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There are lots of shells to discover on the beaches of Sanibel Island in Florida.
There are lots of shells to discover on the beaches of Sanibel Island in Florida.

Sanibel Island is a shell seeker's paradise Add to ...

The alarm screeches at 5:45 a.m., an ungodly hour made even more ridiculous given this is the first day of 2012, when everyone else in their right mind is sleeping off last night’s excesses.

But here we are. It is Jan. 1, splat in the middle of a vacation on Sanibel Island, Fla., and my 11-year-old daughter is ferociously determined to rise before daylight to comb the shores for shells. In pitch-black darkness. With headlamps.

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And I, in deference to a girl who is typically most reluctant to move in the mornings, will accompany her.

This is no small feat of heroism on her mother’s part. It is not just the early hour; I’m a little wary of beautiful, deserted beaches. A robbery at machete-point in years past has put me off carefree beach wandering.

Still, we set out in pitch darkness from our little cottage on the sand. My headlamp promptly fades, and dies, which only adds fuel to my wild imaginings – what if we tread on some drunken soul sleeping off last night’s party? But my daughter marches Zen-like along, stopping to crouch every few moments to poke with a finger, turn over a conch or ask a question.

In prior days, at our sunrise sojourns, the beach has been combed by dozens of uber-competitive shellers, sporting gear of mesh bags, shovels, lamps and boots. Today, the beach is ours alone, with only the sound of surf.

She swings her headlamp to the right, up the shore, and we see a lovely sight. In dark shells, in massive printing, someone has left a message. “HAVE A GREAT 2012.” It’s a terrifically sweet start to the year.

Farther along, a congregation of Florida fighting conches are washed ashore. We stage a rescue operation, picking each one up, examining them for life and flinging them back into the sea. (Can conches get motion sickness? If so, we may have inflicted a few of them with centrifugal force-induced nausea.)

Last night, we watched the sun sink into the ocean, the last sunset of the year. Now, as with the first glimmerings of light, we will get to see the sun rise – treasures for Toronto city-dwellers like us.

My girl realizes that the most thrilling finds are still in the water, so we wade, shin-deep, to look at crabs in shells, mammoth conches and sand dollars, miracles of perfection in the undulating water. Some shells, without creatures, are placed in a bag, but most are carefully put back.

The sun peeks up behind us, spreading pink light. A dog walker appears in the horizon, then a jogger. The first day of the year begins.

We are seven days on this island, staying in a colourful cottage built in the sand in the 1950s. Palm trees line the drive, with the effect even more awesome at night, when they are lit up with white Christmas lights. This is an electronic-free week for the family, meaning no cellphones or video games, something the kids have submitted to with a surprising lack of resistance verging on relief.

A few days later, a cold front comes in, bringing gusty winds. With it, the currents shift, washing up all manner of jewels from the sea. One long-time visitor says she’s seen nothing like it in a dozen years of visits, moguls of shells that on closer look move, as crabs claws and conch feet try to scramble back to the water. Even my restless nine-year-old son is fascinated now. Dead fish, the odd jellyfish, horseshoe crabs and a raft of sea stars have washed up. A large trap, half-buried, yields inside it – miracle! – a large, blue, quite-alive crab. Operation Save-the-Crab is a tough affair, as our subject doesn’t want to exit. Finally, it is freed, placed back in its watery abode (where, we silently hope, it doesn’t promptly wash up again to expire a few hours later).

It’s a week for wildlife. We watch dozens of gentle manatee, gathered in the warm waters at a local power plant, and dolphins, which smile sideways at us as they slide through the water. We rent kayaks to explore tunnels through mangroves, surrounded by silent, tall water birds, egrets and herons, ibises and white pelicans. Below the boats, the kids count sea stars. A walk through the wildlife reserve reveals, in the distance, a massive gator, sunning itself in the grasses.

Even a fervent non-bird-person like me can see the appeal of ornithology. The birds on Sanibel are a joy to watch. So much so, I ditch reading on the beach to watch pelicans dive for fish. Comical legions of sandpipers dart along the shores, their stick legs a blur. Ospreys collect debris for their massive nests.

We visit the island’s shell museum, which boasts samples of shells from around the world. There are ancient shells as currency, shell-encrusted furniture and a video on the life, love life and death of mollusks.

On our last night, we go to the Hungry Heron for dinner. It has more than 250 items on the menu, walls festooned with murals of sea life. It seems a fitting ending to a lovely week. I order seafood pasta. But when it comes, I look at the little crustaceans in a new light, and think of their life cycles under the waves. I can’t do it. Sea creatures now seem better enjoyed in the wild, not on my plate.

A BEACHCOMBER’S BEST FRIENDS

Want to be a serious sheller? Here’s what you need:

  • Get a schedule for the tides. An hour on either side of low tide is optimal shelling time.
  • Wear headlamps – this lets you go out before sunrise to comb the beach before others discover the best mollusks.
  • Take a mesh bag to store your treasures.
  • Carry a shovel or tool to help you dig.
  • Bring drinking water and sunscreen, in the likely event you will be gone much longer than you anticipate

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