Cold Water Shelling

By Jaime Prohaska

searching for shells in cape cod

I never really liked the beach. I lived in New England my entire life, but the beach never interested me. My sister and I grew up in Connecticut, but we spent our weekends and summers on Moore Pond at a small cottage my family built in Warwick, Massachusetts. I was obsessed with digging for buried treasure, pirate gold, and doubloons. Adventuring was at the very top of my priority list. I spent long summer days exploring the woods and diving for freshwater mussels that were sunk deep in the mud at the bottom of the pond. The shoreline was murky and thick with weeds and I’d sometimes stumble upon large piles of dried seaweed.

Mixed in with the weeds were cracked-open mussels; their contents most likely devoured by a raccoon or otter. I would collect each piece of broken bivalve, enamored by the thick layer of iridescent nacre on each shell’s underside. My rarest shell finds were those that had a little swollen lump of shimmery nacre attached to the inside. I’d later learn that rare anomaly to be a blister pearl. Though my pearls and broken shell pieces did not hold the same value as pirate gold or doubloons, the shine of a nacre gave me the same excitement. To me, my shells were priceless, and I was hooked.

winter beach in massachusetts

Through the years, life events and unexpected changes have pulled me away from the pond and closer to the salty shorelines of the Atlantic. My wife and I moved to a sleepy little town called Newbury along the northern Massachusetts coastline and we love every minute of ocean living. The salty air and cool ocean breeze calm me after a long day of work. I spend most of my free time on the beaches of Plum Island searching for sand dollars, moon snails, beach wood, sea glass, and yes, that ever elusive doubloon that is just waiting to be found. But, like most things in life, even though there have been geographical shifts and changes, not much has changed from my summers at the pond. I’m 43 years old and adventuring and exploring are still at the top of my priority list. On weekends I still slosh around in the mud and I spend most of my free time flipping rocks and collecting shells.

new england colorful seashells

I’ve enjoyed my shift from freshwater to saltwater shelling, but there’s something special about ocean shelling. I love spring mornings, when the thick fog blankets a quiet surf at a 5 am low tide. Or shelling during a winter snowstorm in single digit weather when the shells are literally frozen to the ground. And then there are those warm rainy summer mornings where I have the entire coastline to myself—peace and solitude. Fall is my absolute favorite—not only is the foliage amazing, but the colors on the beach really pop with their own rustic New England flair. Some of my favorites are the bright green seaweed that lays elegantly across the beach rock that hugs the shoreline; a mega blue moon shell or a milk and caramel banded dog whelk; a large purple horse mussel coated with snowy white sun bleached barnacles. Yes, shelling through all four seasons is what makes cold water shelling magic for me.

barnacles on a mussel shell

At the beginning of COVID when the world broke and we coined the phrase “social distancing,” I spent even more time alone at the beach. I would often take my camera and photograph the details in nature that sparked my curiosity and interest—an extreme close-up of a moon shell whorl, the white frothy sea-foam meeting the sandy shoreline, the calcified grow lines of a shell, or a golden sunset kissing the purple sand dunes of Plum Island. There is so much beauty here it can be overwhelming. There is something about being on an uninhabited beach submerged in nature’s earth tones with the scent and sound of the ocean all around you. It’s like being on your very own planet—planet Plum Island.

colorful shells and sand dollars from new england beaches

I shared my photographs and experiences on social media to stay connected during a disconnected time. The responses I got were fascinating: “You found that in New England?” “What beach are you on?” “I have lived here my whole life and never seen or found anything like that!” Could it be that people didn’t know about cold water shelling? Through the magic of the internet and social media, I discovered that most shellers only knew of or experienced warm water shelling—places like Florida’s Sanibel Island.

lobster buoy on snowy beach in Massachusetts

For the warm water shellers who have never experienced cold water shelling, be aware there are major differences between the two. I sometimes refer to Plum Island as “the Sanibel of the north” because both Sanibel Island and Plum Island are geographically located in a way where they both receive an abundantly wide variety of shells. The major differences (other than the shell species that can be found in each location) are that warm water shells are generally more colorful, while cold water shells are more rustic, weathered, and earthy. The biggest difference and the most exciting for me is the hunt. Cold water shelling (at least on Plum Island) is more strategic. You really have to understand the tides and in some cases the surf forecast to know when the shelling will be good. In most warm water places I’ve shelled (such as Sanibel), even at high tide, shells can still be plentiful. If you show up at high tide on Plum Island, in most cases you will find very few or no shells at all.

massachusetts beach sand dunes covered in snow

When I realized not many shellers knew about cold water shelling, I began sharing videos on  YouTube to educate and inspire anyone who wanted to come along on my beach adventures. In addition, it was a great way to keep connected with my parents, who had recently moved to Florida. I had a few mishaps at the start like cracking my phone on some rocks while filming sea stars and dropping my phone in a salty tide pool which resulted in a weeklong phone vacation in an oversized bag of rice—still works!

beautiful seashells from the northeast US

Through YouTube I met shellers from all over the world, in Scotland, England, Pakistan, Japan, and even locals who had no idea shelling was possible in New England. What I didn’t expect when I started this project were the hundreds of emails from people experiencing a hardship or major life event. I’ve received emails from people who have lost a loved one and find peace by shelling the northern coastline with me. I’ve heard from shellers who are sick, disabled, or landlocked; and many who suffer from anxiety write that the videos help calm them. I also started to receive emails from people who booked trips from Florida, Chicago, Minnesota, and many other places to shell Plum Island. My videos have introduced me to a global community of shellers—something I never expected, but that I now cherish dearly. I am so happy I can introduce cold water shelling to people all over the world and I’m so grateful to those who join me each week for a new beach adventure.

snail seashell on snowy beach in new england

It’s been decades since I last dove for mussels. I no longer visit the lake and my family no longer owns the cottage, but I always think back fondly of those days that piqued my curiosity and opened a whole new world to me. Shelling brings so many surprises, like the beauty of a broken shell. There is something simple and magnificent about a shell that can be tumbled and battered yet still be the “find of the day.” There are also deep water shells like the New England Neptune or the Florida junonia that have been through a powerful storm, but somehow make it to shore fully intact.

colorful seashells from new england

There are plenty of life lessons to be learned in shelling. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected, to roll with the storms, that broken things can still shine, and yes, anything is possible. You never know what will be around the next corner and even though the past 30-something years have proven me wrong, I still believe it to be completely possible to someday overturn a barnacle-crusted rock and find a shiny gold doubloon beneath it.

sunrise on new england winter beach

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2022 issue.

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