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Senior enjoys sharing shelling knowledge

By Staff | Sep 28, 2011

Jandy Bird, left, chats with Dotty DeVasure during Tuesday's free Beach Walk.

When it comes right down to it, Dotty DeVasure is a treasure hunter. And more often than not, she is successful in her quests.

Back in 1965, she and her husband, Lowell, discovered “the ultimate treasure” when they found a house on Sanibel.

“He was smart enough to buy property right on the beach,” said DeVasure. “We came here from Nebraska, so we didn’t much about shelling. But once we moved here, we both fell in love with it.”

More than 45 years later, Dotty is still as enthusiastic about searching for shells as she was back then. So much so that she hosts a free monthly Beach Walk, in conjunction with the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, sharing her vast knowledge about shelling, offering tips on how both long-time and first-time collectors can find and identify mollusks they might happen upon while strolling the island’s shorelines.

“People are always calling me a ‘lifelong’ shelling expert, but I didn’t start doing this until I was well into my adult years,” DeVasure told a small crowd gathered at Gulfside City Park on Tuesday morning. “They say life begins at 40… and I agree.”

Dotty DeVasure holds a sample of a tulip shell prior to Tuesday's monthly Beach Walk at Gulfside City Park.

The 87-year-old shelling enthusiast, whose birthday is Saturday, began her presentation by describing some of the gastropod (single shell) and bivalve (two-piece shell connected by a hinge) samples she has personally collected over the years. She also discussed informative details about the popular fighting conch (“They call it a fighting conch not because it’s mean or dangerous, but because it’s so active,” she noted.), how mollusks eat and move as well as the process of how shells grow during their lifetime.

“With mollusks, there’s no parenting,” said DeVasure, holding the remnants of a whelk egg case discovered during a recent shelling excursion. “The mother lays her egg case… then she’s done.”

On the last Tuesday of every month at 9 a.m., DeVasure – one of the most knowledgeable docents from the Shell Museum – brings groups of shellers onto the beach at Gulfside City Park, pointing out some of the native wildlife, birds and bits of nature spotted along the way.

However, once she and the participants reach the sand, it’s time for some serious shelling to begin!

“There are three places you can go looking for shells – the high tide line, the low tide line and out in the water,” she tells the group. “I prefer the lowest area possible, especially right after low tide and early in the morning.”

Beach Walk participants share their find with DeVasure.

According to DeVasure, the best times for shelling occur during a new moon, a full moon or following a storm. When winds from the northwest impact local tides, most frequently seen during winter months, hobbyists will find plenty of shells along the island’s coast.

“Sometimes when you have a low tide at night, you’ll see lots of people on the beach with their flashlights,” DeVasure added.

Throughout the hour-long walk, Dotty answers questions and helps participants identify shells found during their excursion.

Jandy Bird, a full-time Sanibel resident for the past eight years, took part in the Sept. 27 Beach Walk. Although she has been an active sheller for many years, she had never attended one of DeVasure’s outings.

“I always wanted to come out and go shelling with Dotty. She’s just fantastic,” said Bird, who explained that she learned something new about bivalves. “I never realized that when you find angel wings, you always find them separated.”

Dotty DeVasure, smiling as usual.

Asked why after so many years she still enjoys the simple pleasures of shelling, DeVasure smiled, looked around and breathed a complacent sigh.

“I like seeing the variety of nature and being surrounded by so much beauty – the birds, the sand, the water and the shells,” she added. “I usually go out expecting to find something exciting, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll say, ‘Oh well, maybe next time.'”

As long as there are treasures to be found, DeVasure will be out there looking for – and finding – them.

The monthly Beach Walk program is free, but City of Sanibel parking fees ($2 per hour) will apply. Call the Shell Museum’s Diane Thomas at 395-2233 or visit www.shellmuseum.org for additional information.

DeVasure holds up a whelk egg case.