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Shell Museum columnist passes on shelling love

By Staff | Jul 10, 2009

Why collect sea shells? There probably as many unique responses to this question as there are shell collectors. But, there are certain responses that researchers would deem statistically significant.

n It’s relaxing when collecting shells the rest of the world doesn’t seem to exist.

n It’s a fascinating adventure.

n Collecting shells is a form of hunting, always looking for a rare species worthy of placing in a museum collection.

n Lives are enriched the shells discovered hold memories of the trip that produced the discovery or those who joined the hunt.

n Collecting shells is a means to an end. The treasures found on the beach are used for shell-crafting projects.

n Shells are beautiful.

n Shells reveal environmental clues.

n Shell collecting contributes to the body of scientific knowledge and provides a medium for research.

n Shells hold the secrets of the intriguing creatures that build them.

n Shell identification is a stimulating intellectual challenge.

Several events served as a reminder of my strongest personal motivation for pursuing this hobby, a passion for sharing this obsession with others in a way that may result in life changing experiences.

Several years ago my grandson presented me with what became my most cherished possession, the output of a school project. The assignment was to create a poster capturing information about the person most significantly influencing the student’s life and why. I was the recipient of that honor because in his words, “I spent time with him.” A number of pictures defined experiences like walking on the beach and visiting the bookstore or library. Each experience was related to sea life. He asked questions. I simply provided answers or experiences that supported his interests and curiosity. He committed to a career as a marine biologist, a dream still alive on his recent 13th birthday.

Last week I visited family in Texas. Fulfilling a long-held tradition, the contents of my suitcase included a gift for my three great nieces, age’s three to eight. I asked them to sit down at the kitchen table and close their eyes. On cue all three opened their eyes only to find a large pile of shells collected by their great aunt on the beaches of Sanibel. I’ll never forget their expressions of awe and curiosity as none of them have experienced visiting a beach. There were 45 shells, three each of the 15 species. It was their job to sort the treasures. As each species was identified they were provided with facts about where they live, what they eat, how they were named . . . An hour later we were still sitting around the kitchen table and they were just as mesmerized as when their gift was revealed. It was the least expensive gift I’d ever given them but the value of the memories far outweighed those provided by dolls and sticker books. Each child took their bag of shells home. Their parents report that daily they empty the contents of their shell bag, sort their shells by species and report back tidbits gleaned from our sharing time. The two older ones have started a collection of another kind. They’re collecting change to save for a plane ticket to visit Aunt Kathleen at the beach. Possibly another marine biologist will emerge, but at the very least three more children understand the magic and wonder of shells and the creatures responsible for building them.