Beachcomber Interview: The Shell Gang

Hawaiian sea shell collectors

Searching the coastline for hidden treasures is a form of solitary therapy—spending quality alone time in nature is, for many, the best part of beachcombing. Sometimes, however, it’s just as fun and rewarding to have someone with you. That’s the case for Jennie Altman, Becky Reinbold, Chyan LaPlant, and Jamie Welliver—or as they like to call themselves, the Shell Gang. 

the shell gang hawaiian seashell collectors

They aren’t an official gang, of course—just four Hawaiian friends and beachcombers that travel all over the island of Maui, both on the beach and under the ocean, to collect sea glass, seashells, sea pottery, sea marbles, glass floats, and sea beans. They also pick up trash, debris, plastic, and Styrofoam.

All of the members of the gang love to beachcomb with each other as much as possible, but they also find joy in going with their family members or just alone. They beachcomb for the adrenaline of a new find, the joy of the ocean, the companionship, and the memories. 

hawaiian puka cone shell collection

While they each have their own preferred styles of beachcombing, along with their own secret spots, they have even more in common. All four say their favorite time to beachcomb is sunrise during winter or hurricane season, especially after a big swell or storm. Their motto: “Big swells bring big shells!” They are all self-confessed sea glass and seashell hoarders, and display their finds all throughout their homes. They also turn their finds into bangles, bracelets, key chains, and belly-button rings. Their friends and family call them shellaholics, shell junkies, and shell addicts. 

Jamie says, “My friends say I have a slight problem, but I say they’re just jealous!”

In addition to searching all over Maui, they dream of traveling to beachcomb, especially to Japan or Indonesia. All four think that Maui is a very special, beautiful, and magical place, and they feel connected to the people who live there. “It’s a strong community, one in which we feel a mutual respect and love of our ocean and taking care of the nature around us,” Jennie says. “We feel lucky everyday to be able to live in Hawaii.”

On their days off, all of the shell gang members like to simply enjoy visiting the beaches of the island.

jennie from the shell gang

Jennie

Jennie, who could be considered the most enthusiastic beachcomber of the group, is a dedicated shell hunter, hair stylist, and mom. According to the other members, Jennie can spot shells from far off and knows exactly what to look for. Though she hunts mainly on the beach, she’s also a great diver. She’s been beachcombing for three years—her hobby started when she found a rare shell while walking on the beach with her dad. 

Now, beachcombing has become her daily therapy, and has helped her get through many painful moments in her life. Most days she goes to the beach alone, but she tries to meet up with the gang as much as possible. She also occasionally goes with her five-year-old son, who calls the cowrie shells “calories.” Jennie’s fondest beachcombing memory is when she happened upon a rolling pin float after a particularly rough week. Her bucket list find:
a King Trumpet shell.

hawaiian sea shell collector Chyan from The Shell Gang

Chyan:

If Becky is the beachcombing newbie of the group, Chyan is the opposite—she’s been beachcombing for 20 years, since she was only eight years old. Today, she manages a swimwear company and has her own jewelry line, all while working as her Instagram-famous wiener dog’s personal agent. She has been free diving and snorkeling for years, and only started land searching after meeting Jennie and Becky. In the process, she convinced Jennie and Becky to try free diving and snorkeling as well. 

Chyan’s connections to the beach go back to her childhood in Southern California, where she spent weekends exploring the beach with her father. They would beachcomb in the morning, go boogie boarding and surfing, get pizza and ice cream, and then another beachcomb in the afternoon. She says shelling brings back fond memories of her childhood and her bond with her dad, who now visits her in Maui and beachcombs with her.

Chyan visits the beach about three or four times a week. “We are not as die-hard as Jennie, but she definitely motivates us to go more often now,” says Chyan. “And, she is slowly turning me into a morning person.” 

In her time diving for treasure off the coast of Maui, Chyan has recovered three men’s wedding bands. “One ring I was able to find the owner and he bought my boyfriend and me breakfast for ‘saving his marriage,’” she laughs. Her bucket list find: an old Japanese glass float or spindle shell. 

 Jamie from Hawaiian shell gang

Jamie: 

Jamie is the biggest sea lover of the group. Jamie free dives and snorkels to collect shells—though sometimes she snorkels simply to enjoy looking at the ocean life. She says she didn’t really understand beachcombing until she met the other members of the group two years ago—and now she’s obsessed, hiking, rock climbing, and taking boat rides to get to difficult locations. 

She has a fond memory that happened when she and a friend were beachcombing after a storm. They saw two glass floats, and each claimed one. “My friend called the one on the right and we raced up to them. I was so excited to find my first glass float!” Jamie says. “It even had an old net around it and a stamp at the bottom. I was beyond stoked. The one my friend called on the right turned out to be plastic!” Jamie’s bucket list find: a major harp shell
or a rolling pin float. 

becky hawaii shell collector

Becky:

Becky is the newest, and the most adventurous beachcomber in the group. A legal secretary and a mom off the beach, Becky loves to hike and get active when combing. Though she’s only been beachcombing for a year, she’s willing to dig through rocks, coral, and sand with gloves and rakes to find treasures in between dangerous lava rocks. Becky enjoys the physical challenge of Maui’s rocky beaches as a way to workout, deal with stress, and spend time around the ocean with friends. She mostly goes on weekends for many hours, but sometimes will go early in the morning for short sessions with one of the gang members. She says she tries to get her kids to go with her.

Becky has been shelling with Jennie the longest, and calls Jennie her first shelling BFF. Like Jennie,  she tries to go with other members as much as possible, but also enjoys going solo. Becky recalls when she once found a human jaw with a tooth still intact, did some research and discovered it was ancient Hawaiian remains, and she returned it to a nearby burial ground. Her bucket list find: a glass float of any kind.

seashells and sea glass beachcombers

hawaii beachcombers shells and glass

beachcomber collection hawaii

beachcombers from hawaii

Maui

According to the Shell Gang, there are endless things to do on the island of Maui, including surfing, windsurfing, snorkeling, scuba, paddle boarding, whale-watching, and going to a luau. They also recommend a trip to Hana and a trip to Haleakala Summit. Visit the Maui Ocean Center, which educates adults and children about the ocean and its delicate ecosystem.  

For a place to stay on your visit, check out the Hyatt in Lahaina or the Andaz in Wailea. For a bite to eat or a fresh drink, try Down the Hatch in Lahaina, Café De Amis in Paia, and Mama’s Fish House in Paia.

To get ready for beach activities in Maui, the gang says that Pakaloha is the best swimwear shop in Maui, and Maui Sporting Goods in Wailuku is the best shop for underwater gear. 

Don’t ask the Shell Gang for the names of their favorite beaches, though. “It’s island code not to disclose our shelling spots,” explains Jennie. “A lot of them were shown to us by our friends or fellow shellers. We respect their wishes to keep them private.”

Follow the Shell Gang on Instagram @theshellgang.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2019 issue.

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