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Although Sand Key is not touted as a shelling beach in tourist brochures, a persistent seeker will eventually find almost every type of shell here native to this coast.For many lovers of the seashore, the only way to stroll on a beach is to walk stooped over carrying a plastic grocery bag. These are seashell hunters, eyes peeled on the shore in search of beautiful bounty from the sea.
Contrary to what skeptics think, the beaches of Sand Key are rich in shells of every type, and a persistent shell seeker eventually will find nearly all that are native to Florida's west coast.
Shells have fascinated people since ancient times. The history of mollusks (the soft-bodied animals that live inside shells) is intertwined with the history of mankind. Early ancestors used shells as utensils, tools and ornaments. Shells were also used as money and as objects of barter. Have you ever wondered how the color purple became a symbol of royalty and richness -- the color used by kings and church hierarchy throughout history? In the days before Kit Fabric Dye, dyeing wasn't easy. Ancient Romans discovered that a royal purple dye could be extracted from murex seashells. Thousands of shells were needed to extract just a tiny amount of the dye by drying and boiling the soft bodies of the murex animals. Thus only the rich and famous could afford to wear this color. Antony and Cleopatra must have been loaded. It is said they had all the sails of their ships dyed purple for the battle of Actium.
So how does a modern-day shell seeker find success on Sand Key? The secret is to search at the right time. Because of the littoral and seasonal drift of currents, the fall seems to be the best time of the year, better yet immediately following a storm. The best time of the day is during the lowest of low tides. Bivalve shells are left stranded on the beach making for easy picking, if you can beat the birds to them. The harder-to-spot univalves can be found using a glass-bottom pail atop the water surface. Coquinas and olives are yours for the scooping with a kitchen colander.
Although I think Sand Key boasts an unadvertised special on shelling, they say there's a certain spot near the Florida / Georgia border that is even better. Tourists heading home after a vacation spent collecting live shells often get only as far as this spot before the uncleaned shells begin to heat up and smell. As if on cue, the tourists stop and add their collection to a dumpster already overflowing with bags of shells from other tourists, making this the richest accumulation of seashells in the state.
The point is, it's important to clean live shells. The easiest method is to put shells in a pan of warm water and slowly bring it to boil. This prevents sudden temperature changes from cracking the glossy shells of olives and cowries. The muscle relaxes and the mollusk can be scraped or pulled out with tweezers. For the no-fuss, no-muss method, you can let Nature do the job. Set your shells out under a tree for a few days and the ants will happily forego a picnic in favor of munching on your mollusks.. To bring out a shell's color, coat your specimens with 2/3 baby oil and 1/3 lighter fluid.
It's easier to find a fighting conch than it is to find a great book on Florida shells, but I've done both. Check out Florida's Fabulous Seashells by Winston Williams for a well-written illustrated tome about shells along the Florida seashore.
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