Thomas E. Williams II
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Emerald Coast Living

Natural souvenirs: Gulf Coast Shell Show celebrates 20 years

Posted on - JAN WADDY

PANAMA CITY BEACH — This year’s 20th annual Gulf Coast Shell Show will be full of magic, including a dragon.

“‘The Dragon’ is a structure made of shells with a personality that some lucky person may have a chance to go home with,” said Gwen Lawrence, Gulf Coast Shell Club member and past president, who is currently housing the “mascot.”

The wire and paper mache armature was designed and built by temporary member Vickie Jacobs, and club members have taken over crafting the creation with shells.

“About 95 percent of the shells are local,” Lawrence said. “When she found out she was going to live on a boat, she didn’t have time to finish the project. The toenails are from Lake Michigan. On Saturday, we had a meeting here, not everybody can work on it at once.”

On Monday, the Dragon was nearly complete with Kitten’s paws, jingles under his chin, green tusks, and starfish.

“There’s always room for one more shell,” said Lawrence, who heated up the glue gun for me to add one or two — maybe five — down the spine.

The Dragon will be up for silent auction at the Gulf Coast Shell Show, set for June 10-11 at the Panama City Beach Senior Center, 423 Lyndell Lane. The public is invited from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children under 12.

“As usual, we will try to have something for the children,” Lawrence said. “We want them to get started early.”

Children can play games to win shells for their collections.

When you find a shell on the beach, Lawrence said, keeping track of its “scientific data” makes it more valuable. This includes writing down its name, the location it was found, and the date it was found.

“Remember to start doing this when you build your collection and it will increase the value of your collection,” said Lawrence, who admitted, most shellers have stacks of shells around they don’t know where they came from. “When exhibiting, you keep track of where you found it.”

This weekend, exhibitors and dealers will showcase shells and shell decor from throughout the Southeast, including South Florida, North Carolina and Texas. Categories include Novice, Northwest Florida, Beach Shells and Sea Life. Self-collected entries get a gold star.

“You remember doing it, picking it up and how excited you were,” said Lawrence, who once set up an exhibit of all the shells she had found in one hour on the beach. “There were starfish that day on St. George,” she recalled.

Shell Show guests also can check out artistic and educational displays with information on species. In 2016, there were nearly 400 feet of exhibits. 

“It gets bigger every year to the point we have to limit what we take,” Lawrence said.

Not surprising for locals, most shelling takes place in the Sunshine State. The state shell, the Florida Horse Conch, is the second largest gastropod in the world behind the Australian Trumpet and reaches a maximum of 24 inches. Northwest Florida has at least 637 shell species, you just have to know where to look.

Shelling is what brought club members Jim Brunner and his wife, Linda, to Northwest Florida, and the couple now has more than 10,000 shells in their personal collection.

In 2011, the Brunners edited the Gulf Coast Shell Club’s 40-page color guidebook, “Seashells of the Florida Panhandle,” to help residents and visitors navigate the area. 

The best places to look for shells actually are not by the seashore, but instead are in sheltered bays and offshore in natural and artificial reefs, especially during the summer. The Empire Mica, 90 miles off Cape San Blas, is a top diving spot, as well as the S.S. Tarpon Underwater Archaeological Preserve 10 miles off Panama City Beach. Deep water finds include purple sand dollars and aggressive Red Tulips. The American Thorny oyster and Lion’s Paw are found offshore at 100 feet. Cawry can be found under ledges along with Shovelnose Lobster. Two currents meet at Cape San Blas, bringing in particularly unusual shells.

Experienced shellers look for a shell’s shape, rather than colors, following shell trails in sandy areas and searching for carnivorous species on hard vertical structures. Olives and tulips are common in this area.

Collecting Lima pellucida in Florida is prohibited, though they are extremely rare in this area, and sea oats are protected by law. It is illegal to catch scallops west of Mexico Beach. 

“The book will be for sale, in its second printing, limited to shells found here,” Lawrence said. “The club will have local shells to buy. We have a surplus of them, bags of shells available for crafts and children.”

The club gathers shells each year during beach excursions. Members clean, oil, sort and bag shells for residents and visitors to buy at the annual show. Shiny shell surfaces are brushed with a mixture of olive oil and alcohol, while dulled surfaces receive a treatment of equal parts Clorox and water. Popular show purchases have included bags of shells, bigger shells such as Horse Conchs and Lightning Whelks, and some shiny shells, like Cawrys. 

“The conch, sometimes, people collect for meat and when they are done we are the recipient of the shell,” Lawrence said. 

Exhibitors, who set up on Friday before the show, arrive early for the annual boating trip — a big incentive for many participants. And awards are a big deal. The Vokes Award was first presented at the 2016 Gulf Coast Shell Show in honor of the two Tulane Malacologists who made great contributions to the study of local shells.

“We are the only club that awards the Vokes Award. This is an award named in honor of Drs. Harold (deceased) and Emily Vokes of Tulane University who did extensive work in our area in recent and fossil shells. Last year it was won by Vicky Wall of North Carolina, who will also be at the show this year. The award may only be won by an exhibitor once,” said Linda Brunner.

The Gulf Coast Shell Club strives to educate the public about shells and help maintain the natural resources.

“I think everybody enjoys looking at shells. They’re beautiful, contribute to the environment and are food for a lot of people,” Lawrence said. “It’s an excellent activity for people who live here and visit.”

7 Shelling Spots

West Beach Drive: You can snorkel, but during the winter and low tides is when you come across the best finds, such as True Tulips, the Giant Eastern Murex, the Apple Murex, Lace Murex and Shark Eye.

East Beach Drive: Find smaller shells here, such as rock shells.

Redfish Point: This is a good area to wade and snorkel, with an abundance of species.

Bay Side of Shell Island: The Florida Horse Conch can be found in bays to 90 feet offshore.

The Jetties: Find Terebras, Spiny Oysters, Deer Cowry, and, occasionally, Hairy Tritons.

St. Andrew Bay: Occasionally find Hairy Tritons and Helmets.

Crooked Island Beach: Go out shoulder deep to find live sand dollars of all sizes. This area on Tyndall Air Force Base is especially good for shells after a storm.