Sea Shells by the Sea Shore
The Gulf shoreline is prime real estate for finding the perfect shell, and there’s no place better than the barrier islands of southwest Florida. Fort Myers Beach may not get the same notoriety for its shelling as Sanibel, ranked tops by Coastal Living Magazine, but Parke Lewis knows of no better place than right here.
"What makes our beach so great for shelling is our estuary system and all the sea grass where these creatures feed and grow,” he said. Leading a small group of locals along the beach, Lewis picked up tiny shells no bigger than the tip of his pinky finger and ones nearly the size of his hand, providing an explanation of how they each got here.
Lewis, who grew up visiting the island from nearby Fort Myers, now works for the Town of Fort Myers Beach as Environmental Educator and leads a guided beach walk at Newton Park Wednesdays from 9 – 10 a.m. It’s a great way to get familiar with the shells available here and what to look for.
"There are thousands of tiny coquina shells up and down this beach,” said Lewis, as he stooped down to pick a strand of green algae out of the sand at the water’s edge. Pulling the algae strand up with his fingers, he revealed a live coquina at the end of it. "Sometimes you’ll walk down the beach and it looks like waves of green grass. It’s just the coquina feeding.”
There are 150 different species of shells in the Gulf of Mexico. Many of them, large and small, wash up on our beaches every day, including the smooth surf clam shells. Lewis explained that these shells are abundant on Fort Myers Beach and were once used by the Calusa Indians. "They not only provided a food source, but the shells could be sharpened and used as utensils,” he said.
He picked up a slipper shell, explaining that the small marine snail got its name from the odd shape of its partially opened bottom side. When turned over, the shell resembles a white, bathroom slipper.
A popular, collectible gastropod on the island is the giant cockle shell. The iconic seashells "make great beach ashtrays,” Lewis said. He remembers cleaning many of them out after his family’s cocktail parties in the ‘70s. The cockle lives right offshore, is a filter feeder and can be found in abundance on the sandbars at low tide.
That is the best time of year to hunt for shells, according to Lewis. "Go out after a tropical storm, during extreme low tides, or look for negative tides and explore the sandbars.” Often, morning low tides when the water is very calm, is a great time for shelling, he added. There is tidal information posted to the town’s website, fortmyersbeachfl.gov (see Weather & Tidal Info on the sidebar).
Kittens paw, purple-hued mussels, apple or lace murex, bay or calico scallops and pieces of sand dollars are some of the common shells found on our beach. "Rarely, will you find a dead sand dollar intact along the beach. They are usually broken. If they are purple or dark in color, they are in the process of dying,” said Lewis. He expressed that state law forbids the collecting of live shells and explained how to tell if a sand dollar, a cousin to the sea urchin, is still living. With the naked eye, you can see the tiny cilia on the bottom still moving.
"Don’t get caught yellow handed,” he warned. Sand dollars absorb iodine from the salt water and secrete it as a yellowing substance as part of their defense mechanism. "If your hands are yellow, then that’s a tell-tale sign you’ve been handling live sand dollars.”
Shell collectors will also find the spiral-shaped lightning whelk, which is a predator snail who buries the larger side of its shell in the sand, leaving only the pointy end sticking up to catch unsuspecting prey. "I’ve learned to shuffle my feet going into the surf, not only to avoid stingrays, but to avoid the sharp end of the lightning whelk, as well,” explained Lewis, who said he’s learned that lesson the hard way more than once. Whelks of varying size can be found along the Fort Myers Beach shoreline, but the larger adults usually migrate to the sea grass flats of the passes and bays where they feed on larger clams, he said.
Florida fighting conchs can often be found sunning themselves on the sand bar at low tide. This is natural, said Lewis, and there is no need for beachgoers to "rescue them” by tossing them seaward. It is also illegal to collect them when the fighting conch is still living inside.
The horse conch was designated the Florida State Shell in 1969 and is another popular find on Fort Myers Beach. This shell was also popular with the Calusas, who used them for tools and traded them for goods with other native tribes and the Spanish.
The sunray venus clam, spiral worm and moon snail, or shark’s eye, shells are common to our beach and collected by the bucket full by prospecting tourists. These shells and many others are on display at the Newton Park Visitors Cottage, 4650 Estero Boulevard. On loan to the Town of Fort Myers Beach by Merle and Maxine Agner, the beautiful shell collection helps to tell the story of Estero Island.
The shells and shell fragments on the grounds of Newton Park, Lewis explained, were mined and are millions of years old. "Amazingly, they are the same species we find on our beach today.”
The lettered olive shell, a smooth, ceramic-like cylinder, is "making a bit of a comeback,” he said, which is anecdotal evidence that the quality of our water is good. Lewis pointed out that the recent intrusion of fresh water in the Gulf may chase some mollusks to deeper, less brackish water, but it is perfectly safe for swimming and enjoyment by the public.
"Again, it’s our estuaries and the abundance of sea grasses that make it such a great place to find so many species of shells,” Lewis said. "You don’t find them like this on the Atlantic side.” He went on to explain that while the beaches on Sanibel are more sloped and compact, concentrating the shells in a tighter area, Fort Myers Beach provides the same shells, just in a much broader area.
Parke Lewis, a professional biologist and lover of Fort Myers Beach, can be found at Newton Park on Wednesdays, at the Mound House most other days and near the beach on his days off. His family has owned a beachside cottage here since the 1930’s.
Wednesday, he shared a funny story about collecting live coquina shells by the hundreds when he was a kid. "My grandma and I wanted to make Coquina Chowder. It was terrible, tasted like fishy sand.” He ended the story, reminding his beach walk guests that live shells are now protected by town and county ordinance.
For more information on shelling opportunities or to ask about legal shell collecting, contact Lewis at 239-765-0202, ext. 138.