Shells Go Wild – Shelling on Sanibel Island, Florida

Guest post by Julie Henning

If you’re supposed to learn something new every day, then it only took me about 33 years to realize sea shells are made by an animal—mollusk, to be exact. On a recent trip to The Bailey-Matthew’s Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, Florida, the 30-minute film documentary The Secret Lives of Seashells shifted my snail paradigm.

Shelling on Sanibel Island (c) Sanibel IslandA skeleton and a protection mechanism, even my four-year-old pieced together this biology lesson, “The mollusk lives in its home, mom!” Because shells hold living organisms, here are some tips we learned for shelling on the beach.

Typically shells wash to the beach due to cold weather, strong winds, full moons, new moons, and low tides. As most of Italy knows, mollusks are excellent with pasta and crab. In nature, they just eat each other. Without a foot to maneuver or dig into and out of the ocean floor, the shells wash to the beach and (the majority of the time), they are empty.

But, sometimes you get a “live one” in your sand pail. Try not to panic. Try not to think of slugs in the Pacific Northwest. First and foremost, it’s illegal on Sanibel Island to make a mollusk a pet. If the shell appears to be alive (watching The Secret Lives of Seashells is a big help in making this determination), wade into waist-deep water and gently place it on the ocean floor. If this is not possible, avoid throwing the shell out into open water or crashing waves. Roll up your capris, and get it out as far as you can.

If you have a lack of squirming and some bodily remains, first decide how much you really like the shell. Then, follow these suggested mollusk removal tips:

  1. Find some fire ants (this is not a difficult task in most of Florida) and treat the colony to a midnight snack. Carefully soak the shell in water the next day (removing any extra material with a tweezers). Of course, with this method, you run the risk of unwanted ant bites or someone accidentally pocketing your treasure.
  2. Freeze and tweeze. If your vacation home or hotel has a freezer, place the shells in a plastic bag (zip loc bags work the best) for a few hours. Remove the bag and let the shells come to room temperature. Remove any extra material with a tweezers and repeat this process as necessary.
  3. Soak the shells in water, changing the water often. If you decide to boil the water on a stove, note that high temperatures may cause shell damage. Whatever you do, don’t cook the shells in a microwave. If you decide to add bleach to the water, note that bleach will ruin certain types of shells.

Shelling on Sanibel Island by Julie Henning

When your shell is odor and bacteria-free, you’re probably ready to pack it up for the trip back home. Ironically, one of the best places to store a shell is in sand. If trunk space allows, fill the beach toys back up with sand and use nature’s finest packing material.

Little Boy Shelling on Sanibel Island by Julie Henning

If weight, space, or taking the beach home with you is an issue, shells can be lined in a beach towel and carefully folded in rows. Some people like to wrap the shells in toilet paper or bubble wrap for extra protection. In a suitcase, TP-ing your shells is the most compact, efficient way of protecting them for a temporary ride home in your dirty clothes.

Julie Henning is the “Feed Me” and Geocaching editor for Road Trips for Families, a travel website for families with a map and the open road.

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