By Claire Ferguson
Okinawa, Japan, is known for its tropical climate, coral reefs, and historic World War II sites. Tony Duncan and his wife Karin arrived on the island eleven years ago, and have enjoyed the beautiful broad beaches ever since. Tony, a former United States Air Force K-9 handler, used to train military dogs to detect narcotics and explosives. Now, his job is to cook, clean (a little), and take care of Karin and their four cats. “I loved the experiences and the travel the military provided, and my wife’s government job has allowed us to continue to live abroad and experience cultures vastly different from the U.S.,” he says. One of the greatest discoveries for Tony, has been finding the wide variety of shells unique to the Okinawan region as he has become an avid sheller.
Tony started casual beachcombing soon after arriving in Okinawa, but it became an obsession a year or so later when he began exploring the northern side of the island finding huge shells he’d never seen before. Now retired, he typically tries to hit the beach at least four or five times a week to stay active, often visiting several beaches in a day in order to yield great results. “The shells in Okinawa are not normally clustered or stacked upon each other like you would find on Sanibel Island in Florida, so a lot of walking is involved,” Tony says, “On any typical day, walking between 15,000 and 25,000 steps is commonplace.”
Tony usually finds all his treasures on the high tide or low tide lines on shore. He stays away from beach resorts and hotels because they plow and rake their beachfront, which pulverizes any shell that could be there. “Practically all shells that get washed up are empty, which is a good thing because the cone shells are venomous to some degree—some like a bee sting while others can be fatal,” Tony says. Most shells can be cleaned with a mild bleach/water bath but some need a little bit more attention. The bigger, older shells accumulate some coral growth and/or calcium deposits. For the delicate shells, Tony cleans off calcium with a metal dental pick, but he uses a Dremel tool with diamond tipped bits for shells with thicker calcification.
According to Tony, the best time of year to beachcomb, which also happens to be his favorite time, is in the fall and winter months. “The shells seem to be plentiful and, more importantly, the temperature is much more enjoyable than the heat and humidity of the spring and summer months,” he says. Additionally, the best time of day is usually during the day’s low tides, but it isn’t always a guarantee.
More and more people, both local and Americans, are beachcombing in Okinawa than ever before. Some local shellers have attributed that to Tony’s social media, where he posts all of his finds on Instagram and the Beachcombers of Okinawa Facebook page. He says that beaches are not quite as shell abundant as when he first arrived. However, the competitiveness of shellers has now led him to hike or climb to hard-to-reach beaches that an everyday comber would not endure. The remote spots are less sandy and flanked by cliffs and small waterfalls, while the shoreline is dotted with huge boulders or rock outcroppings.
In addition to shells, Tony finds a variety of items on the beaches including glass floats, sea glass, sea pottery, and occasionally, small plastic toys. He usually only picks up the shells and glass floats, but Karin has craft plans for her retirement (less than two years away!) with all of the sea glass and pottery she’s collected accompanying him on the weekends. As for Tony, he sticks to collecting cone shells, cowries, tritons, conchs, and miter shells. Since he doesn’t snorkel, dive, or use a boat due to severe seasickness, he feels extremely fortunate to be able to find such incredible shells on land. He’s also found some pretty strange items such as horse teeth, a goat’s horn, an Okinawan burial urn, and a rusted and hollowed-out World War II hand grenade.
Tony’s bucket list for finds includes a junonia shell from Florida and a Glory-of-the-Sea cone shell, Conus gloriamaris. His list might be longer, but Tony says has been fortunate to meet fellow shellers through Instagram, where he can trade shells from around the globe including Spain, Brazil, England, New Caledonia, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Florida. “There have been plenty of shell finds over the years that were difficult to ID, but I have been fortunate to make an Instagram friend with someone who lived here and collected shells in his youth, Russ Drury. He has been a wealth of knowledge and a mentor—despite him being much younger than me. I usually go shelling alone, but Russ is one person I would jump at the chance beachcomb with,” Tony says.
With all of the remarkable shells Tony finds, he doesn’t see one species as more special than any other. “It’s kind of like children, l love them all and don’t have favorites,” he says. He doesn’t sell them either, mainly because he wouldn’t know what a fair price would be. His shells, glass floats, and other beach finds are displayed throughout his small Japanese apartment—in bookcases, on countertops, and in glass jars. If he had to guess, he probably has a couple thousand pounds of shells that he’s accumulated over eleven years. It used to be more, but he has given away a lot of it to family and friends in addition to many local beachcombers. Tony says, “If my friends and family could travel here to see all my shells, they might think I have a problem.” Tony hopes to add Florida shells to his collection someday, which is possible as he and Karin are looking at retiring there. For now, he’ll continue to be amazed by the different shapes, colors, sizes, and patterns of shells Okinawa has to offer.
Like so many places, COVID has disrupted life in Okinawa, but normally there are plenty of things to do in Okinawa besides beachcombing. For history buffs there are World War II battle sights to visit and restored Ryukyu Kingdom-era castles. Okinawa offers plenty of hiking depending on your interests: jungle, mountain, or coastal cliff hikes. Nearly all of Okinawa’s towns and villages offer various cultural festivals such as the 10,000 Eisa Dancers Parade and the Great Tug-of-War event. Soba noodles are a local specialty to try when visiting. Since Okinawa is surrounded by water on all sides, a vast assortment of fresh-caught seafood is in abundant supply, as well. If you do beachcomb, look out for the Chiragra spider conch. Some locals hang one on either side of their front door or entryway for good luck and to ward off evil.
See more of Tony’s finds and follow along on his beachcombing adventures on Instagram @okishells_td.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2021 issue.
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Hi! My daughter, who is 6, loves shelling! She started around 3 and is obsessed. Been shelling all over from Sanibel to Indonesia. We’re headed to Okinawa this summer. I’m hoping to get tips from you on where to give us the best chance to help her add some new local additions to her collection. Looking forward to hearing back!