SANIBEL, FLORIDA—At the lowest tide of the month, the Gulf of Mexico peels back from the shores of Sanibel Island to reveal its treasures. Bruce Schulz is out there on a late February morning to find his piece of the booty.
The early morning sun stretches the shadow of his lanky frame from the shore to the mangroves. The waves are lapping against City Beach, which juts off the eastern flank of Sanibel Island’s 33 square miles like a bird’s beak.
Schulz is hunting for wentletraps, tiny shells that look like a miniature swirl of vanilla soft serve with ridges riding up the side. “I have sharp eyes and I know where to look,” he says, actively scanning the edge of the surf where the waves have created ripples in the sand. He reaches down with his spindly fingers to brush aside the wood and seaweed, swirling up little eddies.
Suddenly, a bone-white shell appears. Schulz plucks it from the muck, gives it a quick rinse in the saltwater, and holds it out in his palm. At a little less than an inch long, it’s one of the biggest wentletraps he’s ever found. The largest documented wentletrap was an inch and a quarter, roughly the space between two of your knuckles, according to Schulz.
Dozens of others are out on the beach with Schulz. They’re all looking for shells, in the shelling capital of America.
A tight knit group made up largely of snowbirds and retirees, Sanibel’s shellers all became obsessed with shells at various points in their lives, and never let it go. Spending time with them is like cracking open an encyclopedic of arcane knowledge. This is no game of Trivial Pursuit, though. Serious shellers, whose collections can include thousands of specimens, are often deeply committed to expanding what we know about the ocean’s health and its mysteries. Many are members of shelling clubs, which share their finds with researchers, a relationship that’s led to new scientific discoveries.
“You know it’s like, left and right hands,” Jose Leal, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum science curator, told Earther. “You can draw a parallel to astronomy. There are some amateur astronomers that make finds of new bodies. The same thing is true with the study of mollusks.”
But without a new generation to take up shelling, there’s a risk those discoveries could dry up.
Schulz’s find would’ve made the rounds on any day, but it caught fire that weekend because the Sanibel shell community was about to kick off its 81st annual shell show. The group, most of whom live in or near the island, devote months of their lives each year to putting the spectacle on. It’s like if the Westminster Dog Show or the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally mated with a high school science fair. But with shells.
It’s the most prestigious stop on the shell show circuit, which wends its way down the Florida peninsula and includes shows in Broward, Melbourne, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, and San Marco Island. The most prolific shell collectors in the world show up here to have their collections judged in artistic and scientific categories.
Exhibitors come from as far as Japan. This year’s youth category had exhibits from Barbados. In 2017, a woman “who’s been doing this for a long time” broke down in tears when she finally won a blue ribbon according to Mary Burton, the chair of the artistic division, who herself broke down in tears talking about that moment.
The 2018 shell show attracted 300 entries. On the artistic side, there was a conchulele (a ukulele with a conch body, of course), a shell castle filled with shell furniture, a dragon made entirely of shells, and impossibly intricate sailor’s valentines—shadow boxes of shells laid out in symmetrical patterns with Hallmark-ready sentiments like “come with me under the sea.”
On the science side, shells washed up on Sanibel’s shores by Hurricane Irma sat next to rows of vitrines showcasing the finds of a 70-year old scuba diver. There was an entire 140-foot long display of glass cases devoted to venomous cone snails.
On the opening night of the show, exhibitors mingled at the Sanibel Community House. Local “shellebrities” like Shelle Kelle (Instagram followers: 28,000) and Michael G by the Sea, a third generation sheller who run a Facebook empire of shell groups, flocked between the exhibits. Shellers traded the latest news and gossiped about how Pam Rambo of iloveshelling.com was arriving the next day to sign her book the Guide To Speaking Shellanguage, a cipher to understand the shell vernacular. (Rambo herself calls it “ shellariously silly”).
Around the corner from the entryway, Leal sat in front of a well-worn gun metal gray microscope he’s had for 25 years, a desk lamp illuminating millimeter-long shells in the petri dish that Phyllis Sharp, a local sheller who specializes in microscopic collectibles, had brought for him to identify. A hefty tome and a laptop open to a shell catalog were there to help him, but Leal’s deep font of shell knowledge is central to process.
That day, there was one shell he couldn’t quite figure out.
To the untrained eye under the microscope, it looked like a spiralling wentletrap. He gently turned it over with the tweezers, while flipping back and forth between a few pages of his book. After some false starts, Leal told Sharps it’s quite possible she’d discovered a new species.
“Every year, we have three to five new finds that we add [to the museum collection] that haven’t been registered before,” said Leal, who spent a few hours during the show helping anyone who rolled up with a shell they couldn’t identify. “That’s just locally. Imagine if we had a similar effort going on everywhere in the world.”
Leal was gripped by shell fever at an early age. Born in Rio de Janeiro, he grew up walking two blocks to the beaches of Ipanema as a kid in the late 1950s. Where high rises now run right up to the soft sands, there were tide pools for him to explore.
His aunt would take him on beach trips where Leal would collect shells and bring them home, only to have her toss them out of the house after he’d gone to bed, because she believed they’d bring bad luck. But it’s hard to deter kids from doing something they love.
“I kept going back and bringing more and finally I had to hide them from her,” he said.
Today, Leal is one of the foremost experts in malacology—the study of mollusks—in the world, and the bridge between Sanibel Island’s amateur shellers and professional scientists. The museum where he works has an estimated 124,000 lots of shells, which themselves can contain dozens of shells each. A large portion has been donated by private collectors around the world, as well as local shell club members.
“It’s pretty much like a library where people can come, quote unquote, open a book and read the information in the shells or in the preserved specimens and alcohol,” Leal said. “Studies in environmental sciences, in geology, and many branches of science take advantage of the type of collection we have and people actually do.”
In many ways, Leal is the heir to Tucker Abbott, the scientist who helped usher the shell museum into existence and whose 1995 obituary in the New York Times referred to him as “the master of mollusks who was better known as Mr. Seashell.” Abbott was also instrumental in creating the Conchologists of America (COA), a group that splintered off the American Society of Malacologists after the latter started to look down upon the amateurs in its ranks. Both groups still exist today and have ties to the museum (Leal has also been president of both), but COA is what binds shellers together, giving a loose order to the shell clubs scattered across the U.S.
The Sanibel Shell Club has met for more than eight decades on the island, and has had a home at the museum since it opened. Members live both on and off island, but they all share a love for collecting on its shores, owing to a gentle sloping underwater topography that allows shells to wash up in droves.
The majority of its members are retirees with time to trawl the beaches when the shelling is good. Like Joyce Matthys, an amateur sheller who puts together the scientific side of the show. She first came to Sanibel with her husband for a vacation in 1991, and fell in love with the chalky white sand beaches. They retired there together 25 years ago.
“My husband was a farmer and then he was a paper maker and our first experience here on Sanibel was when we got up in the morning, and I looked out the window and there was this beautiful white sand and the blue water and I said ‘Ken, we’ve just got to get down to the beach,’” she said. “And he said ‘there has to be something else to do here, except walk up and down some darn beach.’ And then it totally changed when he discovered seashells. By the end of the week, we almost had to put a tiki torch out so he could find his way home.”
While he was the collector who often found the shells, she was often the one asking questions and digging into the science behind how shells formed and washed up on Sanibel, a curiosity she attributes to being a retired x-ray technician.
Matthys’ desire to share her obsession with her grandchildren led her to make a DVD about the shells of Sanibel using her iPhone and iMovie. The museum uses it to this day.
Sanibel is most known for junonia, a creamy white shell dappled with spots the color of tea that twist in a spiral. It’s a bit of white whale for shellers because the venomous snails it usually houses inhabit deep waters, and the shells only wash ashore after a strong storm.
Beyond this rarity, the island also keeps shell seekers coming back to look for fighting conches and lightning whelks. There are also Schulz’s wentletraps, delicate angelwings, and 30 pages of local southwest Florida shells on the Shell Museum’s site.
Matthys and Burton, the artistic co-chair of the Sanibel Shell Show, spend nearly the entire year putting the show together. Burton said they run it like a business, with spreadsheets of exhibitions tracking entries and winners and counting donations at the door. The money they raise is then funneled back to fund young researchers. In 2017, Matthys said the shell club gave out $30,000 in grants. The club also offers one $10,000 scholarship annually to PhD students to pursue shell research.
That money helps keep the academic discipline of malacology alive and well, but Burton said she’s concerned there isn’t going to be a new generation of amateur shellers. And she’s worried the show could die, a concern that’s easy to understand considering the age of people who run it.
“The co-chairs, the chairs, the committee, were all older people and there’s no young people coming along that we can mentor to take over when we walk away,” she said. “And it’s sad, because if we don’t get younger people to show an interest and train to take over the different positions, the show will die. It’s as simple as that.”
If shelling dried up, the museum and research community would likely suffer. Leal said one of his “most unusual discoveries” was a new genus of weird predatory mollusks that were sent to him by amateurs in the Florida Keys. And Leal doesn’t only benefit from amateurs sending him stuff. They’re also writing academic papers chronicling their own finds.
An analysis of studies published between 2000-14 about new shell-forming animal discoveries showed that citizen scientists are listed as first authors of 40 percent of the papers. Science would simply not get done as quickly without amateurs to help search and sort the ocean’s many treasures.
Shelling hasn’t been without its critics. The hobby received a bout of negative press in 2014, after a study found tourism-related beach activities can negatively affect shell abundance. The researchers themselves later criticized the media coverage for “exaggerating” the role of individuals, noting that the study considered many activities, from recreational vehicles to beach grooming. There remains no conclusive evidence that shelling harms the environment, although there’s also been little to no research on the topic.
What is known is that there’s plenty of opportunity for collectors to continue making contributions to science. According to the study, “at the current pace it will take 300 years to name the estimated ~150,000 marine mollusc species awaiting description.”
After showing me the ropes of wentletrap hunting, Schulz and I prowl the surf together. We’re discussing the finer points of shelling, and his goal to collect every Sanibel shell listed in the museum’s shell guide, when a college-aged kid sporting a tie dye shirt and round sunglasses walks by, his shoulder-length hair swinging with his gait.
Overhearing our conversation, he stops and introduced himself. Turned out, he’s a sheller, too. He and Bruce strike up a conversation.
Bruce tells the kid, Mike Walker, a story about the time a bivalve clamped on his finger and refused to let go. Walker shares his tip for wrapping seaweed around delicate shells to protect them while walking on the beach.
Despite a major age gap and never having met in their lives, the rapport is almost instant. It’s uncanny, like two long lost relatives catching up.
The next day at the shell show, Walker passed by Michael G by the Sea.
“He looks like he’s wearing Julie Anderson,” Michael G by the Sea said, pointing to the sea glass pieces on Walker’s neck and wrist. (I later learn her designs are like the Tiffany’s of marine-based fashion.)
They start talking, striking up the same easy rapport Walker and Schulz had. They soon discover they’re having dinner later that night, because Walker’s grandmother is a shell club member.
Maybe shelling won’t be the next Pokemon Go or juuling phenomenon to sweep America’s youth. But the shelling community on Sanibel island is tight knit. As long as older generations are welcoming younger shell seekers in the fold, the passion for discovery will live on, and our understanding of the ocean will only grow.