Sanibel -- It Rhymes With Shell
By Betty Lowry, member Society of American Travel Writers
© 1998 Betty Lowry
The two little girls on the boat from Sanibel Harbour to Sanibel Island had plastic bags and a mission.
"We're going to find a junonia," said Emily, age 9.
"And be very famous and have our pictures in the paper," said Anna, age 6.
Their mother sighed. So much for the finer points of scientific investigation, but yes, they had been to the new Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum the day before and demanded another beachcombing excursion before going home to Connecticut that afternoon.
Our boat made a wet landing, and though it was only a little past 9am, the beach was far from empty. People of all ages were trailing along the damp edge, eyes to the sand, then bending to examine and pick up shells in the contortion known hereabouts as the "Sanibel Stoop." The girls delayed long enough for final smears of sunscreen then were off to seek fame and fortune.
"Remember--live shells go back in the water!" their mother called after them. They knew that.
Sanibel, a barrier island off Florida's semitropical southwest coast, is synonymous with seashells. It is, in combination with its neighbor, Captiva, considered the world's third best shelling spot after Africa's Jeffreys Bay and the Pacific's Sulu Islands. Sanibel and Captiva are connected by causeway, the far third of Captiva entirely occupied by South Seas Plantation Resort. The beaches of both are white and powdery, sometimes nearly hidden by the latest gifts from the sea.
Thanks to the play of the Gulf of Mexico waters and the jutting curve of the islands (aptly likened to a crab claw) shells stirred up by faraway winter storms are scooped onto the beaches. Estimates vary, but at least 275 kinds of shells are found here.
There are even more varieties of seabirds. Ibis, egrets, herons and rosaeate spoonbills stood in the ankle-deep water snarfing up any fish foolish enough to have dawdled in the retreating sea. Gulls skimmed, and pelicans gazed wisely from piers and posts then swooped across the surface, pouches ready to be filled. Several kinds of jellyfish, even a small skate, lay spread on the wet sand. Up-beach, driftwood appliqued with white rock barnacles had been pushed into heaps by the tide. I executed a Sanibel Stoop and held aloft a scrap suitable for a paperweight.
The shell-collecting virus infects everyone who lives here, but until recently, true expertise was focused only in an unhoused research foundation and the shells scattered about in private closets and storerooms. Finally, after years of planning and untold hours of volunteer effort, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum opened on Sanibel-Captiva Road. Not only is it the only all-shell museum in the United States and with the world's largest collection-on-display, it's a perfect facility, an island building, white and bright, standing on pilings looking over eight acres of native plants. It was designed by Captiva architect George Tuttle Jr.
Inside are shells from every corner of the globe including some millions of years old. There are light shows, dioramas of the deep, cameos and those romantic examples of Victorian shell art known as "sailors' valentines." Children can and do bring their finds for quick positive identification.
Even I, who entered not knowing an egg cockle from a dosinia, came out savvy of tooth shells and lightning whelks. Incidentally, the rare jujonia is a 4-5 inch long volute and as spotted as a leopard.
First director, malacologist R. Tucker Abbott (a paperback of his "Sea Shells of the World" was tucked in my beach bag), unfortunately died just before the museum opened as did actor Raymond Burr who is remembered in a Memorial Garden outside the door. Burr--famous for his portrayals of "Perry Mason" and "Ironsides"--owned a shell-strewn island in the Fijis and gave his considerable collection of Fijian cowries and cones to the museum.
Although the museum has more than two million shells including samples of one-third of the world's 100,000 known species, more are constantly being acquired. Extra duplicate shells brought in by Sanibelians help fulfill the museum's educational mandate and are packaged up with information, study plans and collection kits for shipment to schools all over the country. These are free except for handling and shipping charges of $20 each, and at the time of my visit the only two states not yet serviced were South Dakota and Hawaii. In addition to the 10,000 square foot exhibit hall, a multi-purpose auditorium and gift shop occupies the main floor. Library, research space and a computerized conchological data bank are on the second. The museum is open 10-4 Tuesday through Sunday all year.
No collecting is allowed at Sanibel's 5000-acre J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Any day but Friday you can take the five-mile road with its spur walking trails. Alligators are most plentiful in winter, but tall birds and small animals appear happily unafraid year around.
Nature has a lot of friends on Sanibel-Captiva. Saving the freshwater wetlands and restoring habitat for native animals are well-supported causes, and residents keep the needs of butterflies and birds in mind when they plant their gardens.
Floridians say Sanibel is "the Old Florida" which means pre-theme park and with slow easy living beneath the sheltering palms. The Island Historic Museum on Dunlop Road has moved five pre-1930 buildings to one place and put memorabilia from the early days in a 1913 "cracker" house (low income Floridians were called "crackers"). You also see a 1926 Model-T pickup, a 3-hole putt-putt golf course and a typical patch of grove and garden.
Early habitation goes back a long way. The shell mounds of Calusa Indians still rise on the Darling Refuge and on Captiva. In 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon named this part of Florida the "Coast of Seashells" and the island for Isabella his queen--San Isabel shorthanded to Sanibel on an early map. Captiva is said to have been named for another Spaniard who was held prisoner there by the Calusas in 1528.
Pirates aplenty haunted the coast, leaving behind legends of dastardly deeds and buried treasures. Had they taken time away from looting galleons, they could have watched dolphins cavorting about the future site of Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa; have lolled or stooped on the Sanibel and Captiva beaches.
Centuries ahead of the crowds, they could have cornered the market for junonia. They might not have got their pictures in the papers, but some things have to be saved for the Emilys and Annas of the world.
Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
3075 SanCap Rd., Sanibel
Lee Co. Visitor Bureau
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