©Bert Gildart: If Linda Edinberg is not the officially recognized shell expert on Sanibel Island in Florida, she should be. That’s our conclusion after spending the morning on a number of beaches all of which this transplanted New Englander seemed to know like the back of her hand.
“There’s lots of reasons to be intrigued,” she says, “and certainly part of that intrigue is because each and every morning there’s a new crop of shells.”
Sanibel, of course, is internationally famous for the incredible variety of shells that take the form of mollusks and esoteric gastropods. But not only does Linda seem to know their names, she also seems to know a little something about each of them as well. Stooping, she picks up one shell, then another, rattling off names as if they were old friends.
“Well, look at this cute little lightning welk…and how about this horse conch.”
Moving on she picks up an exquisite conical shaped shell she calls a “true tulip,” which is the shell’s actual name.
Another step or two and somehow between strands of algae, she spies the tip of a striated shell she calls a “pear whelk.” Then she gently separates a “buttercup lucine” from the sand with her trowel, studies it, and shares her observation. “This guy has been cannibalized,” she says. Then she twists it toward us.
“Look at this compromised shell. Mollusks prey on one another, and the trick is to find one whose shell is still intact. They tend to burrow a hole right at the juncture of the bivalves, which renders the controlling muscles there useless. That, of course, allows the predatory mollusk to suck out the contents.”
Linda has been shelling now for almost 10 years, and she and her husband return to their home on Sanibel each winter in part because of the life style that includes lots of cycling, but more than anything, for the shelling. “I hope to enter the Shell Festival this March in the ‘self-collected category.’”
Linda, of course, is not the only one strolling Sanibel’s beaches this morning. Looking around, we see lots of folks walking around in what appear to be kayak rubber shoes, carrying red or yellow pails and a small garden trowel. It’s early, too. In fact, the sun has yet to break over the horizon and pierce the thick mist now muting Light-House Beach. Still, dozens wander the beach wearing relaxed but intent expressions.
“Shelling,” says one devotee, “is one of the few acceptable ways mature adults can act like maniacal kids.” And now I worry. Might my wife metamorphosis into one of the obsessive and compulsive people?
Sanibel owes its wealth of shells to its location. Just off the coast of Florida, there’s an extensive shelf extending from Alabama to the Florida Keys, and it functions as a shell factory. When the winds are right they push surface waters away from the island. The void is then filled by waters from the shelf welling up with its load of shells.
As Linda says, each morning there’s a new crop, and that’s what makes shelling so exciting—and aesthetically rewarding. She says that people use shells in a variety of ways that include borders around picture frames, inlays in tables, simple objects‘d art in their homes—and, perhaps most elaborately, as a “sailor’s Valentine” like the one shown here.
But other forms of life also depend on shells and for more than just aesthetics. Birds by the thousands line the beaches, poking shells, hoping to discover a tidbit between the valves that will help sustain them. As a result, there are rules governing what you should and should not collect, and Linda believes that most shellers abide by the rules. “Always look to see if there’s something inside before taking it from its home. The shell may be near dead, but that’s what feeds the gulls and other shore birds.”
As we walked along shore birds were everywhere, and we identified various types of gulls as well as the Sandwhich Tern (first) and the Royal Tern (second), shown here.
Then, just off shore, there are the brown pelicans diving repeatedly into the sea to scoop up a fish or two.
Linda says that from time to time she also sees dolphins, and then, as though by virtue of mental summation, one appears, now swerving into shore–driving fish into the shallows.
“Pay attention if you’re wading out there,” emphasizes Linda. “Dolphins and sharks have similar configurations, but you can tell the difference by watching the way they swim. Dolphins undulate as they swim while the fins of sharks remain above water.”
For several moments we watch the dolphin, and then it moves a little further down the beach, and we take an unconscious step in that direction, but abruptly stop as Linda picks up a tiny shell she identifies as a wentletrap.
“Here, now you only need about another thousand of shells like this and you have enough for a Sailor’s Valentine.”
The Sailor’s Valentine is an elaborate assemblage of shells and there are several on display at the Shell Museum located on the Sanible-Captiva Road. The museum provides a simple explanation of what is needed to make such a token of affection. Many on the island apparently do make them, but generally, rather than spending the years that could be required to collect an adequate number of shells, artists—or sailors—now buy them from such places as She Sells Sea Shells.
The Shell Museum is worth a visit and explains all the ways in which shells affect us and then ways Native Americans used them over the centuries. One shell, Dentalium pretiosum or “Precious Tusk Shell,” was used as money for almost 2,500 years. Also on display is a life-size model of two Calusa Indians. Here, the father is explaining to his son the use of shell tools.
Obviously, shells have filled many rolls over the centuries, and they’re beauty continues to attract. To enjoy, all you must do is make a trip to one of Sanibel’s several beaches. But be forewarned. Serious conchologists are wading the shores at the crack of dawn, hoping for that rare find specimen.
Though Linda didn’t say so, we suspect she was hoping to find something truly exotic, perhaps a left-handed Junonia, one coiling anti-clockwise. It’s known only from two specimens—and is a one in a million find. (You can see one at the Shell Museum.)
But search hard often enough, and who know what bounty the seas may offer on the beaches here at Sanibel, refreshed as they are each and every morning by the relentless lapping of ocean waves.