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Times of the Islands Magazine

Every Shell Tells a Story: The Miles Walked, the Sand on Your Feet, the Weather of the Day, the Moment of the Find

Nov 21, 2021 07:11PM ● By CAPT. BRIAN HOLAWAY

Some may call it an occupational hazard, others may call it a hazard to my occupation. Either way you look at it, searching for seashells is a fundamental part of my job as a guide on the barrier islands of Southwest Florida for nearly three decades. 

The beautiful thing about being a shelling guide is listening to people share their stories as we walk the beach in search of treasures. 

Conversations range from the one shell someone has been seeking for more than 30 years, to the first time a visitor shelled on Sanibel in the rain for 45 minutes before having to catch the ferry back to the mainland. 

Here are a few of these special shells and the people I think of when I see these beach treasures. 

The lion’s paw is a favorite of many. Part of the scallop family, it can be orangish or purple in color and has knobs on the ribs of the shell. Because it is a deeper-water shell, it does not often wash up on the beach. In November 2007, I was on an all-day charter with a family I take out every year—a grandmother, her daughter, and three grandkids. We set up a tent and were shelling all day. I was walking with the five-year-old girl when a lion’s paw literally washed up at her feet. The next wave would have taken it away, but she knew immediately what it was and grabbed it. Her other siblings and mom were all a little envious. The little girl is not so little anymore, but her story manages to come up every time we go shelling.  

Sometimes a shell can inspire not just a story but an entire book. Finding a lion’s paw always brings to mind the beloved children’s classic, The Lion’s Paw by Robb White, first published in 1946. It’s an adventure tale involving three children who travel by boat to the then-wild beaches of Captiva in search of the rare shell.  

If I had to name one shell that everyone loves to find, it would be the shark eye, also called moon shell. If found in perfect condition, it can be quite stunning. The circular shell can be light to dark brown with a small blue eye in the middle. Just holding one in your hand creates a feeling of satisfaction. A client from Minnesota, Nancy Johnson, has a great fondness for this shell. She says her trip is not complete until she finds one. 

A couple from Germany who had been coming to the island for 25 years just to shell, planned a shelling trip with me in June 2014. The day before our trip there was a gentle groundswell that pushed up a carpet of shells four feet wide and two miles long on Cayo Costa. We walked the entire length and back again, looking at the same shells, when we all spotted a huge shark eye at the same time. I didn’t understand much German and they didn’t understand much English, but when we picked up that shell, we smiled and celebrated—a universal language. This prize of a shell was as big in circumference as the palm of your hand. (To date, this is the largest shark eye I have ever found.)  

Another favorite of many shellers is the baby ear. My first encounter with this shell was in December 1996 with a sheller who was the wife of a treasure hunter who used to anchor a 56-foot sailboat inside Captiva Pass at the southern point of Cayo Costa. They would anchor for the week, and she would shell the beach every day. Her favorite shell was the baby ear, and she would show me her finds each day. She taught me how to find this off-white round shell, which ranges in size from a dime to a quarter. I read later the treasure hunter had found the ship he had been looking for off the coast of Brazil. Wherever his wife is now, I am sure she is still shelling for baby ears. 

The beauty of every shell is the story it tells—the miles walked, the sand on your feet, the weather of the day, the moment of the find. 

One of my favorite shell stories was summed up by Reeve Lindbergh, daughter of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, when she signed her mother’s book, Gift from the Sea, for me: “For Captain Brian, who loves shells, as my mother did...” 


Capt. Brian Holaway is a Florida master naturalist and has been a Southwest Florida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His boat charters visit the islands of Pine Island Sound, including Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Pine Island, and North Captiva.