By Mary Hopkins Bailey
Some of my happiest memories come from summers spent on the shores of Amelia Island, Florida. Because my family shared ownership of a no-frills beachfront cottage with my mother’s two brothers, we lived for at least a month each summer in what was then simply known as Fernandina Beach.
My earliest memories are from the 1960s, when Fernandina was nothing more than a sleepy shrimping town. Just across the sound from Cumberland Island, Georgia, Fernandina felt more like Georgia than Florida—a thoroughly southern town with thoroughly southern people. And because beachfront real estate was affordable, swarms of South Georgians flocked to the little community each summer. Many owned their own cottages, and for those who didn’t, beachfront rentals were cheap and easy to come by.
Our summers were filled with fishing, crabbing, shelling, digging for coquina clams and sea fleas, eating raw oysters, and building sand castles well after dusk. As children we often bathed with the garden hose after coming off the beach, and then slipped into bed with sand still crusted between our toes. In those days, there were no plush homes or hotels, and few restaurants.
Fast forward 60 years, and I still spend at least a month on Amelia Island each summer, mostly visiting my aging parents who became full-time residents in the 1990s. Now, however, the 13-mile-long beach has become a premier vacation destination, with resorts like the Omni and Ritz-Carlton established on the island’s desirable south end. Visitors from all over the world now know North Florida’s best-kept secret.
On the island’s north end, Fernandina’s downtown has also undergone a renaissance of sorts, with colorful shops, world-class restaurants, and a booming real estate market. But one thing hasn’t changed throughout the years: the beach.
The white sands of Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island remain unspoiled, and for shell seekers, there are still plenty of treasures to be discovered. Among the sea of cockle shells, early risers will find an occasional knobbed whelk, lettered olive, shark eye moon shell, razor clam, angel wing, and, if lucky, a lightning whelk. Unlike the calm waters of Florida’s west coast, the Atlantic’s crashing waves often create a crumble of crushed and broken shells. For instance, I’ve only ever found remnants of the elusive banded tulip, a shell that is readily found intact on the calmer shores of Florida’s southwest. Nonetheless, serious shellers can often find keyhole limpets, striped false limpets, sand dollars, and even an occasional sea urchin. Ask the typical beach walker what they are looking for, however, and they will most often say shark’s teeth. Amongst the shell fragments up and down the beach, teeth of all shapes and sizes are literally sprinkled about for the trained eye to find.
Perhaps my familiarity with the island led me to take many of these delights for granted over the years, because I can honestly say I have never experienced the wonder of shelling quite like I did this past winter. As my 93-year-old father entered hospice care, my sister and I took up residence nearby to offer support and say our goodbyes.
What we thought would be a matter of weeks, stretched into a process of months. We soon settled into a somewhat uneasy daily routine. We would rise in the wee hours before the sun peeked over the horizon and head to the beach for a bit of emotional respite. Shortly after establishing our routine, we discovered that the Omni had begun a beach restoration project. To keep erosion at bay, they contracted engineers to dredge sand from the Nassau sound and pump it back onto the beach. The crews methodically worked from the south end to the north end of the resort, about a mile in all, depositing sand and grading it into place. The pumping continued all night long, and on low-tide mornings, the beach would be literally littered with so many whelks and conchs, a shopping bag was needed to carry them home. It was like an Easter egg hunt every morning, and by 10 am the beach was picked clean.
It seemed in the midst of our grief, we found this small window of delight, waking each morning with a bittersweet expectation of something fun. What would wash up today?
Accustomed to finding the occasional beat-up knobbed whelk or moon shell, we instead found a variety of pristine shells that looked as if they had only recently been vacated by their creators. In the course of the next seven months, I found the biggest olive shell and shark eye moon shell (one of my favorites) that I’d ever seen. I also found a delicate juvenile pear whelk, a bucket-list find. My sister, for her part, found at least 60 sand dollars and the largest, most beautiful lightning whelk to ever wash ashore. But more surprisingly, we also found at least a dozen Florida fighting conchs, a shell that, though it’s Florida’s state shell, I had never before seen on our shores. Among other surprises were a Scotch bonnet, a common nutmeg, and a smattering of calico scallops both large and small. We also found three very old and very large murex shells…a find so rare in these waters, we had to consult a shell identifier to tell us what we’d discovered.
Ironically, as the dredging project began to wind down, my father’s health took another sharp decline. A joyful man who loved the island, he slipped away just days after the crews had abandoned the newly replenished beach. It all seemed surreal. The morning he passed, I stole away for one final walk on the beach in hopes of clearing my head. During the entire dredging project, I had not found one single shark’s tooth… and usually they were everywhere. On this February morning, the beach felt particularly empty. The Easter egg hunt was over. There wasn’t a whelk in sight. But as I took a deep breath and turned to head back to the boardwalk, I looked down to discover a shark’s tooth right at my feet. It was almost as if God was confirming the season was over. The fantastical shelling had been a gift to buoy us during a difficult journey.
Just as it was time for my Dad to go home, it was now okay for me to move on. In that moment, I felt thankful for the closure and for all the unusual beach treasures that would forever remind me of our last moments together.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2022 issue.
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