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The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum offers beach walks in Fort Myers and Sanibel

By Staff | Jul 14, 2016

Dr. Leal explains the habitat of a cloudy periwinkle snail to guests. Cloudy periwinkle snails love to feed on microalgae. ASHLEY GOODMAN

Dr. Jose Leal, science director and curator of The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, began his first beach walk of the season at Bunche Beach in Fort Myers July 6.

According to Leal, the sightings on Bunche Beach are much different compared to Sanibel.

“On Sanibel, we get to see a lot of shells that served their purpose and now, they’re empty and the animal is gone. But on Bunche, most of what we see is live,” he explained. “It’s a nice complement to the Island Inn beach walks we do here.”

During the beach walk, participants can expect to see fighting conchs, mud snails, an abundance of sunray venus clams, live lightning whelks and crown conchs. The beach is also a prime area for birding enthusiasts.

The well-accomplished Dr. Leal was born in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Even from a young age, he was always involved with things related to the sea.

Dr. Leal holds part of an oyster shell. ASHLEY GOODMAN

“I was born two blocks from the ocean, so we always did things like fishing and diving, and all kinds of water-related things,” Leal said. “That’s what really prompted me to become a marine biologist and get involved with shells and now here I am after all these years.”

Besides being the science director and curator of the museum, Leal is a polished malacologist, a scientist who studies mollusks. He earned a bachelor and master’s degree from the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro. He holds a doctorate in marine biology and fisheries from the University of Miami. He did postdoctoral studies at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, he holds honorary faculty positions at the University of Miami and Florida Gulf Coast University, he is an affiliate member of the Coastal Watershed Institute and editor of The Nautilus, just to name a few.

While he was studying to get his Ph.D., Leal was visiting professor at the Musum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Leal recalls his time there as being very informative.

“It was a great experience seeing things done a different way in a place that is now one of the biggest centers in the world for natural history,” Leal said.

Currently, Leal is the president of Conchologists of America but he is getting ready to hand the torch over to someone else soon. As president, he oversees the well-being of the society, adopts new policies that are proposed and voted for and makes sure the society is abiding by all laws.

Ayano Kondo holds a sunray venus clam she found on the walk. ASHLEY GOODMAN

Despite all these note-worthy accomplishments, Leal heavily cherishes his early years at the shell museum. He considers it a “home-grown” project.

“By the time I left the directorship of the museum, the museum was accredited, financially stable and had an endowment. Things are moving at a much faster rate now. The museum is fully recognized not only by its professional peers, but by its local and domestic audience. It’s what I would take away with me in the end,” Leal said.

Island Inn Beach Walks

In addition to the Bunche Beach walks given by Dr. Leal, the shell museum also gives an hour long beach walk near the Island Inn on Sanibel. The tour is usually headed by Stefanie Wolf or Rebecca Mensch.

Mensch, a marine biologist, has been doing the beach walks for two years now. The walks used to run only once a week, but since they have been such a hit, the museum decided to increase the frequency.

Jaimmie Miller holds a crown conch. ASHLEY GOODMAN

Mensch said that even though she grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, she was always interested in becoming a marine biologist.

“When I was a kid, the Discovery Channel was still primarily focused on quality education nature documentaries and that is what I always watched instead of Saturday morning cartoons,” Mensch said.

In addition to doing beach walks and tank talks, Mensch is the museum’s aquarist. That title entails cleaning the aquariums, changing and testing the water and cleaning the filters. She also works with the scientific collection of species.

“Every specimen in our scientific collection must be properly identified, cataloged, labeled and stored. Since my masters thesis was on taxonomy, I work with the collection making sure specimens have the proper scientific names,” Mensch said.

During her walks, she tries to highlight that every beach walk is a little different. Something as simple as a gust of wind can decide what you’re going to find that day.

“Everyone always asks ‘what is the best beach for shelling’ and the honest answer is that there isn’t one, every tiny shift of wind direction affects the different parts of the island differently, so the weather is a huge factor in what shells are rolling up and where on any given day.

“One thing I always cover before the start of every beach walk is that shells are body parts from dead animals called mollusks and it is illegal to take a mollusk if it is still alive. That is called the live shelling ban,” she explained.

Mensch recalls that one of her guests’ best finds was actually on her first day of work at the shell museum. A young girl found a fairly rare alphabet cone.

“On my very first day of work at the museum, I shadowed Stefanie on her beach walk, and about five seconds after walking out on to the beach, a 10-year-old girl reached down into the sand and picked up a perfect one-and-a-half inch alphabet cone. Two years later, that is still the best shell any of the guests have found,” she said.

One of her best finds was an elusive sea slug that has never been found on Sanibel before.

“The museum has a live collecting permit from the state for research and education. Luckily, I had given notice to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation that I was planning on collecting that day, so I was able to bring the live animal to the museum to be photographed by our curator,” she said.

At the end of each beach walk, Mensch hopes guests take away a better understanding how precious and fragile the ecosystem is.

“Many guests tell me that they have an incredible new appreciation for finding a shell once they realize that it was made by an animal. Shells don’t just appear and they are not formed geologically like rocks. Many people also take away a new appreciation for the diversity and abundance of life forms that are in the ocean, especially on days where I can manage to find a micro-shell,” she said.