From Minus Degrees To Minus Tides In A Millenium Miracle
Shelling The West Coast Of Florida
By Karen VanderVen
     The lowest tides in one hundred years and shelling guide Peggy Williams’ December 19th –26th Florida Shelling trip, on which you shelled a different spot on the Florida west coast each day - who could resist? Having read the announcement of the trip, I couldn’t and fled cold and snowy Pittsburgh for Florida.

     Peggy’s first task after picking me up in Sarasota was to get the rest of the group, totaling six - Hadley Young, Stephanie Spikell, Ed Frayer, Clare Horner and myself - assembled. Half of us caravaned to the Tampa airport, where the other three were to be picked up. "How will we find them?" someone lamented. When we got to the sidewalk outside the baggage claim area, I was dispatched to round them up. I cut to the chase. "Anyone here going on a shell trip?" I boomed as I strode into the milling crowd. Faster than an olive pounces on a coquina, the shellers came forward, and we were soon on our way to Cedar Key, our first stop.

     As we made our way up the west coast, chattering away, I "felt in my bones" that there would be something very special about this trip and that by the time it was over, this unique aspect would have emerged. And so it came to pass.

- Flat On A Major Key -

     We spent the night in Cedar Key at the Beachfront Motel, well known to generations of shell collectors who have stayed there during club field trips. We were to get up before dawn to go out on the exposed flat across the street that only appears during the lowest tide. When we went to bed there was no sign of it. Upon awakening the next morning, while it was still pitch dark, I heard a voice from upstairs, "I don’t see any flat out the window". "What?" I thought for a second. "Has the millennium arrived already? Have the tides reversed?" When I went out and crossed the street, however, there was the flat - eerily extending out as a whitish luminescence into the dark, surrounded by tiny wavelets lapping at its edges. I could see, too, how someone looking out some of the motel windows facing away from the flat would of course see only water.

Cedar Key Flats

Cedar Key Flat

     Knowing that the flat was still there, I wanted to get underway. With the excitement of young children awakening in the pre-dawn of a Christmas morning, flashlights winking, we strode onto the flat. As it gradually got lighter, the finds were being recorded: tiny live Busycon spiratum (Pear Whelk), Neverita duplicata (Shark Eye), Melongena corona (Crown Conch), Busycon perversum (Lightning Whelk), Fasciolaria tulipa (True Tulip) and Cinctura hunteria (Eastern Banded Tulip). In the seaweed clumps at the edge of the flat were Costoanachis semiplicata (Gulf dove snail), and for lucky Clare, a wentletrap, Epitonium humphreysii (Humphrey's Wentletrap).* For everyone were large and majestic Dinocardium robustum, when we could reach them before the gulls did; and Sinum perspectivum (White Baby Ear). Under the oyster clusters were two of my favorites, Urosalpinx tampaensis (Tampa Drill) and Vokesinotus perrugatus (Gulf Oyster Drill). For the lovers of small shells were Modulus modulus (Buttonsnail), Olivella cf. floralia (cf. Rice Olive), Nassarius vibex (Bruised Nassa), Prunum apicinum (Common Atlantic Marginella), Turbonilla incisa (Etched Turbonille),* Littoraria irrorata (Marsh Periwinkle) and Terebra dislocata (Eastern Auger). There were also an interesting brown and white striped Mercenaria mercenaria notata (Gaudy Hardclam)* that Peggy explained was a product of local mariculture and other bivalves such as Anomalocardia cuneimeris (Pointed Venus), Mulinia lateralis (Dwarf Surfclam), Chione elevata (Say, 1822) and Carditamera floridana (Broad-ribbed Carditid).

     Peggy helped shellers identify Crytopleura costata (Angel Wing) holes and indeed one digger got down far enough to reach one reclusive specimen that retracted and broke its shell. There seemed to be an implicit agreement among us that we would not pursue these recalcitrant piddocks despite spotting their distinctive holes here and there.

     We all smiled later reflecting on the help we had given a forlorn seeker of sand dollars out on the flat. Sand dollar dark gray round shapes and trails were everywhere, but somehow this fellow couldn’t recognize these as he literally stepped on them.

     On our way south to be ready for our next day’s shelling in the St. Petersburg area, we made a stop at the Lipes’ Shell Store. There I not only was able to stock up on the tiny bags that I need for my micro specimens but also to fulfill my long time hope to acquire a Conus delessertii (Sozon’s Cone)* with an operculum.

- It Doesn’t Get Better Than This -

     The next day thus found us south of St. Petersburg under bright skies, with extensive territory to plumb both in Tampa Bay and on the Gulf side. "Last one in is a rotten egg cockle!" I sang as I headed out trying to decide whether to start with the acres of exposed flats, rocks, mud or grass beds.

     There were marvelous shells, large and small. Some were the same species we had found on Cedar Key but there were new ones as well: Seila adamsii (Adams’ Dwarf Cerith),* Triplofusus giganteus (Horse Conch), Strombus alatus (Florida Fighting Conch), Oliva sayana (Lettered Olive), and a paper bubble (Haminoea) species. In one small area I found several slender and sharp-pointed black and gray Terebra protexta (Fine-ribbed Auger).

     Bivalves included Angulus tampaensis (Tampa Tellin), Angulus versicolor (Many-colored Tellin), Laevicardium mortoni (Yellow Eggcockle) and dozens of pairs of huge dead Macrocallista nimbosa (Sunray Venus) and Micromelo undatus (Miniature Melo). Time rushed by as fast as the water rolls back in when the tide turns. As we piled into the van glowing with pleasure, I exclaimed "It doesn’t get better than this." Well, actually it does - as we found out the next day.

- Tiptoe (Or Run) - To The Tulips -

     What could be more glorious than to climb on a boat just as the rays of the rising sun glint on the gently moving waters of a South Florida inlet and head to an obscure flat in the mangrove islands off of Goodland? Further enhancing this experience for me was the fact that the trim, speedy vessel I rode on was captained by Phil Miller, whom I had met on Peggy’s summer Bahamas trip. We enjoyed catching up, and I was all ears for Phil’s tales of shelling in the area. Soon we had spilled out of the boats and in traditional shellers’ pose were pecking over the flat like so many birds looking for worms.

     When collecting shells our senses are sharpened - we look for that change in the stimulus input, usually visual, but sometimes auditory, that leads us to a new find. When my own intense search for flashes of color and puffs in the sand or grass was interrupted by a heightening and quickening of chattering voices across the flats, I knew somebody had found something special. Trotting over and joining others who similarly knew something was up, I discovered that the prize was a spectacular bright red true tulip, found by one of the members of the Sarasota Shell Club who had joined us for the Goodland trip.

West Indian Fighting Conch

Strombus pugilis

     Suddenly, as if seized by gold fever, each of decided that we had to find a red tulip, and we intensely prospected the flat, heads down, uncovering any likely protuberance. Several more red tulips indeed were found. While I was not one of the lucky ones, I did acquire an almost pitch - black specimen. A quick stop at an adjacent island and the Goodland excursion was over, but not until it yielded a wonderful array of species not found at our earlier sites, including: Conus anabathrum (Florida Cone), Conus stearnsii (Stearns’ Cone),* Strombus pugilis (West Indian Fighting Conch), Chicoreus pomum (Apple Murex), Chicoreus dilectus (Lace Murex), Gemophos tinctus (Conrad, 1846) (Tinted Cantharus), Calotrophon ostrearum (Muave-mouth Drill), Tellina lineata (Rose-petal Tellin), Argopecten irradians taylorae (Southern Bay Scallop), Tagelus divisus (Purplish Tegulus), Solen viridis (Green Jackknife), Dallocardia muricata  (Linnaeus, 1758) (Yellow Pricklycockle), Periglypta listeri (Princess Venus), Globivenus rigida (Rigid Venus), Semele proficua (Atlantic Semele), Macoma tenta (Elongate Macoma), Chione elevata, Tellina similis (Candystick Tellin), and Anomia simplex (Common Jingle). There were abundant pairs of Trachycardium egmontianum (Shuttleworth, 1856) (Florida Pricklycockle) - including an albino.

     Heading northward again to Sarasota, we stopped on the way at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island. There, by Peggy’s special arrangement, we were able to meet with Dr. Josť Leal, the curator, and have a behind-the-scenes tour that featured the museum’s project to encourage school children’s involvement in shell study and collecting. Ed Frayer’s special interest in birds led to our driving through the Ding Darling bird sanctuary which enabled us all to add to our life lists such spectacular avian species such as Roseate Spoonbills, Great Blue and Greenback Herons, Belted Kingfishers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Pied-billed Grebes, Double Breasted Cormorants, Anhingas, and a number of others.

- King Crown Me -

     Our final morning was spent shelling huge grassy flats and oyster beds extending in the low tide way out into Sarasota Bay. The morning was gloriously nippy and bracing with bright sun and deep blue sky, although we shivered under our parkas until our concentration on shells and the wintry sun warmed us. "Look for large Crown Conchs," Peggy suggested as we all scattered, and for tiny species hidden in the empty clam shells the whelks have eaten." There were huge whelks and tulips everywhere and we were able to observe the eternal cycle of nature from life to death as we saw shells both laying eggs and eating each other. Following Peggy’s advice, I began scanning the dead bivalves. Soon I found Gulf oyster drills, Eupleura sulcidentata (Sharp-rib Drill) and Gulf dove snails. There were also Dosinia elegans (Elegant Dosinia), Button Snails, Cerithium muscarum (Flyspeck Cerith) and on the minuscule side, Turbonilla conradi (Conrad’s Turbonille),* Pyrgocythara plicosa (Plicate Mangelia)* and Peggy’s Lyonsia floridana (Florida Lyonsia).

     The really large Crown Conchs didn’t seem to be out this day, but I found two fine, unusual curly spined specimens, which was easy consolation. Also interesting were the knobless Lightning Whelks special to this area. I was thrilled when one of my Gulf Oyster Drills turned out later to be albino.

- A Millennium Miracle -

     There were two incredible aspects to this trip and to the shell finds. One, gratifyingly, was the sheer quantity and vitality of the marine life; the other was the range of color and sculpture of the mollusks.

     In my many years of periodically scanning Florida beaches, I have never seen so much exposed area to explore and so much vibrant sea life. You could even hear it as you trudged gingerly across a flat - little hisses and poppings; a tiny squirt of water, a subtle sense of movement nearby. A crusty Horse Conch turned out to be living shell haven, four Gulf Oyster Drills living on it, while inside was a pair of Common Jingles, and several Crepidula. The sheer abundance of so many species allowed a great deal of selectivity. One could look over a specimen and decide whether it would add a new dimension to one’s collection, or whether it would be best left. How wonderful to be able to collect such superior specimens while leaving so much shell life behind.

     The utter beauty and variety of these classic Florida shells really hit me after I got them home and cleaned, a process that has transformed the earthly into the celestial. Two slimy pairs of cockles have turned out to be stunning Dallocardia muricata (Yellow Pricklycockle) - each valve suffused with varying shades of yellow deepening into orange and speckled with reddish purple flecks. The Tellina radiata (Sunrise Tellin) are a deep, dark pink. One of Clare’s Bay Scallop pairs is as orange as a citrus grove fruit, rather than its usual gray, and to me this, along with the red tulip, are the shells-of-the-trip!

     The Florida Fighting Conchs filled my every hope for color variations: one of them is as unique in coloring as the sunrise above Goodland, as if it were a mirror. The body whorl of the shell is whitish orange, and the aperture is white with a splash of lavender. Other shellers found them with purple and white apertures. I also found that I had a perfect light orange West Indian Fighting Conch. Large dead Lightning Whelks, crusty and slimy on the flats, cleaned up are handsome with their shiny orange, and purple and white, apertures. A lovely pair of tulips has slender orange stripes as well as the customary dark bands. Several Apple Murex had purple, rather than the usual orange, apertures. The Lettered Olives were especially shiny and richly marked; those from Goodland had a deep golden cast. And I could go on and on.

- Home Alone -

     I’ve developed a new strategy with which to combat "post-shell trip" depression induced at the thought of having to return north - stay over an extra day. I nipped out by myself to Longboat Key just as the tide was turning on this wintry Florida day. At the edge of little sand spit, live whelks and strombs poked out. Along the beach were incredibly, six pairs of Macrocallista maculata (Calico Clam) and more pairs of Plicatula gibbosa (Atlantic Kittenpaw) than I have ever found in a lifetime of shelling. Just washing up was a 2-inch fresh dead Eastern Auger. On another flat, olive trails and the distinctive sand humps of White Baby Ears accompanied a huge colony of Florida Fighting Conchs. Completely fulfilled with my finds from the trip, I felt no need to take any of these live shells - it was uplifting just to look at them thriving.

     Finally, and regretfully, to the airport. Tucked in my window seat, I followed the Gulf of Mexico coastline as the plane flew North. Looking down, soon I saw a silhouette of land that was unmistakable - Cedar Key! Extending way outward from the curled spit of land, brownish under the shallow blue-green water, was the sand bar that we had shelled the first day. Still there! I smiled to myself, and, as the plane veered to the right back over land, I turned away from the window.

*Common names not listed in Turgeon, D. D., J. F. Quinn, Jr., A. E. Bogan, E. V. Coan, F. G. Hochberg, W. G. Lyons, P. M. Mikkelsen, R. J. Neves, C. F. E. Roper, G. Rosenberg, B. Roth, A. Scheltema, F. G. Thompson, M. Vecchione, and J. D. Williams, 1998. Common and scientific names of aquatic invertebrates from the United States and Canada: Mollusks, 2nd edition. American Fisheries Society, Special Publication 26, Bethesda, Maryland, U.S.A.