Shells

Courtesy of SWITGARD DUESTERLOH

A variety of bivalve shells from Kodiak beaches.

“May you always have sand in your shoes and a shell in your pocket” read the text on a card a friend gave me a while ago. The card featured a mermaid; I like mermaids.

Often, when I put on a coat and put my hands in the pockets, I find a random shell or two there. I just can’t help it: When I am at the beach I always find some pretty shell and pick it up.

Some of these shells end up in the classroom of the Ocean Science Discovery Program, a few decorate the mantle above my fireplace at home, a shelf in my bedroom or a certain corner in the garden.

Some will change ownership when I gift them away decorating a dish or present. Some remain in my pocket until they break and turn into shell dust at which time they get sprinkled back into the environment. But it is true, I almost always have a shell in my pocket and there is often sand in my shoes.

I am not the only one attracted to pretty seashells. According to a 2009 article by Richard Coniff in Smithsonian Magazine titled “Mad about Seashells,” humans have collected seashells and made things (beads) out of them for more than 100,000 years, which means that it was done by the earliest human cultures.

So certainly, nobody would care for something as silly as the hard covering of a soft sea animal in our modern world? Not so: There are shell collectors who will pay a lot of money for some of the more rare and beautiful shells.

According to the above-mentioned article, at an 18th century auction, a snail shell of the species conus gloriamaris went for more money than a painting by the Dutch master painter Vermeer. In 2004, a Vermeer painting sold for $30 million; the shell, however, dropped in value after divers had discovered a distribution hot spot and found many more than the previously known six specimens.

Though I digress, the point I am trying to make is that there are seashell collectors and some spend a lot of money on the shells of rare and pretty snails and bivalves.

Many people get inspired by the inherent beauty of the form, structure and material of seashells to use them in art projects.

Common on our local beaches are the falsejingle or rock oyster, two common names for a white bivalve with a bottom shell featuring a hole where the animal attaches itself to a rock.

Jingles are wavy in structure like oysters, and newer individuals show a pretty mother of pearl covering on their inside.

Last year I collected some and turned them into gold, silver and bronze medals by spray-painting them and tying a red ribbon on.

I have also used clams from Kodiak beaches for painting, making figures, candles (filling them with wax and a wick) and necklaces. There are a few art project ideas to do with kids on my website keepkodiak.com under camp activities in the tab “Good reads.” Seashell projects are a great way to learn and create with your kids or even without kids.

On Kodiak beaches, you will commonly find clams of various species. Clams are more or less oval, always chalky, basically white, sometimes with a layer of black or green around the edge and grooves that run around the shell.

The common large ones are butterclams or the huge gaper clams, both of which are great for art projects. There are also several species of cockles, which are roughly heart-shaped and deeper than clams. They have grooves that also run up and down the shell as well as growth rings that go around.

The third common shells are mussels, which are black or purplish, sometimes worn to white around the higher part of the shell and shiny on the inside. If you find one that looks like what mermaids wear for a bra or like the company symbol for shell petroleum, that is a scallop. We have a small, red scallop here in Kodiak, which is the kind of pretty that would end up in my coat pocket.

All of these are bivalves, meaning that there are two halves of a shell that connect by means of a lock. If you find a cone shell or a spiral shell, they are from limpets and snails. Before taking a snail shell, always check first if there is a hermit crab living inside!

Newcomers to the Island often ask about the volcano shaped shells they find, which are usually bottomless, but sometimes feature a bottom plate. These are barnacles shells and they come in sizes from XS to XXL, with the big ones originating from the animal balanus nubilis, the largest barnacle species in the world.

The spirit of collecting seashells does have a dark side. If you travel to exotic places, you will often see seashells offered in souvenir shops or from street carts. Some of them are especially clean and colorful. Pristine condition of a shell usually means that it was taken with the animal still inside. The trade and sale of souvenir shells is not a regulated fishery and many shells are taken from animals harvested illegally.

Also, there is a difference if you are the only person on a beach in Alaska or if you are one of millions of tourists and locals frequenting a coastal area.

In many coastal areas of the world, the collection of shells has changed nearshore ecosystems because some animals depend on those empty shells for shelter.

Not only hermit crabs use empty shells, but also small octopus and fish. Also, shells provide substrate for small sessile creatures and seaweeds.

So, when on a beach walk here at home, go ahead and collect some shells to learn about them, make art and enjoy their beauty, but when traveling, you should think twice about the impact of depleting the beaches of their shells. It’s one of those perks of living where we do in an amazing place with few people.

Yesterday, we went for a long beach walk climbing over the rocks of a typical rocky Kodiak shoreline.

On our way back, as always loaded with shells in my pockets and the random buoys and plastic bottles that I pick up along the way, I came across an unusual find: Wedged between the rocks was a glass bottle with a letter inside.

We brought it home, dried it out and spent a lot of time trying to get the letter out through the bottleneck without breaking the bottle. When I finally uncurled the piece of paper it was a letter to the world from a child, or perhaps a little mermaid, describing her summer with coronavirus regulations.

Touched by the sharing of some private thoughts and feelings and the encouragement of the young author that everything will be alright, I have decided to keep this message, for I hope that one day someone will document the history of how COVID-19 changed young lives around the world.

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