In the last decade Spence has brought his hermits into many bars, and these are the three most frequently heard results:
1) "What's that coming out of your shirt?"
"Oh, that's Jo-Jo."
2) "Oh, my God, what's that guy got crawling all over him, spiders?"
3) "You know something, Glen? You're gonna fall in love someday, and you'll forget all about those crabs."
But Spence's passions are unquenchable. His life is a one-man mission of rescue and warning. He lives on a 36-foot trimaran, Coral Trail, that he started building in 1964 and will probably never stop adding finishing touches to. To make a living he takes out occasional charters, and in New Jersey he paints houses part time. He has never earned more than $5,000 in a year. When in Florida he spends part of most days exploring the wild mangrove shores of Big Pine Key and the many islets offshore. When he finds a hermit crab or two, he brings them to some remote backwater, where he hopes they will reproduce without anyone disturbing them. But what he usually encounters today is silt covering all, with no sign of hermit crabs.
Recently Spence found three small hermits on a mangrove islet in the Newfound Harbor Keys. "When I first came here these roots were covered with crabs," he said, "but the silt killed all the foliage they ate. Now there's only bugs."
Yes, everybody loves the hermit crab, but almost no one loves him enough to let him be himself. And the same is true of the Keys themselves. That is what Spence has always been afraid of. In the bight off Little Torch Key, the snappers, grouper, lobsters, sea fans and sponges are virtually gone. Only jellyfish—and silt—remain.
On the night he refused to participate in the crab races, all this weighed heavily on Spence's mind. A spotlight illuminated the racecourse, a plywood floor on which an eight-foot circle was painted. For each of 10 heats and two finals, the bowl of frantic crabs—they call it the Crab-o-dome—was inverted in the center of the floor; at a signal it was lifted. The first crab to reach the edge of the circle in each heat was withdrawn to compete in the finals. On this night there were 32 crabs, with shells from one to 3� inches in length, and the big winner, for the fifth straight night of racing, was Alpha, a medium-sized crab with a fluorescent orange shell. Someone yelled, "He feeds that crab amphetamines." But Alpha's owner, John Mellor of the Big Coppit Crab Owners Association, replied, "I'd love to tell you how I train him, but I can't have it become public knowledge."
The ride back from the crab races was quiet after Spence said, "They have no feeling for the crabs. Just think how people would feel if giants grabbed them. They'd be in terror." At the marina, before he left his friend, Spence said, "The crabs are just the beginning of the end. Every man wants his place in the sun, and no one can stop him. How can you let one man build and not another? But they scream if I spear a fish for dinner. Then they go home to their houses on those dredged-out canals, with the silt destroying everything. But what can you do? People can't live in trees."