Shell Collecting as a Hobby
Life in the sea produces what we know as shells
Everyone who has walked on a beach has probably seen a shell or at the very least a part of a shell lying on the sand. If you have explored the tidal pools at low tide, snorkelled or scuba dived in the ocean you would have seen “live” shells or mollusc. The mollusc is the living animal and its protective covering. When the organism in the covering dies it now becomes the shell that we find washed up on the beach. These live animals stick to rocks or plants and move along the bottom of the ocean either on or in the sand. They started life as part of the many living organisms in the water called plankton. As they develope and grow they build a protective shell to live in. When the live animal in its protective cover dies the shell is washed up onto the shore. Unlike Crayfish and Grasshoppers that shed their covering as they grow these organisms grow with their outer layer. The Hermit Crab selects a new shell to live in as it grows and so does not fit into this family
It is interesting that most families of shells, as they grow, grow in a clockwise direction. You are very lucky as a shell collector if you find one of these that have reversed this typical growth pattern. There are estimated to be over 100 000 different kinds of shells in the world. They vary from tiny shells to huge specimens. Some need a micro-scope to view their intricate patterns and colours while other are big and heavy and can be used as doorstops.
Becoming a shell collector.
You became a shell collector when you picked up that first couple of shells on the beach and stored them in a bottle or on a shelf in your house. Serious collectors however are a different kettle of fish. They can be classified into two main classes; either the so called Conchologists who is a serious collector. Secondly the more casual collector known as a Fossickers. The serious collectors find mollusc in the sand or water and then clean out the animal in order to have the shell. The more casual fossicker walks along the beach and picks up interesting and new shells to display in their collection. They share a love for these beautiful, colourful objects known as shells, but approach their hobby at different levels.
South African shells.
In South Africa there is a large selection of different shells to collect along it’s about 3000 km. of coastline. It enjoys varied types of water and coastal characteristics along the shore that result in different shells living in different habitats. These include the cold water off the west coast, the warm water on the east coast, lagoons and estuaries, mangrove swamps and sandy or rocky coasts. There are also many fresh water molluscs and so you could find an interesting shell in a lake or river.
In South Africa there are restrictions as to what, where and how many shells you can collect. The Post Office sells a licence that allows the serious collector permission to collect certain molluscs and at certain times. For the more casual collector who picks up shells that are washed up on the beach the only restriction seems to be a weight limit of 1kg.per day and they must be for your own use. Commercial collecting has other implications.
Kinds of collections.
Most collectors who are serious about the hobby usually specialize in a particular group of shells (for example Cowries or Cones) or in the shells from a particular country (South Africa or Australia) or even from an specific area (Eastern Cape). As shells are exposed to light they begin to lose their colour, pattern and lustre and so some collectors use a mineral oil that helps to bring out the original colour and patterns. Painting the shell with lacquer is not recommended by serious collectors as is changes the original look of the shell. At the same time for the casual collector it adds to the visual enjoyment.
Molluscs, and so also their shells have scientific and local names. So the common Tiger Cowrie is actually called Cypraea tigris and was first named by the famous naturalist Linnaeus in 1758. Within the Mollusc family there are six classes with the two largest being Gastropods and Amphineura that contain most of the shells you will find along the coast.
A study of the habitat, reproduction and life of these organisms that we know as shells is fascinating. At the same time collecting a few beautiful shells along the sandy shore closest to you will bring pleasure not only to you but also to those who you share them with.
A Personal Parable.
Like humans, shells are born by fertilization of an egg. In their watery world they move and feed and grow and eventually die. The now lifeless shell however, continues to exist as it is washed around by the tides and waves until eventually it will probably be washed up on some beach or rocky coast. Here it is possible that some beachcomber may pick it up and display it in a bottle or on a shelf. So it would then continue to show off its beauty and shape.
Our lives in some ways can be compared to that of a shell. Coming into existence we have no choice in the matter. But after that we live a unique life that we share with no other person. We have our own particular characteristics, looks and experiences. Yes, like all shells we are part of a family but our own choices, and sometimes situations outside our control, affect our lives and make us the unique person we are.
The many shells on the beach, some in perfect condition and others broken, are the result of the forces of nature that take it into its own experience. Often the sea is calm and restful, but at other times it can be strong and rough. So our lives also face the pressures of the world that we live in. Sometimes we are battered, broken and hurt while at other times we live a calm and peaceful life. Who knows what that shell we pick up on the shore has gone through? Some are smooth and in perfect condition while others are battered and even broken. All shells eventually end up making up the sand along the shore.
So we as humans also end up returning to the dust. Like the shells we have control over some of the things that bring us through life's journey. Other factors we have no control over. Sometimes we just have to go with the tide and hope that we will get washed up on a peaceful shore. Sometimes others will touch us along the way but eventually we have to accept what life gives us. We may wish to be a prettier and even different shell than what we are, but unfortunately that is not our lot. We are what we are, and even the smallest and what some may think is a rather plain shell, has its own beauty. In the final analysis we, like the shells, will end up as a part of the sand and earth.
South African Shells-a collectors guide; Deirdre Richards, Struik Publishers