A Shelling Trip To Key West
By Martin E. Tremor, Jr.
     It was that perfect kind of a day that dreams are made of. The June sun was hot - after all, this was the Florida Keys, but it was not that sultry humid kind of hot found in the Keys in July and August.

     Our travels down this beautiful chain of islands was to be the realization of a long standing dream. To shell the Keys with someone who knew what she was doing. On this trip we were to meet up with Peggy Williams, hostess and guide of Shell Elegant. The two of us, along with other shellers from as far away as California, Maryland, and North Carolina, were to converge in Key West for three days of shelling secret productive areas accessible only by small boat. Peggy knew the boat captains to contact, and their speedy 25-foot center console sports craft would have us shelling within 30 minutes of leaving the dock.

Day One - The Back Country

     Conrad and I met Peggy and the group at the Oceanside Marina on Stock Island at noon. This day we were headed for a special little island in the back country north of Key West and on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. What a beautiful place for snorkeling this turned out to be. Calm crystal clear water protected by a submerged natural rock wall on one side! The water depth was about three feet with many deeper holes scattered all along the outer face of the wall. This was indeed the perfect place "to get your snorkel wet," so to speak.

     This lovely spot was known in the past to be the home of the graceful Milk Conch, Strombus costatus Gmelin, 1791. On this day, however, the Milk Conchs were most conspicuous by their absence. Blame it on El Nino? Although no live specimens graced our collecting bag, several recently dead ones were found. Conrad found one that was so "recently dead" that it reeked of dead animal. A good stout swishing around in the water quickly cleared up that problem and a beautiful nearly seven inch specimen came aboard the boat.

     Common in the area were Caribbean Vase Shells, Vasum muricatum (Born, 1778). I got so carried away adding more and more specimens to my collecting bag that I could barely drag them back to the boat. Once on board, I quickly chose four of the best specimens and sent the rest back to their watery paradise. Several Chestnut Latirus, Leucozonia nassa (Gmelin, 1791) were found in this same area and the American Star Shell, Lithopoma americanum (Gmelin, 1791) was abundant.

     Beyond the natural rock wall were beautiful sand flats all the way to the shore of the island. Here I found numerous bivalves, all dead but in perfect condition, complete with hinges intact. The Pennsylvania Lucina, Linga penslyvanica (Linnaeus, 1758), the Tiger Lucina, Codakia orbicularis (Linnaeus, 1758), and the Princess Venus, Periglypta listeri (Gray, 1838) were the most common.

     As we snorkeled past the tiny island the bottom changed to pure sand. It was here that we found the Fighting Conch, Strombus alatus Gmelin, 1791, and several especially clean Lightning Whelks, Busycon perversum (Linnaeus, 1758). By this time our group was pretty well tuckered out, and the "return to the boat" signal was a welcome sound. It had been a busy afternoon, and we were ready to sit back and enjoy the beautiful 30-minute ride back to the marina.

Day Two - The Reef

     The morning dawned with one of those tropical sunrises that the Florida Keys are famous for. The weatherman, on the other hand, was not so positive about the day. It seems that a tropical wave was located over Cuba and could make its way to Key West by afternoon. When we arrived at the marina, Peggy and our captains were in deep discussion as to whether we should go to the reef as planned for that day or would we be better off to go elsewhere and move the reef trip to another day. Soon an agreement was reached. We would go the reef six miles offshore as planned. However, if the weather became threatening, we would have to hightail it for shore. Safety is always first and foremost on the mind of any boat captain, and Captain Paul and Captain Pauly were certainly no exceptions.

     It turned out to be a perfect decision, for not only was the weather beautiful all morning - it was beautiful all day. We went to a lovely small "island?" on the reef. Actually it was more like a barren sand and rock spit sitting atop the offshore reef. This was a bird sanctuary and we were forbidden to go ashore here. However, we could snorkel and turn over rocks all around the tiny island. On the ocean side was the reef itself. To the mainland side of the island was a lovely lagoon and it was here that we anchored the boat, affording us easy snorkeling in all directions. Directly below the boat was grass, grass and rubble towards the island, and large rocks and the actual reef around the tip of the island.

     In the grass we found huge Pink Conchs, Strombus gigas Linnaeus, 1758 with perfect flaring lips. Oh, how I wanted one of these beauties! The law said "no," however, so they were photographed and safely returned to their marine grazing grounds. In Florida, the Pink Conch is protected and may not be collected. Fines are heavy for offenders.

     On the submerged rocks the Deltoid Rock Shell, Thais deltoidea (Lamarck, 1822), and the Carved Star Shell, Astraea caelata (Gmelin, 1791), were abundant. Peggy found one of the largest Coral Shells, Coralliophila abbreviata (Lamarck, 1816), that I have ever seen. She also uncovered a lovely little Star Arene, Arene cruenta (Mühlfeld, 1829). Under the larger rocks we found the Atlantic Yellow Cowrie, Cypraea acicularis Gmelin, 1791, and the Atlantic Gray Cowrie, Cypraea cinerea Gmelin, 1791; not abundant by any means, but we did find a few. Also under the larger rocks were Mouse Cones, Conus mus Hwass in Bruguière, 1792.

     On the beautiful purple sea fans we found live Flamingo Tongues, Cyphoma gibbosum (Linnaeus, 1758), with their gorgeous spotted mantle mostly covering their shells. Conrad found one specimen which was purple with a lovely purple and white shell. The shell itself was small (20 mm.) and more elongate then the regular Cyphoma gibbosum. As of this writing, the shell is still unidentified. Several experts have looked at it saying it is either Cyphoma sedlaki Cate, 1976 or Cyphoma mcgintyi Pilsbry, 1939.

     Other shells collected on the reef were Cymatium labiosum (Wood, 1828), Cymatium nicobaricum (Röding 1798), Tegula lividomaculata (C.B. Adams, 1845), Conus regius Gmelin, 1791, Mitra barbadensis (Gmelin, 1791) and Pisania pusio (Linnaeus, 1758). This had indeed been a magical day. The reef area abounded with brightly colored tropical fish for our amusement and a harmless visiting reef shark (or were we visiting him?) sent several people dashing for the boat. As the afternoon drew to a close we were all exhausted as we climbed aboard for the return trip to Key West. We reluctantly said good-bye to "our reef". The beauty of this spot will be long remembered.

Day Three - Beyond Key West

     Although the overseas highway which connects the islands of the Florida Keys ends in Key West, the actual keys continue another 71 miles in a westerly direction to terminate at the Dry Tortugas. On this, our last day of shelling, we would be heading in that direction to shell areas beyond Key West.

Strombus raninus     Our first stop was at an area of vast Turtle Grass flats. Some years ago a navy destroyer went aground here. In an operation to free the ship a deep channel was dug through the grass flats. In digging the channel, large rocks and coral slabs were tossed into the shallow water on each side. Peggy knew this little known area well, and knew this environment to be the home of the big cowries.

     Peggy was right! We found lots of the big cowries here. Unfortunately the majority of them were juvenile specimens. These lovely young shells were admired and returned to grow, mature and bring forth more juveniles of their kind. We did find keepers too, both the Atlantic Deer Cowrie, Cypraea cervus Linnaeus, 1771 and the Measled Cowrie, Cypraea zebra Linnaeus, 1758. What a thrill it is to turn over a large rock and find one of these beauties alive right before your eyes!

     In this area I also found a live Hawk-wing Conch, Strombus raninus Gmelin, 1791 in the sand and rubble that lined the channel. Just as we were about to depart this area I came upon a truly beautiful Horse Conch, Triplofusus giganteus (Kiener, 1840). This was a magnificent shell that must have been a good 16 inches long. It was more shell than I wanted to be bothered cleaning, so I gave it to a gentleman from North Carolina. In retrospect I do wish I had kept the shell; it was indeed a fine specimen.

     Along the western edge of the channel there was a small island that had formed, and it was surrounded by huge rocks jutting out of the water. Here, on the exposed rocks, we found many nerites, both the Bleeding Tooth, Nerita peloronta Linnaeus, 1758, and the Four-toothed Nerite, Nerita versicolor Gmelin, 1791.

     During the afternoon we moved further west along some beautiful ocean beaches. One of these beaches was known to be the home of the Hawk-wing Conch. Once again on the day of our visit the conchs were nowhere to be found. Who knows why? Possibly they had moved into deeper cooler water. We did find a few good dead specimens. This was one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire Florida Keys. The boats stayed offshore in a swash channel that was clear as crystal. We watched a pair of Permit swim by and then a six-foot Tarpon. It is amazing what you can see in the clear water. We even saw a washtub-size Stingray slowly searching the sand for food. We snorkeled to our hearts' content and walked the lovely beach. Even though shells were scarce on this visit, we did find some nice recently dead bivalves, complete with hinges intact, namely the Faust Tellin, Arcopagia fausta (Pulteney, 1799), and the Sunrise Tellin, Tellina radiata Linnaeus, 1758.

     All too soon it was time to head for home. Captain Paul took the long way back to the dock so that he could show us Key West at every possible angle. It was a glorious trip back to the marina. Once at the dock we said our goodbyes to our fellow shellers and, at least for myself, a promise was made to hopefully return next year for another chance to "shell Key West."

*Adapted from an article published in Tidelines, September, 1998; newsletter of the St. Petersburg Shell Club.

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