Sea Swell Sea Shells

Malacological Mayhem on Florida’s Gulf Coast

“Warning: Militant Sheller. Step away from that junonia and nobody gets hurt.”

By Scott Vogel March 31, 2016 Published in the April 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

"He found one yesterday.”

In a room off the lobby of the Island Inn, 14 pairs of eyes slowly shifted their attention from Stefanie Wolf, a marine biologist on staff at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, to a short woman in the back. The woman was naturally pretty, her long hair a mass of tangled highlights, her skin sun-kissed to the brink of weather-beaten. In short, she was an older version of the girl who gets killed in the first scene of Jaws.

“He was just walking on the beach—”

“Bowman’s Beach,” mumbled the woman’s husband, stoic and tall.

“—and there it was,” said the woman, “a lightning whelk, right there on the sand!”

Scrutiny turned to the husband, who flashed a smile that indicated either suspicious smugness or aw-shucks bashfulness, depending on which angle you saw it from. A tween on the periphery was so impressed he nearly leapt from his Crocs, even as an elderly woman stared at me with narrowed eyes and an expression that said, He could have bought that whelk at any of a dozen shops on Sanibel. Another appeared indignant, with an I’ll-bet-it-was-a-live-whelk face, indignant because taking home an undead whelk is illegal on Sanibel Island. I myself shot a glance at a portly man in a khaki vest across the room, a glance that said, He probably really found it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the wife planted it. For his part, the man received my assessment with utter deadness: Show me the whelk, and then we’ll talk. Seemingly deadlocked, the jury decamped to a narrow strip of sand adjacent to the inn.

That strip extends more than 15 miles in total, although what makes Florida’s Sanibel and Captiva, an adjacent island, premier shelling destinations is not the amount of beach but its posture. Unlike most barrier islands, this particular pair sit not parallel but at right angles to the mainland, allowing them to scoop up 200 or so varieties of bivalves and gastropods from the Gulf each day, as well as thousands of tourists every week. From all over the world they come to this malacological nirvana 45 minutes from Fort Myers, many spending whole days frozen in the Sanibel Stoop, which is to say leaning into the shore break, waiting impatiently for the sea to cough up its treasures.

“The junonia is the prize shell of Sanibel,” Wolf announced, her morning voice barely louder than the waves at our feet. “You’ll get your name in the paper if you find one.” A gastropod with a beautifully spotted carapace, the junonia is not a rare creature of the sea, she told us, but because it lives far offshore, often in waters several hundred feet deep, its shells seldom make it to the beach. (Then again, not long after my visit, a gleeful family of five from Tennessee could be seen posing in the Island Sun with their junonia, inspiring near island-wide jealousy.)

“I guess he’ll find one of those next,” said someone, once the Jaws victim and her husband were safely out of earshot. This occasioned a few chuckles from the group, although some resented the distraction during low tide, aka primetime for shelling. I myself quickly became frustrated after just a few minutes of raking and stooping, only to look up and see the lightning whelk twins leaving the beach empty-handed, the husband’s eyes vacant as he shuffled past.

“Bowman’s Beach,” I heard him whisper.

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Image: Shutterstock

I should say, there are many ways to enjoy oneself during a Sanibel-Captiva vacation, some less competitive than shelling. And while the lion’s share of these can indeed be traced to the islands’ unspoiled beauty, that unspoiledness can itself be traced to—wait for it—humans. It’s true.

“Sanibel shall be developed as a community only to the extent to which it retains and embraces this quality of sanctuary,” reads the vision statement of the Sanibel Plan, a set of enlightened land-use regulations first adopted by residents in the ’70s. Development has been severely restricted and the roads have remained few and narrow even as the bike paths became plentiful and world-class. In consequence, there’s a small-town quietude to Sanibel and Captiva that’s almost unheard of among shore towns these days, making them sanctuaries for all manner of flora and fauna, over-stimulated humans chief among them.

One of the aforementioned Island Inn’s more remarkable charms is its knack for conjuring remembrances of simpler vacations past, a time when all any holiday needed was sea spray and sand shovels and screened porches. Dating to 1895 and founded by a rabid shell collector, Sanibel’s oldest hotel offers many diversions these days, from tennis to ocean kayaking to daily shelling tours like the one I attended (led by emissaries from Bailey-Matthews, a worthy destination in itself). But all of it pales by comparison to a do-nothing afternoon spent relaxing on your private deck in one of the inn’s 49 cottages and rooms, watching gulls and plovers dodge crashing surf as the sun melts into the Gulf.

As it happens, what originally drew me to this halcyon spot on Florida’s Gulf Coast was neither the promise of world-class shelling nor the allure of idleness. I’m going to Sanibel to kayak through a mangrove tunnel, I’d told people, a declaration usually received by eye-rolls and/or cluelessness of the go-where-to-do-which-through-a-what variety. Sanibel is far from an undiscovered gem—as anyone stuck in traffic crawling across the causeway will quickly attest—but for some reason it remains a mystery in these parts. Even I had never heard the name Ding Darling before, which is odd, given how crucial his efforts were to the preservation of the largest undeveloped mangrove forest in the country.

Just a short bike ride from the Island Inn and comprising more than 8,000 acres—roughly a third of Sanibel’s land mass—the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge plays host to an enormous variety of plant and animal life, along with a variety of methods for enjoying them. There are cruises to take, trails to walk, bikes to rent, trams to ride, and yes, kayaks to paddle, the latter offered by an outfit called Tarpon Bay Explorers.

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After a brief but thorough instruction in oarsmanship, the 10 or so novice kayakers in my group paddled their way onto the Commodore Creek water trail, led by a perky guide who pointed out every white ibis and tricolored heron and stingray and alligator—okay, the one alligator—that crossed our path. Most fascinating of all, at least to me, were the mangroves themselves, which somehow manage to thrive on land even as their roots are anchored in saltwater, an arboreal rarity. From the tiny crustaceans that live among its muddy roots to the fiddler crabs that crawl its trunks, to the cuckoo birds nesting in upper branches, the mangrove supports an almost obscene amount of estuarial life. Gliding slowly through the cool, quiet tunnels, shaded by a dense canopy overhead, it was impossible to ignore the majesty of these trees, or the fragility of the ecosystem that they support. 

Another day, another Sanibel bike ride—it’s really the only way to travel—took me to Bailey’s General Store, a delicious source of both provisions and island gossip for decades. Evenings found me on the road to Captiva, a perfectly spooky drive such as only dark, two-lane roads dotted with warnings to watch for low-flying owls can provide. Several miles of eeriness ended at Turner Beach and the tiny bridge that connects the two islands, and soon I was surrounded by a small cluster of Captiva restaurants, all of them wildly popular dinnertime destinations. There was the Mucky Duck, whose raucous patio boasts live music, picnic tables in the sand and kids running in all directions, as well as the Cantina Captiva, a Mexican restaurant whose fare I found just this side of atrocious. Thankfully, however, the same proprietors are also behind the nearby Keylime Bistro, where the food is much better and the eponymous pie is, in a word, outstanding.

Breakfast may well be the islands’ best meal, however, and the Sanibel Café may well be the best place for it. Selections there include everything from sautéed gator, of which I have no first-hand knowledge, and piña colada French toast, of which I have an unseemly familiarity. All the tables in the dining room are glass-topped—beneath each is a unique, artfully arranged collection of fossilized seashells—and there’s hardly an empty seat in the house. That’s especially the case post-low-tide, when the café is besieged by shellers, some on the verge of fossilization themselves.

“Coquinas, olives, and one perfect nutmeg,” observed one such personage at a nearby table, reporting on the day’s finds.

“Nice haul,” said his companion. “Where?”

“Bowman’s Beach,” came the reply.

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Image: Mohammed Zain

“Warning: Militant Sheller. Step away from that junonia and nobody gets hurt.”

I smiled when I read those words on a T-shirt the next morning, intending to compliment the woman wearing it. Remembering I was at Bowman’s Beach at low tide, however, and noticing that she’d met my smile with a withering stare, I reasoned it might be better to step away anyway, junonia or no junonia. The day was warm and breezy, the sands crowded with stoopers of every conceivable type, all of them eager to get first pickings on what washed ashore.

Which is perhaps why none of them noticed the shiny specimen lying half-buried in a dune far from the water’s edge. It was a kiwi-sized fighting conch, a gastropod whose name refers not to temper—the species is vegetarian—but the tiny spikes that unspool from a central spire. Boasting a deep mahogany lip polished to a high gloss by the wind, the conch was marvelously free of cracks, chips and barnacles, and it was mine. My fingers closed around the shell, and as they did, I was flooded with feelings of accomplishment and closure far in excess of my achievement.

It was a pleasure no junonia could possibly top.

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