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Q&A with Shell Museum Director Dr. Jose Leal

By Staff | Nov 5, 2009

Dr. Jose Leal is director and curator for the Bailey- Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel. His knowledge and enthusiasm for mollusks is contagious.

We heard you grew up in Brazil. Can you share some of your experience?

Yes, I was born in Rio, a coastal city in Southeast Brazil, surrounded by a strong sea-going culture and beach-oriented lifestyle. Since I was a little kid I was enthralled by the beauty and power of the ocean; this set me on a path to a career in marine biology and sea water-related activities.

Can you tell us a little bit about Brazilian Culture?

Brazil is a very large country, larger than the continental USA. As such, Brazilian culture is a mosaic of different cultures, from the cosmopolitan lifestyles of Rio and So Paulo to the tribal ways of the rainforest people. It is also important to know that the country has a very long coastline that extends for more than 5,000 miles along the southwestern Atlantic Ocean. Most of the Brazilian population lives along the coast. As a result, the culture is largely influenced by this closeness to the ocean.

What do you miss most about not living in Brazil?

That’s an interesting question, one that I always think about. I left the country 25 years ago this coming December. Consequently, a lot of the things I miss by not living there now are not things that I could find or re-live today. Places change, people come and go, and one’s perception of all that also changes. But I miss some of the food, the colder sea-water, waves on the beach, and obviously my friends and family, specially my brother and my dad, who is now 86.

What brought you to Sanibel?

The job of running the Shell Museum, in early 1996.

What do you appreciate most about Sanibel?

A lot! From the environment standpoint, the beauty of the beaches and the myriad ways the Gulf and the bays interacts with the coast, the beautiful plan associated with the city incorporation in 1974, the mangroves, “Ding” Darling, and the Shell Museum!

What differences/ similarities do Sanibel and Brazil share?

It is hard to compare a relatively small island with an entire country, but I think one could say that they have in common a relaxed way of living, lots of coastline, friendly people, and nature. Differences are many, slower pace of life and a more widespread appreciation for the environment conservation on Sanibel.

We know you are the Executive director/curator of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. What do you do as director?

Most of all, I carry out the broader decisions and policies determined by the Board of Trustees. In that capacity, I oversee the daily operations of the organization and work to guarantee that the Museum remains a healthy and viable institution. I am also in charge of ensuring that the Museum maintains its academic standing and the respect and professionalism it certainly deserves from its peers in the broader museum community in the USA and the world.

What inspired you to choose a path in malacology?

How else? Love for shells since early childhood!

How would one get into this field?

Usually by pursuing an undergraduate degree in biological sciences, optionally followed by a graduate degree in zoology, marine biology, environmental sciences, etc.

Why are shells so important?

Shells are made by mollusks, which is the second largest group of animals on earth, after insects, and the largest group of marine animals. They have been around since the Cambrian, about 540 million years ago. Mollusks have been an important source of food for humans and an inspiration for artisans, crafters, architects since the beginning of human culture. Some of them, as for instance oysters, are also important indicators of environmental health.

What is the most interesting mollusk? Why?

Squids. Because of their exclusive behavior, their fast swimming habits, ability to change color at the wink of an eye, and other features. In some ways, squids behave more like fish than like your run-of-the-mill garden snail, to which they are more closely related.

How can people learn more about shells?

By coming to Shell Museum, participating in its programs, becoming a Museum member, and visiting its web site (shellmuseum.org. The Museum opens the doors for an universe of knowledge about shells, their lifestyles, use in human cultures, and role they play in the natural environment.

What is the best way to collect shells?

Walking along the beach at low tide is the best known and universally acclaimed way to collect shells. To that, you can add layers of complexity, such as using a boat and diving gear, to enhance your chance to find that elusive specimen.

Where should folks look for the prized junonia?

Anywhere along the Gulf shores of Sanibel and Captiva at low tide. They are there, although I never found one myself.

With Celebrate Sanibel! coming up what is the Shell Museum going to do to honor the event?

The Shell Museum will honor the past, celebrate the present, and anticipate the future of the island by discussing how the Museum contributes local and national communities. There will be a presentation by me at 2 p.m., on Nov. 12. New Museum programs will be introduced and the unique means of the educational mission of the Museum will be explored.

What do you do for your leisure time when you are not at the Shell Museum?

I like to do house work, read, watch movies, and have this year joined the ranks of stand-up paddling aficionados. This is done by standing up on a large surfboard and paddling using a long single-blade. I have learned a lot about the exquisite backwaters of Sanibel and Captiva by doing that.

What is your family life like?

Very quiet, watching movies, and taking care of the house.

What are your long/short-term goals?

As expected, to strive for better Shell Museum, and working to enhance its audiences and fulfillment of its mission.

You always seem so relaxed and easy going. What do you attribute your happiness to?

If I give that impression is probably because I enjoy what I do at the Shell Museum and have a happy life!