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Best time for shelling on the islands comes during winter, extreme tides

January 24, 2011

A longtime sheller and docent at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Harold "Smoky" Payson, led the Jan. 14 “Friday Lunch Hour at the Museum” program, a PowerPoint presentation and question-and-answer session focused on “Finding & Identifying Sanibel Shells – From the Second Floor to the Beaches and Back.”

During the 60-minute discussion, Payson talked about how and where to look for some of the island’s most common species. He also offered tips on how to identify specimens both in the field and once they are cleaned and prepared for placement in a collection.

"This is just about the best time of the year to go shelling," said Payson, who discussed the two major types of shells — bivalves and gastropods — and how seasons of the year impact the species found.

Participants learned how winds, tides, the phase of the moon and the geographic orientation of the island — east to west — impacts shelling.

Payson found his first shell while on an outing with his parents in Key West, discovering a bleeding tooth attached to a stone. His mom and dad were nature enthusiasts and casual shell collectors. Early in his shelling adventures, Harold became a more efficient sheller by looking for what he calls, “the pots of gold.”

"If you're one of the first people there in the morning, you're going to find things that you might not see at any other time," noted Payson, who explained that during periods of "peak tides" (full moon), the best shelling is at or just before dawn.

Reading articles given to him by museum director Dr. José Leal, along with volunteering as a curatorial assistant and participating in the accessioning process, turned Payson from merely an avid sheller to full-blown expert. He assisted in increasing the number of live specimens photographed for the museum’s online Southwest Florida Shell Guide and search for species not well represented in the collection.

During the program, Payson talked about how to identify the three species of helmets — in the genus Cassis — while they are still in the juvenile stage, which can be very difficult.

"The best field mark for young specimens is the pattern of axial and spiral lines forming the surface sculpture on the body whorl and parietal shield," he explained in a handout given to program attendees. The three species — C. flammea, C. tuberosa and C. madagascariensis — have subtle but distinct differences. While flame helmets have no spiral lines except at the anterior of the body whorl, axial lines are bold and widely spaced.

One of the things Payson enjoys most about being a volunteer is the opportunity to get others excited about collecting shells. On Sanibel and Captiva, the hobby is rampant.

"Day or night, whenever I go shelling this time of year, I'm never alone," he said.

Having first visited the islands in 1963, Payson received his undergraduate and master’s degree in international economics from Harvard University and obtained a Ph.D. at Tufts University.

During periods of extreme tides throughout the winter months, Payson reported that more shells — as well as a wider variety of species — are washed ashore.

"Shelling in December and January is pretty good," he added, "but February and March are usually the best times for extreme tides."

For additional information about programs offered at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, call Diane Thomas at 395-2233 or visit

Article Photos

Harold 'Smoky' Payson led the Jan. 14 “Friday Lunch Hour at the Museum” program discussing how and where to find shells on Sanibel, and how to identify them.

Fact Box

'Under The Sea' fundraiser this Sunday

The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum’s Seventh Annual "Under The Sea" fundraiser will take place this Sunday, Jan. 30 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the museum, located at 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road.

“We originally started this event to raise money for the museum, but also to get ourselves into the community, so that we, like every other organization on the islands, could have a fundraiser that was synonymous with the organization,” said Shell Museum Board President Anne Joffe. “We’ve succeeded in making it an annual event and we hope everyone comes! We love that the Shell Museum is part of the island community.”

Shell Museum Director, Dr. Jose Leal, agreed.

“This fundraiser yet another way to interact with our community. It’s a way of putting the Museum out there and a way of bringing old and new friends to the Museum,” Dr. Leal said. “And I really enjoy the fact that we have the fundraiser here in the museum. Having the event in-house makes all the difference.”

"Under The Sea" will begin with cocktails, appetizers and a fabulous silent auction. After guests have placed their bids, they’ll enjoy a meal catered by Elias Brothers, accompanied by a live multi-media performance, “Painting Out Loud,” by artist Leoma Lovegrove.

After dinner, The Hot Flashz — known throughout Southwest Florida for their high-energy shows, complex choreography and fantastic costumes — will perform.

The evening will end with a live auction, hosted by Jean Baer and ventriloquist Brenda Steltzer, music and dancing.

Tickets are $100 per person. Call the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum at 395-2233 for more information and reservations. Parking will be available at The Sanibel School, and a free trolley service will shuttle attendants to and from the event.

The Grand Sponsor for this event is the Sanibel Captiva Trust Company.



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