Seashell collecting was one of the recreational sports where strangers could meet up, exchange phone numbers and addresses right away, based on a common love for their unique sport. As a lifelong collector, I own 10,000 of the most beautiful and unique seashells in the world, including every type of seashell known and collectible, including a Siamese conch. Over the past 10 years I have watched the slow demise of what was once one of the world’s most popular pastimes: shell collecting. The last person I encountered shell hunting was Princess Diana, a few months before her tragic death. Sad to say: it seems the sport stopped after her death.
I co-owned 10 pink sand beach huts on Barbuda (Antigua’s sister island). My closest neighbor was the K-Club, where Princess Di was staying. Every morning thousands of tiny pink shells rolled onto the stretch of beach right in front of our cabanas. Over the years, the ocean and offshore reefs would crush those tiny shells into pink dust particles and weave them into the sandy beach producing miles of pink sand. Princess Diana was the last person I saw shell hunting. She would walk the two-mile stretch every morning. As soon as she reached the big pink circle, she would stop at just the right moment, when two strange sport fishermen would raise the binoculars from her. Strange indeed: sport fishermen in long sleeves, golf caps, boat with anchor up, drifting inside the reefs with lines overboard, while engine was in neutral, allowing the boat to come dangerously close to the sharp reefs.
Let me take this opportunity to advise security and secret service personnel. If you have clients in a country, first try to learn as much about the country as possible.
1. Local fishermen don’t wear hats when they go fishing.
2. People who love deep sea fishing have a deep tan, not pale or pink skin.
3. Neither charter guests nor local sport fishermen trawl near the reefs.
4. If you go longline fishing, you anchor the boat.
5. You don’t rent a boat with outriggers and then use hand lines.
6. For hotels bordering the Atlantic Ocean, when you rent a Wellcraft or a Bertram, you can see deep-sea fish, you can’t do both.
I reflected on how different some cultures are. In the (Barbuda) capital Codrington, police drew a line in the sand. The Paparazzi’s reputation preceded them and they were not allowed to venture beyond the imaginary line. The police asked them if they were guests of Pink Sands or K Club; They couldn’t say yes because my cabins weren’t finished yet, and the K club and CoCo Point hotels have their own private airstrip. I think they both have their own planes. Pink Sand Beach owners and Palmetto Club guests used Codrington Airport. Please note: It did have owners cabins that you could have made available for free, but not for snoopers. Since I was a real estate developer and a neighbor of the hotel where the princess was staying, those harassing photographers tried daily to get me to rent those rooms. I wasn’t lying when I said the hotel was not open or ready for guests yet.
Years ago, you could tell a regular Caribbean guest from one who was coming for the first time just by looking at its shell picking up clothes. Experienced shell collectors would sift through hundreds of shells, looking for the unique or elusive ones; newcomers would collect each shell. Experienced shell collectors would walk as far away from newcomers as possible to avoid the usual “what kind of shell is this?” Let’s just say the princess was a beginning shell collector, in my opinion.
Ten years ago, Caribbean islands known for their pristine beaches didn’t have enough books to collect shells. Today such books gather cobwebs. The younger traveler is spoiled for choice today: horseback riding, windsurfing, scuba diving, deep-sea booze cruises, helicopter tours, and things like casinos, which were then taboo. The Cruise has changed the face of Caribbean tourism. To compete with those floating hotels, land-based properties now offer the same variety of entertainment. While a Caribbean vacation was the exclusive domain of the CEO or owner of a private yacht and his family, that is no longer the case.
Over the past 10 years I have returned to over 50 places where shell collectors congregate and sadly I was the only shell collector at all locations. I took a weekend by boat to one of the sparsely populated islets of Granada. I found no more than 10 seashells and no other shell collectors. Went to Lido-off Venice, found maybe 6 worth adding to my collection. I went to Darkwood Beach in Antigua, still one of the top 10 beaches in the world and once the “cone” capital of the world, not a collector. When I was walking on the beach, I basically remembered my mother-in-law. The first English words he learned were cones and snails. Her vocabulary later expanded to include scrolls, donax, tellins, olives… she knew, but not the types of shells. My mother-in-law, she died a few years ago. So did retired American Major Aldridge. His collection is now on display at the Antigua Visitor Interpretive Center in Nelson’s Dockyard National Park.
I went to Anguilla. I arrived just in time to meet a returning fisherman. In his net he had two combat shells and three tulips. When I shared with him my knowledge of fishing superstitions, how some fishermen loved to put tulip rinds in their nets, he laughed heartily. When I asked for the combat shells, he was happy to give them to me.
I sailed to Great Bird Island, off Jumby Bay; I visited my secret access points and found some very large snails, but no shell collectors.
Contrary to popular belief, dredging has not depleted seashell populations. Seashells are protective homes for living mollusks. Crabs, octopus, murex and sharks know how to crack open their shells for highly protein-enriched snacks. The dredges will suck up the discarded shells found on the ocean floor. However, the live shellfish will bury themselves in the sand to escape the sounding dredge. I have visited the collection areas where the dredgers pump out their sediment and have recovered thousands of seashells that way; I don’t recall finding one with the live snail still attached. The disappearance of the collector means that there are new and larger supplies. However: enter the commercial wholesaler. Importers place wholesale orders for seashells for jewelry stores. There are now hundreds of artisans and jewelers who cut and polish different types of seashells and sell them as jewelry. Most of the necklaces and beads are made from pieces of seashells. They are durable and naturally beautiful. I would rather see dozens of people strolling the beach, exchanging conversations about what shells are missing from their collections, exchanging addresses, and exchanging seashells like we used to, rather than seeing them drilled and cut. Judging by my survey of 10 years, the sport is dying.
I went online and the bombing books are among the most heavily discounted: even the reviews are scant. Now that I think about it: if the sport is losing participants, then it must mean that those who read about the sport and those who review books about the sport are also declining.