oysters eat nitrogen-rich algae and filter water of harmful pollutants. Because oyster shells are made of calcium carbonate, Ludford says that oysters ultimately combat water acidification. This is one reason Pleasure House Oysters recycles their oyster shells. The shells also help protect the marshland which is at risk of erosion. The marsh is home to wild mussels which also filter the water, even more so than the oysters, Ludford says. The grasses on the land act as a large filtration system for large particles like trash. The oyster supports an entire ecosystem of plants and animals. Grimacingly picking up a piece of plastic, Ludford says, “Plastic is the new heroin.” He shares, “We are literally drowning in a sea of garbage.” He admits he often finds himself working to clean the area of litter amidst his normal oyster farming tasks.

So what about only eating oysters during months which include the letter “R”? I was able to speak with Captain Ludford’s mother, Beverly, who helped clear this up. Mrs. Ludford indicates that starting on the first of May, oyster regulations change to coincide with warming weather. They must bring the oysters down in temperature, between 32 and 50 degrees, within five hours of harvest to keep the oysters alive, fresh, and free from harmful bacteria. To do this, Ludford and his associates pick mature oysters and immediately place them in ice on their boats. The “R” month adage lends itself mostly to pre-refrigeration days, she says.

Captain Ludford says his goal is to “Melt into the landscape.” He wants to revive the oyster population, help restore the health of the Lynnhaven, and provide delicious product in the process. Oh, and he’d love to show you how. In fact, Pleasure House Oysters offers tours. Interested parties may contact Ludford directly to arrange a trip to visit the farm to tip toe around in tall rubber boots just like I did. Just be sure to “dress for the beach.”

To learn more about Pleasure House Oysters, visit their website or follow them on Instagram @pleasurehouseoysters.