Get into the shell game on Florida's Gulf Coast

You're never too young: A juvenile picker joins in the fun of shelling on Florida's Sanibel Island....

You're never too young: A juvenile picker joins in the fun of shelling on Florida's Sanibel Island. PHOTO COURTESY VISIT FLORIDA

MITCHELL SMYTH, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:01 PM ET

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. -- Most vacationers to sun destinations hope for fine weather. But some visitors to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, along Florida's southern gulf coast, pray for storms.

These are shell collectors, a determined bunch who know the best time to find sea shells comes right after a storm, when the winds blow surface waters away from the land. This creates counter-currents along the bottom, dislodging shells that the tide carries ashore.

Sanibel, and to a lesser extent neighbouring Captiva Island to the north, offer perhaps the best shelling in the Western Hemisphere. Some say they're the third best in the world, after the Philippines and South Africa.

Best time for shells, I'd been told, is just before low tide in the morning.

That, said an avid collector, is when thousands of new specimens, from the billions of shells on the sea bottom of Florida's 12-km-wide coastal shelf along the Gulf of Mexico, wash ashore.

So I arrived at 6:30 a.m., 90 minutes before the tide was due to change. And already there were a couple of dozen people there, along the high-water mark and a few metres out to sea. Most were doubled over in the celebrated "Sanibel Stoop," peering and turning over the morning's pickings.

Within an hour there were perhaps 100 collectors, their buckets and bags and grocery sacks at the ready.

What were they looking for?

Anything exotic, I was told: Angels wings, lightning whelks, tulip shells, fragile paper figs, kitten's paws. And, most emphatically, for a junonia, a brown-speckled conical specimen that's so rare you'll get your picture in the local paper if you find one.

But many were here just for the fun of it, for some pretty things to take home and display.

The Stoop made headlines last year when -- as a promotion for the annual shell show -- 478 registered shellers (plus an estimated 300 others) hit the beach, with Guinness World Record observers on hand. The event made the Guinness book in the category "Largest treasure hunt game."

If you want to avoid the Sanibel Stoop (or the Captiva Crouch, as they call it on the neighbouring island), you can enjoy shelling "straight up," as it were, at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum inland (although nothing is very far from the sea on this long, slim island).

The museum contains thousands of examples of the world's estimated 100,000 species of living mollusks, from the sea and land and fresh water.

The rarest exhibit is a left-handed junonia (the shell coils counter-clockwise). Regular junonias are rare enough, as mentioned, but there are only two known left-handed versions -- and one of them is here.

A fascinating display is "sailors' valentines," shell-patterned valentine boxes that 19th century sailors brought back from the Caribbean and South Seas islands to their sweethearts in America.

NEED TO KNOW

-- For further information, check the websites fortmyers-sanibel.com and shellmuseum.org.

-- This year's Sanibel Shell Show and Fair takes place March 7-9 (sanibelcaptivashellclub.com).

-- General tourist information on Florida is available from visitflorida.com.


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