NORTH HAVEN — Two days before her 27th birthday, Cora Comstock stood on a dock in the sun.
“This is my office,” she said, stretching her arms wide to include the flat-calm waters of the oyster pond, steep banks covered with baskets and mesh sheets and two wooden dinghies. Comstock is North Haven Oyster Company’s oyster diver, and since spring of 2010 she’s called North Haven her home.
The work is physically demanding.
Comstock takes an empty dive bag, which can hold 60 to 90 pounds of oysters, and brings it in a row boat to a section of the pond. She drops the empty bags into the water, marks each with a buoy, ties up the boat and swims to the first bag.
Floating on top of the shallow, brackish water, she uses a mask and snorkel to see the oyster clusters.
“I try to go in a continuous loop,” she explained, “and I’ll space the bags out with however far I’ll be able to fill up a bag within this distance. When there are a lot in one spot it does murk up but I can still find them by touch,” she said.
She uses her knowledge of the tidal direction to stay in front of any mud she kicks up while swimming and travels in a shallow zig-zag to cover more ground with less mud.
Comstock spends four hours in the morning diving and often another two to four hours after lunch, depending on her other duties such as culling oysters or delivering oysters.
“Most of the oysters are within arms reach and occasionally I’ll free dive if I see a bunch of them. The oysters are mainly on top of the mud making them easy to find and I try to do some of my cull work under water by knowing what a market size oyster looks and feel like under water,” she said.
“I pick up the bag and start shoving oysters in it,” Comstock said. She works from bag to bag until she returns to the boat, then hauls the bags into the boat to be culled and counted.
STARKS TO SWITZERLAND
Comstock grew up in Starks, a tiny town perhaps best known for the pro-marijuana legalization festival held there each summer. Although as a child she aspired to attend College of the Atlantic and become a marine biologist, she instead spent her late teens and early 20s traveling.
“I spent a summer in Switzerland working at the American School of Switzerland, got mono, came back home,” she said. “That was the beginning of my traveling adventures.” Comstock spent the next six years “pretty much nomadic,” she said. Over the course of her travels, she believes she visited five continents and 29 countries.
In 2009 Comstock received a call from a high school friend, Abel LaBelle, inviting her to come work for Adam Campbell, who owns North Haven Oyster Company and for whom LaBelle fished. LaBelle and several other high school friends had come to North Haven to work for Campbell. Comstock visited them when she was fishing out of Stonington during a previous summer, and jumped at the chance to live and work on North Haven.
Comstock explained her duties with the oyster farm, which begin when the baby oysters are “like quinoa,” she said, and include sorting growing oysters in a process dubbed “shake and bake” and then harvesting thousands of oysters each week, even into the fall and winter months.
“It’s pretty cool to have not gone to college but have learned things hands on about oceanic culture and growing oysters,” she said. “If I can get paid and learn about it at the same time it’s a pretty good deal.”
Comstock spent the fall of 2009 on North Haven working for Campbell, traveled to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize for the winter and returned for good in the spring. “I’ve lived here for the longest time since Starks,” she said. “When I hit the year mark it was like, ‘Holy cow.'”
Comstock said she settled on North Haven out of a desire to become part of a community.
“I had been so separated from everybody, from people in general,” she said. “There were some incidents that happened on my trip that were just, wow—I wanted to sit down a while and get to know an area and become part of a community.”
To that end, Comstock participates fully in North Haven life.
Comstock performed in many plays while in high school, and has returned to the stage on North Haven. Her roles at Waterman’s Community Center included Lady Britomart in Major Barbara, Avram in Fiddler on the Roof and many featured roles in A. G. Alexander’s original productions.
“Being able to do theatre again is huge for me,” she said.
Comstock also sings in an a cappella choir and performs regularly at Waterman’s Community Center open mic nights. She has put over 2,000 miles on her Honda Spree scooter riding with other moped enthusiasts and is a regular presence at Saturday Farmers Markets.
“I’ve started multiple small businesses; salad dressings, body scrubs”¦ the most profitable one is T-shirts,” she said. Comstock stencils and prints original nautically-themed designs on “up-cycled,” or re-used T-shirts, which she sells as Island Dressin’.
Another perk of island life is readily available work. In addition to diving for the North Haven Oyster Company, Comstock has held several other jobs.
“When I first came out I painted with Steph Hart. I’ve dog-sat, house-sat, babysat, nannied and bartended for Nebo Lodge catering events,” she said. Comstock said she finds it easy to save money living on North Haven.
“I’m a lot more financially stable here than I would be in a city,” she said.
Nevertheless, Comstock sometimes considers moving to Portland.
“I’ve either lived in rural areas or traveled in my lifetime,” she said. “I feel like my late 20s is the time to live in a city if I’m going to because it’s not somewhere I want to raise a family or really live for any amount of time.” She said she feels the draw of greater cultural diversity and artistic opportunity, but appreciates what she has on North Haven.
For now, Comstock looks forward to another season in the water, caring for baby oysters and harvesting those of legal size.
Long-torsoed and strong limbed, she is made to swim.
“I’ve always loved swimming but never thought it would be profitable,” she said. “Pretty amazing!”
Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven.