Confessions of a Shellaholic

By Jennifer L. Schiff

handful of seashells sanibel

Hi, I’m Jennifer, and I am a shellaholic.

Like many shellaholics, my obsession with shells and beachcombing began at an early age, on family trips to the beach. My mother would sun herself for hours, and, bored, I would go in search of something to amuse myself. That something turned out to be beachcombing.

I loved finding shells, bits of sea glass, and interesting objects washed ashore on the tide or left behind on the beach by some sun-addled beachgoer. As I got older, my obsession grew. Whenever I would find myself near a beach, I would go in search of shells. And I began to amass glasses, jars, and bins full of them.

Then I discovered Sanibel.

To say that my first visit to Sanibel Island, Florida, was a revelation would be an understatement. It was, in fact, life-changing.

Discovering Sanibel

I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I hadn’t in fact heard of Sanibel, nor did I know that it was considered the Seashell Capital of the United States, until around eight years ago, after reading about the island in an article. An inexcusable lapse for a self-proclaimed shellaholic, I know, but I had grown up going to the East Coast of Florida and the Caribbean. And the West Coast of Florida was a mystery to me.

Then fate struck, in the form of a child-free weekend, a rarity in our house. The temperature had plummeted in New England, and my husband, knowing my love for seashells (and hatred of the cold), suggested we go to Sanibel for a few days.

Shortly thereafter, we checked ourselves into Mitchell’s SandCastles, an old-fashioned, all-cottage resort along West Gulf Drive. And when I woke up that first morning and crept out onto the beach at dawn, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

seashell collecting sanibel florida

There were seashells everywhere. Piles and piles of them. It was like nothing I had ever experienced as a sheller. Hours later, my husband came looking for me, wondering where I had gone.

I had found so many shells that first auspicious trip to Sanibel that I had to go to the local general store, Bailey’s, to buy bins to get my precious cargo home. And so began a lifelong obsession with Sanibel and Sanibel shells.

Jennifer schiff collecting shells

From that point on, whenever I had a free couple of days, I would fly down to Sanibel. Each time, I would get up at dawn and comb the beach in search of shells: lettered olives; apple and lace murexes; orange, pink, and yellow scallops; horse conchs; lightning whelks; and the Holy Grail of Sanibel shells, the junonia, to name just of handful. And I would cry when my 48 hours were up.

It wasn’t long before I suggested to the spouse that we think about getting a place there. And soon after, we did, one with plenty of room to house my growing Sanibel shell collection.

And growing it was.

sanibel light house and heart cockle shell

Beachcomber in Paradise 

Now that I had a permanent place to display my shells, my beachcombing kicked into high gear. I bought books on shelling in 
Southwest Florida (Florida’s Living Beaches: A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber by Blair and Dawn Witherington is a must-have), found fellow shell enthusiasts on Facebook, started following beachcombers on Instagram, and became a proud member of the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, even becoming a Shell Ambassador.

I was obsessed.

nice island shells

I would rotate beaches—one day looking for shells along Blind Pass Beach and Silver Key, another on Bowman’s Beach, yet another along West Gulf Drive, and I would drive half an hour in the pre-dawn dark to the East End of Sanibel—in search of alphabet cones, wentletraps, gaudy nauticas, shark eyes, Scotch bonnets, and the elusive junonia.

At the suggestion of a friend, I took a day trip to Cayo Costa, a state park north of Sanibel and Captiva, which you can only reach by boat. Then I ventured south, to Keewaydin Island, off of Marco Island, where I found my first chocolate alphabet cone.

Still, I had yet to find a junonia.

Around this time, my obsession burning bright, I began writing my first book, A Shell of a Problem, a mystery about a reporter from New England who finds herself out of a husband and a job and winds up on Sanibel, covering the annual Sanibel Shell Festival, when a shell known as the Golden Junonia goes missing.

a shell of a problem mystery book beach

As I was finishing the first draft, a friend told me about a mythical-sounding place called Shell Island, where, if the reports were to be believed, junonias washed ashore daily. But the place, located in the Ten Thousand Islands, was only open to the public a few months a year. And to get there you needed a boat. Feverishly, I booked a trip, hoping—no, praying—that the universe would send me a junonia, a sign that my book would be a success.

And readers, I found one.

Jennifer schiff junonia shell

The Joy of Junonia

To say that finding my first junonia was the happiest day of my life is an exaggeration. But let us say, I was very, very happy—and bore a striking resemblance to Gollum the rest of the trip. (No one was getting near my precious.)

So, having found the Holy Grail of Southwest Florida shells did my shelling obsession ease? Ha! Hardly. After all, who can stop at just one junonia? And I was still in search of a lion’s paw, a Scotch bonnet, a true tulip, and a nice big horse conch.

Indeed, as my fellow shellaholics know too well, you can never have too many shells. (Though my husband disagrees.) And as obsessions go, I think we can all agree that beachcombing is a healthy one. What other addiction gets you up every morning, forces you to go for long walks on the beach, helps you make friends, and won’t get you arrested (unless you accidentally club someone to death with a giant lightning whelk in order to pry a junonia out of their cold, dead hands)?

Jennifer's Top Ten List

Check out Jennifer's list of the Top 10 Sanibel Seashells ›

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

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