The lure of beautiful seashells entices visitors on Florida’s Sanibel Island to keep up a perpetual search.
By Sherry Shahan
At first glance, it seems as though everyone on Sanibel Island, Florida, has a penchant for keeping their eyes on the ground. A closer look reveals that all of their bending over has a purpose.
Find the seashell; stoop; and snatch it. Guess that’s why the action of these beachcombers is known as the “Sanibel Stoop.” Don’t laugh. Few visitors leave this 12-mile long island without a parcel of seashells.
Toting plastic trash bags or using a child’s sand pail “” serious “shellaholics” prefer plastic netting “” collectors stoop and snatch some of the more than 400 species of marine mollusks that wash ashore on the island.
Shell-seekers’ hip pockets hold local tide tables. Some shellers even paddle kayaks to sandbars in search of rare specimens. Others hire guides and private boats to go on shelling expeditions.
Sanibel Island is shaped like a shrimp and curves away from the Florida mainland like a scoop into the Gulf of Mexico. Tiny Captiva Island continues the tip of the shrimp tail. The nearest major city is Cape Coral, to the north; Fort Myers Beach lies just to the east.
Sanibel is the only island in the barrier chain that runs in an east-to-west direction. As a consequence, it harbors incredible numbers of live shells snagged by Gulf currents that run north from the Yucatan Peninsula. The warm Gulf water provides a balanced setting for transplanted mollusks to breed. The gently sloping shores of Sanibel soften the impact of washed up shells, so many arrive undamaged. No wonder Sanibel is renowned for having the best shelling in the Western Hemisphere.
It’s not an exaggeration: mollusks accumulate in heaps “” everything from rock oysters and heart cockles to coquinas and banded tulips. So many different species can be found, it’s enough to exhaust the most ambitious list maker. Even sea stars, sand dollars, and sea urchins tumble ashore during certain months.
Part of the strategy of finding certain shells is knowing where to look. Some inhabit a particular area; others seem to be everywhere. Many mollusks are seasonal.
The weather also affects one’s luck. According to a local conchologist who wears periwinkle earrings, “You go after a storm, and you go at low tide. You don’t do anything on Sanibel that has to do with marine life unless you have a tide chart.”
On an island where street names pay respect to marine shells, such as Periwinkle Way and Junonia Street, it’s not surprising to learn that some hotels offer self-serve shell-cleaning facilities. And more than one visitor has learned how to clean sandy specimens in the dishwasher. Hint: rinse cycle, no soap.
Serious collectors and curious tourists should purchase a guidebook of shells, such as Collectible Florida Shells or Shells of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and the West Indies, both by R. Tucker Abbott. Dr. Abbott was senior adviser and founding director of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which opened on Sanibel in 1995. Although he died shortly after the museum opened, he’s still considered dean of American malacologists “” that’s science-ese for those who study mollusks “” and wrote some 30 books about these calcium carbonate critters.
Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is the only repository of its kind in the United States devoted entirely to shell-making creatures and their relatives. This isn’t just a big building full of shells, but a terrific educational institution focused on mollusks. With more than 2 million shells on display, it’s a good bet “stoopers” can go there and identify some of the shells they picked up on the beach.
The museum contains local and worldwide shell exhibits. The sizes, shapes, and colors of shells and the locations of their habitats are amazing. Exhibits focus on everything from shells as money and fossil shells to uses of shells by mankind, even in architecture. A 30-minute video called “Mollusks In Action” is shown at the museum five times daily and focuses on the mollusks found on Sanibel Island. The museum is located at 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road; phone (888) 679-6450; (239) 395-2233; www.shellmuseum.org. It’s open daily; admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children ages 5 to 16.
It’s impossible to stroll the beaches without recalling delicate pearls from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic collection of short stories, Gift From The Sea, which has been in print for a half-century. While on a brief vacation from the distractions of everyday life, Mrs. Lindbergh wrote, “The beach is not the place to work, to read, write, or think. I should have remembered that from other years. Too warm, too damp, too soft for any real mental discipline or sharp flights of spirit.” And yet she filled her journal with such meaningful reflection it transcends time and trends in its comparison of shells to various stages of life.
It’s hard to believe, but some visitors actually pause from shell-related activities to peruse the island’s other sites. Since Sanibel is only 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, it’s possible to rent a bicycle and take in the island’s attractions in a single afternoon.
Head down Periwinkle Way to the eastern tip of the island for a tour of the Sanibel Lighthouse, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Once dependent on kerosene, the old light (built in 1884) now operates on electric power. Of particular interest is its wrought-iron latticework, an open design that allows hurricane winds to pass through.
Also on everyone’s must-see list is J.N. “Ding” Darling Reserve, a 6,400-acre refuge that occupies 40 percent of the land on the island. Those who pedal or motor down Wildlife Drive should heed the “Alligator Crossing” signs, since the swamp-loving reptiles often sun themselves in the road. Or consider renting a canoe at the Tarpon Bay refuge and paddling down Commodore Creek Trail through a green jungle of mangroves for a more intimate view of the reserve’s many winged inhabitants.
Among other achievements, J.N. “Ding” Darling earned three Pulitzer prizes for his political cartoons, frequently illustrating a pro-conservation cause. A founder of the National Wildlife Federation and a member of the Audubon Society board of directors, Darling initiated the federal Duck Stamp program in 1934, which is still an important source of revenue for wetlands acquisitions.
If at all possible, plan to visit “Ding” Darling Refuge during low tide, when mud flats host great blue herons, ibises, egrets, roseate spoonbills, and scores of shorebirds. Those with binoculars or cameras with telephoto lenses will make the greatest discoveries in an intriguing habitat of mangrove estuary, freshwater marsh, and tropical hardwood hammocks.
The education center at the refuge has exhibits and information that provide an introduction to its many features. Head down Wildlife Drive to see them for yourself. The road is open Saturday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to a half-hour before sunset. It is closed on Fridays. A fee of $5 per vehicle, or $1 per walker or bicycle rider older than age 15 is charged. Golden Age, Golden Eagle, or Golden Access passes are accepted. Three walking trails are accessible from Wildlife Drive, too.
No matter which part of the island visitors happen to be exploring, it seems as though the ocean is calling to them. Sooner or later, everyone will return to the gently rolling surf, ending the day much as it began: see the seashell, stoop, and snatch. Most people latch onto a favorite shelling spot. Sandbars exposed at low tide provide glimpses of shark’s eyes or fighting conchs; sand dollars also can be found buried live on sandbars. On the beach at the lighthouse end of the island, wentletraps are discovered along the high tide line. Sometimes a choice shell is a few yards beyond one’s feet.
Beachcombers all agree that the biggest find remains the rare junonia, a spiral shell delicately spotted like a leopard. Coming up with a junonia can get one’s picture in the local newspaper. Simply seeing the scroll-like ornament “” even if you didn’t find it “” is enough for most visitors.
No wonder Sanibel claims the distinction of having the best shelling in the Western Hemisphere. Certainly no other place has more people bent over with fascination.
Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce
1159 Causeway Road
Sanibel Island, FL 33957
The chamber provides a free vacation guide available by phone or from the Web site. Only one campground is located on the island. Many other RV parks are located in the Cape Coral/Fort Myers Beach area; check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at www.fmca.com.
Periwinkle Park & Campground
1119 Periwinkle Way
Sanibel Island, FL 33957
Perwinkle is a 10-minute walk to white, sandy, shell-lined beaches. Amenities include full hookups, rest rooms, showers, laundry, ice, and propane. Shops and restaurants are within walking distance.
A Sampling Of Tour Companies
The following are a few of the companies in the area that provide nature-oriented boat tours. The local chamber of commerce can provide a complete list.
Adventures in Paradise Inc. offers canoe trips through a mangrove forest led by a naturalist, as well as backwater fishing trips, powerboat and canoe rentals, and more. Phone (239) 472-8443; or visit www.adventureinparadiseinc.com.
Captiva Cruises offers shelling and lunch cruises, wildlife and natural history tours, and more. Call (239) 472-5300; e-mail email@example.com; or visit www.captivacruises.com.
Adventure One Charters offers shelling, sight-seeing, fishing, and lunch cruises. Phone (239) 472-4875.
Collecting living shells and sand dollars in Sanibel Island waters is against the law. You may collect dead shells at any time.
You will need a fishing license to collect live shells from a boat or in four or more feet of water in Florida. Do not collect or eat live clams during a “red tide” episode.
Those in the know say the best beach collection time is after a cold-weather, northwest storm. Then check out Lighthouse Point, Algers Beach, Bowman’s Beach, and the south end of Tarpon Bay Road.
Fortunately for the mollusks, many shellers are satisfied to study their discoveries, perhaps snap a picture or two, then return the living creatures to the water. Some guides limit shell collection to empty shells.
As you search for treasures, look before you step! Stingrays are very common along the shoreline. To avoid a painful sting, try walking without lifting your feet, a step known as the “Sanibel Shuffle.” Stingrays don’t mind being bumped out of the way.
Also, for your safety, wear plenty of insect repellent, as mosquitoes and no-see-ums live here, too. The little buggers are especially active as the sun goes down.
Southwest Florida is one of the most frequent lightning strike areas. Stay off the beach and out of the water if you see a storm approaching. Watch the light show from the safety of a motorhome, towed vehicle, or restaurant.
Believe it or not, some people can’t resist the temptation to feed alligators. Doing so is against the law and carries a stiff fine. Besides, human food isn’t good for them.