Seashell collecting was one of the recreational sports where strangers could meet, exchange phone numbers and addresses immediately– based on common love for their unique sport. As a lifelong collector, I have 10,000 of the world’s most beautiful and unique seashells– including every type of known and collectible seashell-even a Siamese conch. Over the past 10 years I observed the slow demise of what was once one of the world’s most popular pastimes-seashell collecting. The last person I encountered shell-hunting was Princess Diana, a few months before her tragic death. Sad to say: it seems as if the sport stopped after her death.
I was co-owner of 10 pink sandy beach cottages on Barbuda (sister isle of Antigua). My closest neighbour was the K-Club, where Princess Di stayed. Every morning, thousands of tiny pink sea shells would roll upon the stretch of beach, right in front of our cottages. Over the years, the ocean and the offshore reefs would grind those tiny shells into pink powdery particles and weave them into the sandy beach producing miles of pink sand. Princess Diana was the last person I saw shell hunting. She would walk down the two mile stretch every morning. As soon as she got to the large pink circle, she would stop on cue, as two strange sports fishermen raised their binoculars. Strange indeed: sports fishermen with long sleeves, golf hats, boat with the anchor up, drifting inside the reefs with lines overboard, in the while the engine was in neutral, allowing the boat to drift dangerously close to the sharp reefs.
Let me take this opportunity to advise security and secret service personnel. If you have clients in a country, try to learn as much as possible about the country first.
1. Local fishermen do not wear hats when going fishing.
2. People who love deep sea fishing have deep suntans-not pale or pink skin.
3. Neither charter guests nor local sports fishermen trawl near reefs.
4. If you are doing long line fishing, you anchor the boat.
5. You do not charter a boat with outriggers, and then use hand lines.
6. For hotels that border the Atlantic ocean, when you charter a Wellcraft or Bertram you either sightsee of deep sea fish-you cannot do both.
I reflected on how different some cultures are. In the capital (of Barbuda) Codrington, the police drew a line in the sand. The Paparazzi’s reputation preceded them and they were not allowed to venture over the imaginary line. The police asked them if they were guests of Pink Sands or K Club-they could not say yes because my cottages were not yet completed, and K club and CoCo Point hotels have their own private landing strip. I believe both have their own airplanes. Pink Sand Beach owners and Palmetto Club guests used the Codrington airport. Mark you: I had owners’ cottages I could have made available for free, but not for snoopers. Since I was a property developer and neighbour to the hotel where the princess stayed, those hounding photographers would try daily to get me to rent those rooms. I was not lying when I said the hotel was not yet open or ready for guests.
Years ago, you could tell a Caribbean repeat guest from a first-time guest just by observing his/her shell collecting habits. Experienced shell collectors would go through hundreds of shells, seeking the unique or elusive ones; newcomers would pick up every shell. Seasoned shell collectors would walk as far away as possible from the newcomers to avoid the usual “what type of shell is this?” Let us just say that the princess was a beginner shell collector-in my opinion.
10 years ago, Caribbean islands known for pristine beaches, could not stock enough shell collecting books. Today such books gather cobwebs. The younger traveler has so many choices today: horseback riding, windsurfing, scuba diving, offshore booze cruises, helicopter tours, and things like casinos-which were taboo then. The Cruise ship has changed the face of Caribbean tourism. To compete with those floating hotels, land-based properties now offer the same wide ranges of entertainment. Whereas a Caribbean vacation was the exclusive domain of the C.E.O or private yacht owner and his family, that is not so anymore.
Over the past 10 years, I returned to over 50 places where shell collectors would meet, and sad to say, I was the only shell collector on all of the locations. I took a weekend sail to one of the sparsely populated Grenadine islets. I found no more than 10 seashells and no other shell collector. I went to Lido-off Venice, I found perhaps 6 worthy of adding to my collection. I went to Darkwood Beach in Antigua-still one of the world’s top 10 beaches and once the “cone” capital of the world-not one collector. When I strolled the beach, I remembered my mother-in law fondly. The first English words she learned were cones and cowries. Her vocabulary then stretched to include volutes, donax, tellins, olives-she knew, but not the shell types. My mother-in-law, died a few years ago. So did retired U.S. Commander Aldridge. His collection is now on display at the Antigua Visitors’ Interpretation Centre in the Nelson’s Dockyard National Park.
I went to Anguilla. I was just in time to meet a returning fisherman. He had two fighting conch shells and three tulip shells in his net. When I shared with him my knowledge of fishing superstitions-how some fishermen loved to put tulip shells in their nets, he laughed heartily. When I asked him for the fighting conch shells, he was happy to give them to me.
I sailed to Great Bird Island, off Jumby Bay; visited my secret hotspots and found some very large cowries, but no shell collectors.
Contrary to popular beliefs, dredging has not depleted sea shell populations. Sea shells are protective homes for living mollusks. Crabs, octopus, murex, and sharks know how to pry the shells open to get highly-enriched protein snacks. Dredges will suck the discarded shells that lie on the ocean floor. However, the living mollusks will burrow into the sand to escape the probing dredges. I have visited the collection areas where dredges pump their silt and have retrieved thousands of seashells that way; I do not recall finding one with the live snail still attached. The demise of the collector means that new and larger supplies are there. However: enter the commercial wholesaler. Importers bulk order sea shells for jewelry shops. There are now hundreds of craft makers and jewelry makers who will cut and polish different types of seashells and sell them as jewelry. Most of the necklaces and beads are made of pieces of seashells. They are durable and naturally beautiful. I would prefer to see scores of people beachcombing, trading conversations as to which shells they are missing in their collections, swapping addresses and exchanging seashells the way we used to-rather than seeing them drilled and cut up. Judging from my 10 year survey, the sport is dying.
I went online and books on shelling are among the most discounted: even reviews are scarce. Coming to think of it: if the sport is losing participants, then it must mean that those who read about the sport and those who review books on the sport are dwindling also.