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Living in a shell world

By Staff | Aug 24, 2016

Dr. José Leal holds part of an oyster shell at Bunche Beach in Fort Myers. ASHLEY GOODMAN

Ever since Dr. Jose Leal was a youth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the ocean and what it harbors has been an important aspect in his life.

Living just a few blocks from the ocean in Rio during a time (1960s) when the beaches of Brazil were pristine, Dr. Leal literally grew up in the ocean by snorkeling and fishing.

It eventually became his obsession.

“I wanted to learn more and more (about the ocean),” Dr. Leal said.

So that’s exactly what he did, he learned more by moving to the United States and earning his PhD at the University of Miami in marine biology and fisheries. he also was a visiting professor at the Musum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in Paris, and postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Dr. José Leal. PHOTO PROVIDED

Eventually, his journey led him to the beaches of Sanibel and the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, where he has definitely made his footprint on the island and at the world-renowned shell institution.

Dr. Leal started his tenure at the National Shell Museum in the institution’s infant stages. It became a perfect match.

“The (Shell Museum) Board decided it was best to have someone with a professional scientific background and here I was,” Dr. Leal said. “My attraction, all things considered, is that I had an opportunity to work with a blank slate, given that the museum just opened to the public.

“I could help shape the beginning of the museum and the board knew what they wanted and that was to turn it into a professional institution. The whole idea was brilliant with Sanibel being the shelling mecca of the world. It made a lot of sense to have an education facility on the island and take advantage of the treasure we have on our beaches.”

For 17 years as the Executive Director of the National Shell Museum, Dr. Leal helped shape what it is today and the goal of establishing the museum as a highly-regarded professional institution. The National Shell Museum’s vast collection of shells is regarded as one of the finest in the world and currently includes 111,000 lots (which is the technical term of shells collected during one visit to the beach and could include any number of shells).

The National Shell Museum also was awarded its first accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums in 2010.

But being executive director took much time being a fundraiser, administrator and a public relations master. Although Dr. Leal enjoyed his time as executive director and is proud of the accomplishments he claimed during that period, three years ago he stepped into a more familiar role.

Dorrie Hipschman came on as executive director at a “perfect time” in the National Shell Museum’s evolution, while Dr. Leal was able to become the science director and curator, which allowed him to spend much more time as his favorite role – being a scientist.

“Dorrie really came in at the right moment, when the museum needed a different type of leadership and she has much experience working in these types of institutions,” Dr. Leal said. “She and I work very well together and I help her and the staff with more of the scientific aspects of the museum, such as (creating) new exhibits and ensure all the information is factual.”

Dr. Leal also has had great success adding to the vast shell collection with his many contacts in the shell world internationally. Different educational institutions and museums are loaned shell collections for their exhibits or to learn more about them from the National Shell Museum.

“We are lucky to have someone like Dr. Leal here at the National Museum as one of the leading malacologists in the field,” Hipschman said.

The goal of teaching people the importance of mollusks in the cycle of life is also been being reached and Dr. Leal said that momentum must keep moving forward.

“We want to be raising more awareness about the living world and the importance of mollusks in it,” Dr. Leal said. “We hope to foster more appreciation of preserving the environment. The museum has expanded its audience by more than double over the years, especially since Dorrie has come aboard. I have seen people becoming more and more understanding of the general awareness of our environmental problems.”

Dr. Leal has two daughters, Julia (23 years old) and Cecilia (29 years old) and along with his partner, Kimberly Nealon, have been enjoying what Sanibel has offered for the last 17 years.

From the beaches of Rio to the shell-filled sands of Sanibel, Dr. Leal has made a positive influence on spreading awareness of the importance of the largest group of species in the oceans – mollusks.

He has done it by helping carry the banner of the Baileys-Matthews National Shell Museum and aiding in making it one of the top educational institutions of the malacology field in the world.