One of my favorite places on earth is a small, jawbone-shaped island off the western coast of Florida, called Sanibel Island. It’s like a land out of a story, and in fact, the first time I heard of it was in a story. One of the books my mom would read to us when we were kids (and even sometimes when we needed a bedtime story into adulthood) was “The Lion’s Paw,” by Robb White.
The Lion’s Paw follows two kids, Penny and Nick, who have run away from their orphanage. They sneak onto a sailboat to hide, and run into another kid, called Ben, and he’s on a mission to sail to Sanibel Island to find a rare shell called a Lion’s Paw. They manage a daring escape from Ben’s uncle and sail off into the night, hiding their boat up rivers along the coast in the daytime, warding off storms and patching together a destination from old letters and journals from Ben’s dad.
Ben’s collection of shells was as follows:
“In a shallow wooden tray divided into sections were dozens of sea shells. Penny looked at them, expecting to see the kind of shells she knew about — the white, bleached curved shells or gray wrinkled oyster shells — but in the sunlight the shells in the box were wonderful. They were of all colors and shapes, from deep orange to the faintest tinge of blue and green.”
The first time I stepped onto the beach in Sanibel, I didn’t know which way to turn. Like Penny, the kinds of shells I was used to finding were oyster and clam shells, few and far between, and mostly beat to hell. A shell’s journey to the beach in Oregon is a pretty rough ride.
In Sanibel, the shells were piled on the beach in drifts. Long stretches of the beach appeared to be made entirely of shells. Whole, beautiful, colorful shells. The waves washed over masses of shells, sending them tinkling over each other with the tiniest of bell chimes. I settled down into a particularly large patch of them, and set about sifting through very carefully, looking for the most beautiful, interesting and tiny perfect specimens.
Sanibel is well-known for its shelling. It’s a huge part of the tourism, there, with resorts boasting of the best shelling beaches, travel blogs detailing when the best shelling weather will be, and souvenir shops offering prime shells (in case you didn’t manage to find some on your own).
The “Sanibel Stoop” refers to that position in which many visitors find themselves on the beach: legs planted, bending at the waist, peering down at the myriad choices before them, searching for that rare Junonia or Lion’s Paw.
While not really a recipe for a good vacation, some of the best times for shelling come directly after a big, windy storm on the coast. That’s when the waves are high enough and come far enough in to carry the larger, rarer shells onto the shore. If you manage to find a whole Junonia shell, you’ll probably get your picture in the local paper!
I preferred to find a likely hoard, settle in, and sort. Some of the banks of shells were half a foot deep, and I figured there had to be some great shells buried somewhere in there, if one had the patience to seek them out. And I was right! I ended up bringing probably a thousand shells home from Sanibel.
A lot of them I gave away, but the ones I kept for myself I turned into my favorite sort of project: a mix of beauty and science. I love the look of these old letterpress printers tray displays. Figuring out which shells to use, and where to arrange them is almost as much fun as finding them in the first place! The ultimate puzzle with no picture on the box.
Someday, I hope I will have a box as big as Ben’s, chock-full of shells in trays. For now, I’ll just keep these on my walls.