Americana: A treasure hunter’s dream 01

This egret surveys the water on Sanibel Island beach.

I have a corner of my heart for treasure hunting.

While the family may be fishing or floating on a cold mountain stream, they’re likely to catch me digging around in the sand, looking for gems or gold or anything else. Sometimes, I bring pie pans to gold country, a poor substitute for a gold pan, but there’s always the hope that the nugget will be so large, I won’t need anything better to find it.

So when my friend Karen told me that Sanibel Island was just off the coast of Fort Meyers, Florida, my heart leapt. It’s not gold or gems that attract treasure hunters. It’s not even ordinary beach combing with a metal detector. Sanibel is known for its seashells.

I grew up near the ocean in California, but always paid more attention to the size of the waves than to the natural detritus on the seashore. We rollicked in the surf until our lips and fingertips turned blue and then spent a little time combing the beach or playing in the sand. Most animals that produce interesting shells may look like snails or slugs, but they are wise enough to live in the glorious warm water of tropical climes.

We were flying to Fort Meyers with our two oldest grandchildren, Christopher and Michael. It was to be our first-ever grandparent trip. Happily, the younger grandson, Michael, is as much of a treasure hunter as his grandmother. After a revel in the tepid, aqua-blue water, he gladly hunted half a mile up the beach with me.

I thought I was well prepared. I had bought a laminated brochure picturing the common, good finds and rare varieties of shell. I had also equipped each of us with a mesh bag suitable for rinsing shells, but not heavy. We quickly realized that there are many people who take shell treasure hunting seriously.

It’s well known that the best shells are to be collected first thing in the morning before other greedy hunters find the goodies. An hour before and after low tide is the best time for spotting shells daily, but the best time of all is 24-48 hours after a storm.

Our first visit to Sanibel was in the afternoon, but there were people with rigid mesh cages on sticks. They could scoop up a batch of shells, rinse them in the surf and easily see the treasure amidst the debris without bending over. Their mesh shelling bags were large enough to hold a week’s worth of groceries.

I polished my glasses and eyed the vacant stretch of shore as the sense of competition gripped me. The astonishing volume of unbroken shells along the surf line is almost overwhelming. My standard for what I would keep multiplied by 10, at least.

There are slipper shells and fan-shaped cat’s paws. If you find a spotted Junonia, you’re supposed to call the newspaper to have your picture taken.

The first interesting complete shell I found was called a lettered olive. He is pale brown with “chicken scratch” markings that almost look like letters. But Mr. Olive was still in residence, so I reluctantly tossed him back into his salty neighborhood.

Christopher and I both wanted to find an unbroken fighting conch. Michael found a beauty in our first hour at the beach. They’re only 2-4 inches long, and they’re not particularly rare, but I was inordinately elated when I also found a nice one on the first day. Christopher found his minutes before we left the beach the last day.

I had also wanted to find a tulip shell, so named for the long delicate stem. I did manage to find one while swimming. The water wasn’t clear enough to see anything that day. I felt something a little larger among the shells on the bottom and picked up my perfect tulip shell with my toes!

Happily, while Jeff’s and my eyes scoured the shore, Michael noticed a dolphin swimming lazily about 15 feet off shore. Later, a school of stingrays joined us as we played in the water on Captiva. Interesting shore birds hunted on their long legs with the tourists. None of the beaches were particularly crowded, but there were plenty of humans basking, wearing little more than shoelaces.

My treasure hunting instinct was well fed on Captiva and Sanibel Islands, Florida.

Only in America, God bless it.