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Going to Sanibel and Captiva means collecting shells. It's irrestible. Here's a simple guide on how to clean them and get them home as well as some other resources.
I would like to credit the good folks of BestofSabibelCaptiva.com with some additional hints that I've added thanks to the ardent collectors there.
Finding shells is actually easy. All beaches have shells but some are better than other. The quality and quantity of shells varies with weather and currents, but see the GoList above for information on where the reliable shelling spots are.
Many condos and cottages have shell cleaning stations outside. Get a dishpan and place the shells in it and cover with fresh water. Allow them to soak for a bit and brush off all the loose sand and detritus. Throw the water out on the ground, not down any drain. The sand will settle in the trap and clog the drain.
The shells are now clean of the obvious problems, but they are still covered with microscopic sea life that needs to be killed off or the shells will start to develop a very nasty odor. Fill the washed out dish pan with about half the water you'll need to cover the shells. Add an equal volume of any ordinary household liquid chlorine bleach. Put the shells in the bleach solution for several hours. This soak will also loosen any sand that's deep inside volutes, like tulips. Using a brush and a steel dental pick, clean the outside and as much of the insides as possible. Use a small curved wire brush on a twisted wire stem to clean the insides of volutes. Rinse with fresh water and dispose of the bleach solution away from plant life.
Shells that should not be soaked in bleach are: Red tulips, orange tulips, or any other yellow, red, or orange shell, king's crown, and olive's. I soak olive's, but I have never found a really large specimen so I spray them with laquer [see below] and the soak doesn't matter to me.
Many shells have barnacles and other shells cemented to them. The bleach soak should loosen them and you can use the dental pick to pry them off. Be careful when working on the softer shells like figs as they are easily damaged. You can buy a dental pick at the drug store on Palm Ridge or in the two grocery shops. If you still can't pry the freeloaders loose, soak overnight and then work on the shells again.
The bleach kills all the microbes and the shells won't develop that awful order that has caused many of these prizes to be discarded once home. Rinse the clean shells in fresh water.
Spread the rinsed shells out on old newspapers to dry.
Sand dollars require special attention as they are very soft and easily broken. Wash and clean separately from the other shells. Soak in the bleach solution for not more than 30 minutes - 10-15 is best. Set out in direct sunlight to help bleach them white. Trying to remove barnacles or other cemented shells may damage the sand dollar.
The sand dollars you see in stores with various decorations on them have been hardened by appling a wash of 50% white glue, like Elmer's Glue All or a craft glue, mixed with 50% water and then brushed on, allowed to dry, and then brushed on the other face. I dry them on cake racks that I use for this purpose only.
You may get lucky enough to find a large horse conch or Lightning whelk. Large shells tend to be grubby and covered with barnacles and small freeloading shells. Getting the course textured horse conch clean can take time - but it's well worth the effort. Do the wash and initial bleach above and don't be afraid to use a brush to scrub the outer shell surface and the dental pick to pry off all those piggybacked shells. Get it as clean as you can. Using a deep pot, try boiling the shell for half an hour. Ditch the yucky water outside once it's cool. While still warm, go back to work on the shell with the pick and the brush. Some folks favor a hard toothbrush or a nail brush [my choice] for the scrubbing. Just repeat the steps till the shell is clean.
Now even I, shell heathen that I am, won't spray a great specimen like a big horse conch, lightning whelk, lion's paw, or an orange or red tulip. Using cotton and mineral oil, rub the shell down. You can use a clean nail brush to work the oil into all the little irregularities of the horse conch or lion's paw surface to bring up the color.
Handle shells like lion's paws and the red and orange tulips carefully. Both can have their color leeched out by bleach. I do the bleach step for maybe 5 minutes and rinse immediately making sure all the bleach is gone. A long soak in isopropol alcohol [rubbing alcohol] will also kill most baterial without harming the color. You can try a boil as well. These colors are worth preserving carefully.
Junonias are the Holy Grail of shelling on Sanibel. Once plentiful, this volute is now a rare find. With its creamy white background and brown spots, shellers even hang onto pieces that they find. Though not rare on a global basis, they are very hard to find on Sanibel, and should you find one you may find yourself in the local paper with a photo of you and your shell.
Actually, not really, but it does leach color from the shels named above and fogs the shiny olives. Once shells dry, the color is a bit faded on most shells. The pros oil the shells using mineral oil applied with cotton, working it carefully into all the little surface irregularities. [Shell purists should now stop reading.] I commit the sin of putting a high gloss laquer on mine, which really causes the color to intensify and gives the shells a bright, shiny washable surface. The laquer is available at shell shops on the island and in most craft stores at home.
To apply laquer, lay completely dry shells out on a thick layer of newspapers in an outdoor area or screened porch with great ventilation. Spray the shells and let them dry. Turn them over and spray the other side. With many of the volutes I have to do some touch up on the sides. Be very careful not to spray the decking or furniture.
You can also leave the shells in their natural, slightly faded state. Just fill a nice glass container with shells and memories.
HINT: To keep dust off the shells, just cover the top of any open glass container with a clear cling wrap and remove it if you have special company. Helps a LOT!
IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not attempt to carry, check through or ship unsed laquer home. The laquer is a DOT and FAA hazardous material and it can cause all kinds of problems. Read all warnings and never smoke or have any open flame around when using the spray.
Buy rolls of cheap paper towels. Then take youself shoe shopping - which is optional, but fun, and the boxes are great for transporting the shells!
Bi-valves can be stacked one inside another and wrapped in paper towels. Don't stack jingle shells or other fragile shells with tough ones like cockles. For volutes, lay a strip of paper towles down and places like sized shells on a diagonal and wrap one full wrap and then add another row and wrap completely. You get the idea.
Place the wrapped shells in a shoe box or wrap them in you beach towels or tee shirts for additional padding. You want to protect them from ratteling around and breaking each other or getting broken by something hitting them. The shoe boxes help a lot with that. I've shipped mine home via UPS and also in my checked bags, but I do make sure they are well protected even in my carry on.
Sand dollars only go in my carry on and I put them in jewelry boxes - so that's another shopping trip! I harden them once I get them home.
Shells are used for many crafts and condos and houses all over the islands have shell mirrors and glass fish filled with shells. If you'd like to try your hand at making shell crafts, such as shell flower baskets, calico scallop mirrors or even the master works - sailor's valentines - stop in at Three Crafty Ladies. They sell shell art books that give simple step by step instructions and great ideas. Also, if you have an idea of what you want to do, you can collect the type, size and color shells you'll want. If you run short of shells to finish you project, you'll have a good excuse to come back to Sanibel.