In a soliloquy by the sea, thoughts flow out with the tide. The mind empties and the pendulum of surf keeps time imprecisely. Seashells are picked up and turned over in the hand, and a man seeking new meanings perhaps will find them there. For shells, as well as being skeletons of animals, are skeletons of thought. They are models of order, proportion and symmetry, sound designs for living that men have pondered as long as they have walked on beaches. All of which is idyllic. And grand. And true. But shell collecting at its sunny, satisfying, back-bending best can be lively, not reflective, sport. I found out. I hadn't meant to—the trip to the Gulf was to be no more than a restful interlude, two aimless weeks at a beach, hot sun on my shoulders, a bagful of books that would probably go unread. But I happened on a sheller, several shellers, in fact, for Sanibel Island, Fla., where I had chosen to stretch out my beach towel, is one of America's extraordinary seashell-collecting sites. I was told that no sophisticated sheller would stoop to scavenging on a beach, for the ocean debris is worn and lusterless. He stalks his whelks in the wild, hunter and hunted, pursuer and pursued, across tidal pool and sandflat, amid eelgrass and sometimes eels. For him, shell collecting is blood sport; the enthusiast develops good wind, strong limbs and a staunch stomach—which he needs to clean his catch.
It takes prodding to bestir oneself to try a down-to-mud approach to the wonders of the sea, but once you are gumshoeing on a conch trail, the pursuit proves captivating. Left behind forever is the romanticist who stands at the water's edge, holding a shell to his ear to hear the sound of waves. Any sheller knows the same effect can be achieved with a milk bottle; the sound that seems like an echo of the ocean is caused by vibration and your own heartbeat.
The shelling sport—and it is officially considered one in California, where shellers must buy fishing licenses—requires various approaches. Collectors wade through marshland, ferret about wharf pilings, pick through oysterbeds. They snorkel, scuba dive and dredge for their quarry. Earnestly competitive, they sometimes carry their hunts to extraordinary lengths. One purposeful Florida lady gutted 1,000 blue dolphin—she got them from charter-boat captains—searching for the fragile Paper Nautilus, which dolphin sometimes eat. She found five, and felt well rewarded for her unappetizing labors. Much of the gratification is in personal discovery; the satisfaction that comes with finding one's own prize specimen.
During the new and full moons, when shelling is at its best, there are collectors who live by the tides, hunting at the ebb—day and night—and sleeping in between. They are forever to be found at the country's great shell beaches—Sanibel, Southern California, Puget Sound, the Florida Keys.
June 14, 1970
Money is hardly the reward of shelling, but it is a measure of the passion involved. Today, rare shells sell for as high as $3,500. It is not so much the beauty of a species as the supply and demand that determines price, and there often are frantic fluctuations in the market. The Precious Wentletrap is an example. When Europeans first found it in the Far East in the 17th century, this shell was regarded as a royal prize. Catherine the Great and the Queen of Sweden owned Precious Wentletraps, and Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor, is said to have paid $20,000 for one. So bullish was the wentletrap market that Chinese tradesmen began making artificial ones out of rice paste, a fraud that went undetected for years. Eventually a collector decided to clean his Precious Wentletrap. He dipped it in water and watched aghast as it dissolved. Today the Precious Wentletrap is considered less than precious (it sells for around $10) and the rice-paste imitations have become treasured rarities. Variations in the price of other shells are less extreme. The Golden Cowrie, found frequently through World War II, used to bring $15 to $30; it is now scarce and costs $200. However, the Channeled Volute, a $200 shell 12 years ago, is marketed these days for $8.50; dredgers have discovered large numbers of them off Australia.
But shell collectors rarely gauge their success by the monetary value of the shells they own. Until a few years ago a bell used to be rung on Sanibel Island when anyone there found a Junonia. Such a shell could have been bought for as little as $5 in the local shell shop, but that was not the point. Shell-collecting friends rather casually will give each other $100 finds as birthday presents. And they see no particular irony in keeping a $1,000 shell in a plastic hair-curler box. I met one lady on Sanibel Island who lived in a rented, sparsely furnished house. Her fortune, what little there was of it, was in her shells. She brought down from the rafters hatboxes and cardboard cartons filled with tissue-wrapped seashells. They were worth far more than the house itself. And one saw in the way she held each in her hands her reverence for them.
Most valuable shells are found in deep water, often by commercial fishermen dredging or netting. Some superstitious shrimp-boat captains regard shells as evil omens and throw back $100 specimens without wincing; others trade them for bottles of whiskey. Even fishmongers can profit from shells. A Leucodon Cowrie, one of only three ever found, was discovered undigested in the stomach of a grouper. The shell is worth $3,000—about $1,000 an inch—and now belongs to John duPont, a 31-year-old bachelor who is building a museum in Greenville, Del. for his large collection.
The fascination with shells is not limited to country or class. Collectors range from Key West hairdressers to Emperor Hirohito. The first direct communication from the Emperor to General MacArthur's headquarters immediately following the Japanese surrender concerned seashells. The Emperor was inquiring about the well-being of an old collecting friend who lived in Philadelphia. From time to time Hirohito and an imperial chamberlain are photographed ankle-deep in mud searching for shells. Until World War II one particular species, known as the Emperor's Slit-shell, was considered Hirohito's private property and Japanese fishermen who found them had to turn them in at the palace.
Because few shells are found worldwide, what is commonplace in Rehoboth Beach is a rarity in Brisbane. Long-distance trades are struck and shells shuttle from nation to nation. The variety seems infinite. Mollusks, as scientists call the shell animals, are a far older form of life than man. Some seashells have existed virtually unchanged in design for 200 million years. Clams, mussels, oysters and scallops are types perhaps 60 million years old. In a progress-oriented age it is startling to realize that the Red Helmet shell which a Los Angeles housewife displays on her coffee table looks the same as the one a Cro-Magnon man had kept in his cave in France some 25,000 years ago. This is probably the only object the two establishments have in common, which says much for the enduring attraction of seashells.
The trade routes of prehistoric men have been traced by shells found with their bones. For instance, the Red Helmet shell discovered in the Cro-Magnon cave in 1895 must have traveled hand to hand from East Africa, for Red Helmets only exist in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
One of mankind's earliest empires had seashells as its economic base. Phoenicia extracted her famed Tyrian-purple dye from them, and scholars believe an abundant supply of the necessary shells may have been a factor in the establishment of Phoenician colonies. It took a heap of shells, something like 3.5 million, to produce a single pound of dye, but there was a princely profit in the business. Darius hoarded 150 tons of purple cloth in the Persian treasury and Cleopatra went to war under purple sails. About a century later Emperor Caligula marched the Roman legions in full battle array to the English Channel, moved up the siege engines and ordered the troops to gather seashells. They filled their helmets and tunics. Later the Emperor commended his men for their successful plunder of the sea.
In some places, though hardly ancient Rome, shells would have been considered worthy spoil. Tribal peoples used shells as money and in villages in central New Guinea they still do. As of a few years ago, the going rate was 450 shells for $3.36. The American Indians preferred wampum money, beads made from clam shells, and this is where such slang expressions as "a hundred clams" probably originated. Shiploads of shells used to be brought to Victorian England from the Orient. Shell Oil was then a transport and trading company and it did a brisk business importing shells. Kerosene was just a sideline. Even now, the company's tankers are named for shells—Drupa, Hemiglypta, Murex—a charming if cumbersome tradition.
Latin names are sometimes particularly apt for shells if not for ships. Because of the huge variety within each species, naturalists have tended to be descriptive in choosing names. There is the Hard-edged Fleshy Limpet, the Knobby Keyhole Limpet, the Rosy Keyhole Limpet, the Giant Owl Limpet, the Unstable Limpet, the Painted Limpet, the Triangular Limpet, the Dwarf Suck-on Limpet, the Northern Blind Limpet, to say nothing of the Small-ass Cone, the Dung-like Cone, the Tuberculose Cone, the Livid Cone. The roster goes on and on: Sad Unicorn, Shipwrecked, Impoverished, Grinning, Depressed, Pallid, Stolid.
The names show applaudable flair and fancy. Among the most noted of shell namers was the 18th century Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus. His lively imagination caused consternation and blushes in Victorian parlors. If a particular sea-shell bore a striking resemblance to a part of the body, Linnaeus did not hesitate to call it by that name. For a while, not many people were disturbed since the terms were always in Latin, but in 1803 a British shell expert wrote: "A few of these terms, however strongly they may be warranted by the similitudes and analogies which they express and which when so pointed out are of great advantage to the language of science, are not altogether reconcilable with the delicacy proper to be observed in ordinary discourse."
Present-day conchologists skirt the issue, frequently naming newly discovered species of shells for friends or the people who first find them. The result is names like Conus mcgintyi, which, it must be admitted, has a flair of its own.
Collectors always use the Latin names when referring to shells. (They would be horrified by a friend of mine who has a whelk he calls Lawrence.) This establishes a means of international communication. When a trade journal reports that tribesmen in New Guinea attach the Ovula ovum to the front of their canoes in the belief that it keeps them from getting lost, collectors throughout the world are able to identify the shell. If a beginner finds himself tongue tied over Trigonostoma agassizi or Pleurotomaria adansoniana, he can buy a long-playing record cut especially for shell collectors that makes it all sound easy.
Now that summer is coming and the beach is beckoning, why not give the LP a whirl, pick up a little jargon and take a slightly more aggressive view of beach-walking's finest sport? Indeed, it is not even necessary to wait until the full sunstroke of vacation time, for you can get launched in your living room anytime. Shells are found three miles down in the ocean and collectors sometimes spend as much as $3,500 a week renting boats and hiring crews to dredge for deep-sea species. These are small, often colorless, but intricate shells. The most esoterically inclined collectors dredge for full-grown microscopic specimens no larger than the dot over an "i." A sampling of this expensive sport has been made possible by Jim Moore, an enterprising dredger in Bradenton, Fla., who sells mail-order dredge by the bushel basket. The dredge costs from $15 to $35 depending on the depth it was brought up from (20 to 200 feet). Moore's dredgings have been subjected to no preliminary inspections.
"It's a gamble, like fishing," he says. "Thousand-dollar shells have been found, and then again you may get nothing much but sponge and sand." His customers, however, seem satisfied. "Please send me three bushels," a housewife in Missouri wrote last winter. "I can pretend I am at the beach. It's been 12 degrees below zero here."
Shelling in the living room whets the appetite for the live sport. Observing animals and the design and equilibrium of nature is part of the satisfaction of any hunt, be it for shells or birds or lions. The whelk, looking for his monthly meal, preys on the clam and using the edge of his shell pries it open, somewhat like taking the cap off a bottle. In turn, small Crown Conchs prey on the whelk, encircle him and wait patiently. The whelk opens his door to breathe and they strike at his soft flesh. Scars of such silent battles mark many shells, for the survivors can repair themselves with secretions of lime, patching their knobs and broken lips as they build new shell chambers for their growing bodies. There is even a shell—called the Carrier—that cements stones and vacant shells to its edge, probably as camouflage. It is a ragpicker of the sea, and it finds some very good values in the marvelous cemetery that is the ocean floor. By itself a Carrier is worth $10, but it sometimes decorates its rim with $50 shells.
Collectors forgive the Carrier its penchant for rubble, but let the novice collector pick up half a scallop and it won't be worth the backbend. Mrs. Elsie Malone, the proprietor of a celebrated shell shop on Sanibel Island, remembers making that mistake as a beginner. She was sorting a bucket of shells and a stranger asked her for a small yellow one. "I won't give it all to you, but I'll give you half," Mrs. Malone said. The entire shell, a lemon pecten, would have been worth $25, but half a pecten, Mrs. Malone soon learned, was not worth a halfpenny.
Sanibel draws thousands of shell enthusiasts each year. Scores of different mollusks can be found there, and three days after a good northwest blow the beach may be littered with windrows of shells two feet deep. People wear sneakers as they walk the shore, and each step is marked by the crunch of shells beneath rubber soles; the feet of shore-birds would be better suited to discovering the rich minutiae of this Lilliputian world. Sometimes after a storm, serious collectors find shells still alive or freshly dead on the beach and these meet their rigorous standards, but usually the experts hunt the island sandbars and its backbays for trophies that clearly have the luster of life.
Shelling and bird watching are the two Sanibel pastimes, and the setting is well suited to moving at a snail's pace. There is no slicked-up Gulf frontage, for the residents have opted for peace among the sea grape and cabbage palms instead of profit. Water turkeys dry their wings by roadsides. Pelicans nest in the mangroves. Alligators, herons, egrets and eagles crowd the marshes. In the inlets, mullet fishermen work seines. At the lowest tides the shelters wade to the sandbars in the Gulf and follow Olive and Tulip snail tracks. The siphons of delicate Angel Wings poke through the sand, but the animals themselves are buried almost two feet down. In the bay, shelters move through the eelgrass in knee-deep water and around mangrove islands where the Crown Conchs feast on oysters. Thumbnail-sized snails make furrows in the sand and you can see them through the water's ripple, small humps working their way across the flats. In comparison, whelks leave tracks like marauding elephants. Some of them are hoary, barnacled oldtimers and to find one 20 inches long is not unusual. When they are picked up by the tail they spit water in outrage before retiring into their shells. Collectors make their choices discriminately; animals with chipped shells are put back to heal. In a collection a shelter wants to have a growth series of a species, and shells that show variations of color in the animal. So his needs are specific and the hunt is purposeful. As he moves, his feet feel in the mud for the bulge of jumbo clams, and these are added to the game bag for chowder. The empty shells that lie on the bay bottom are like tenements, overcrowded with starfish, dogwinkles and hermit crabs.
The hermit crab, incidentally, is quite a shell collector on his own. To protect his soft body, the hermit—which often lives on land—appropriates empty shells that he finds lying around. He looks for a good-fitting model, and if he is satisfied he walks off with it. Which is where the shelter can get into trouble. Mr. and Mrs. Rusty Bennett, two experienced collectors in Marathon, Fla., recall how they once left some shells on their patio. Within hours a fine Hawk-wing Conch had disappeared and had been replaced with a battered Banded Tulip. One evening soon after that they heard a clatter, switched on the porch light and caught the thieves. This time three hermit crabs were lined up waiting to exchange shells. The largest was trying on one of the Bennetts' Tulip shells. While he was checking the fit, the middle sized hermit crab walked off with the first crab's clothes, so to speak. Then the third and smallest hermit shucked his shell, but sadly the second crab's discarded shell did not fit him yet. Crabs, it seems, don't mind hand-me-downs, but collectors do.
The Bennetts run the Palms motel in Marathon, deep in the Florida Keys, and my aimless vacation having by now become a trophy hunt, I had been sent there; a fledgling enthusiast is handed on from friend to friend in the shelling fraternity. It is 175 miles from Sanibel to the Keys, down the west coast, through the pensioners' colonies of Fort Myers Beach and Naples, east along the rim of the Everglades, and south again through the tomato and bean truck farms to U.S. 1, which threads through this tag-end of our continent. Quite suddenly the water turns a milky blue-green and the wind blows fresh. Long bridges link the ravel of islands and the workaday towns. The shambly shops, restaurants and bait stores have catered to sport fishermen for decades. Here there is a boat in every carport, and the surfeit of bonefish, tarpon and permit are legend. But mecca for the angler turns out to be mecca for the sheller, too. The tidepools crawl with life. Shells not half an inch long have patterns varied as snowflakes. Collectors turn rocks and then replace them, careful to leave these small backwaters undisturbed. The only sound is the splash of the sheller's steps. Off these coral islands, in knee-deep water, young Queen Conchs roll. (They have at least one maternal instinct to justify their name. The Queen Conch permits cardinal fish on the run from enemies to hide in her shell. The little fish darts into the fleshy cavern of the conch and she obligingly shuts her door. When the danger to the cardinal fish is past, the conch opens up again and bids her guest goodby.)
Shellers search the shallows, peering at the intricate floor of coral and sponge through glass-bottom boxes; these help cut the sun's reflection and make it easier to distinguish sponge from coral from shell. On clear days, however, the best shelling is done by snorkeling along the reefs. There a collector may find three dozen different varieties in one day's outing.
When the shelters return to their motels their pails are crawling with their multicolored prizes. Guests will stop—like tourists on a pier when the fishing boats come in—to gape at the elaborate animals.
The true test of a shelter's ardor is not in the number of shells he collects, but the number he will clean after the day's kill. Men especially seem inclined to suffer shell shock after bringing their first whelk to a boil on a motel stove; perhaps wives have been hardened to the facts of death after cooking lobster dinners. Housekeeping cottages throughout the Keys come equipped with multigallon pots that are available specifically for administering the coup de conch. After the animal has simmered for a while, it will come out of its shell when pulled with a fork or a crochet hook. If this method does not appeal, the animal can be frozen and later thawed and cleaned. In the Pacific shells are laid out on the sand and maggots do man's work. Another potent method is soaking your catch in strong rum for more than a week, a treatment that people might abide but one which the inhabitants of shells cannot. Every shell, except the most minute, must be gutted in some fashion or an unbearable stink will result.
In addition to the shell, the door, or operculum, of the animal is kept by collectors. Once the resident has been ousted, the shell is rinsed in water, barnacles and growths are removed by steeping for a while in a Clorox and water solution, and finally the shell is brushed with baby oil.
What, in the end, does the shelter have that the beachwalker does not? It is hard to say—a better shell, a prettier shell, but also something more. For life generates respect. Think back upon primitive man, to the people who believed that the oceans, mountains, clouds and winds were all living things. Theirs was an uncommon awe, an emotional intimacy that modern man, who does not believe an ocean lives, cannot share.
So it is with seashells. It is their lifestyle, not simply his own, that the shell hunter ponders in his soliloquy by the sea.