By Mary Thurwachter
When people find out how dedicated Tom Honker is to shell collecting, they assume he frequently lingers on sandy shores. But that’s not the case.
“I don’t spend much time on the beach,” the Delray Beach conchologist said. “Mostly I’ve been 30 feet or more from the beach diving.”
During a discussion on local shelling at The Sandoway Nature Center on April 23, Honker said “what is found on the beach these days is dredged by beach renourishment and is in very dead to semi fossil condition. Having come through the dredge pipe, the shells are, well, worn to say the least.
“Fifty to 100 years ago, decent quality shells could be found on beaches in South Florida but beach collecting here never compared to that of the west coast, particularly Sanibel Island.”
Florida’s west coast beaches are better for shelling because it has a very sloping bottom where shells collect. On the east coast, the shoreline drops out very fast. But if you’re willing to dive 30 feet out, beautiful living shells can be found.
Good places to shell, outside of Sanibel include Tampa Bay and Apalachicola Bay, Honker said. But our area has some plusses, too. The Bahamas protect our shores from big ocean swells from the Atlantic, which is why surfers typically head north toward Melbourne.
Honker remembers beach collecting in Delray and Boca as a child 60 years ago. “That's how I first got interested in shells,” he said.
Some folks don’t mind the imperfections of shells battered by a dredge pipe, but Honker, who buys and sells shells from all around the world, seeks unblemished beauties found further from shore and deep beneath the sea.
The Pennsylvania native and his wife and dive mate Paula have lived in Delray Beach for 45 years. They delight in a dive trip that results in beautiful shells and good food (from the shells).
Among their favorite treasures are spiny oysters and one of the world’s best collections of those pretty scallops can be found in 150-foot-deep water off the coast of Palm Beach and Broward Counties.
“They’re hard to see because they’re covered with sponge and algae, but they are delicious to eat, too.”
Each of the shells takes about an hour to clean, he said. First the animal has to be taken out, then the shell is dropped in bleach and the calcium is scraped off. Finally, the shells are treated with acid and preserved.
Two of Florida’s most famous shells are the Lion’s Paw and the Junonia. Lion’s Paws can be found on both coasts of Florida, but you won’t find the Junonia, the pride of Sanibel Island, on Florida’s east coast.
You can, however, see both of them at the Sandoway House Nature Center.
See sea shells by the sea shore!
Can’t find what you’re looking for while combing the beach? Need inspiration for your own shell collection? Check out the world-class collection at the Sandoway House Nature Center in Delray Beach.
Gulf Stream resident Linda Becker Dean inherited a collection of 10,000 shells from her aunt and uncle, Albert and Ann Becker, and then donated it to Sandoway several years ago. This year, with the help of a $10,000 Recreation Assistance Program grant acquired through the Palm Beach County Commission, Sandoway has added a new room to display the shells.
For more information, call (561) 274-7263 or see www.sandowayhouse.com.
Mary Thurwachter is a West Palm Beach freelance writer and founder/producer of INNsideFlorida.com (www.innsideflorida.com)