Sea Shells

From the magnificent conch to the modest cowrie, B.V.I. beaches and waters abound in shells of all descriptions.

sea_shells0002Few people can pass by a beautiful shell without stopping to admire its bright colors, delicacy and intricate design. Those people who cannot leave a beach without a colorful assortment are in the right place, for local beaches and waters abound in shells of all descriptions, just awaiting the collector to come on the scene.

Not a recent phenomenon, people’s fascination with shells reaches back to primitive man who used them as tools, decorations and jewelry. Throughout history, shells have continued to be used for these purposes, but new and more unique uses were also developed.

In parts of Africa, the shell called the cowrie was used as money, and as late as the 18th century Cowries were used by slave traders of the Guinea Coast.
Early Africans were not the only ones to recognize the monetary value of shells. Cutting cylindrical shapes out of bivalves (clam-like two part shells) the American Indians strung them together to form the money they called wampum. The less precious strings were white and the more valuable ones were made from the purple part of the clam shell.
As time went on applications for shells became more sophisticated. In ancient Phoenecia, it was discovered that the little animal inhabiting the murex shell secreted a purple material that could be used as a dye.
As well as having practical value, shells have throughout history been thought to have mystical properties. In prehistoric times, the shell played a central role in man’s earliest religious experiences. The presence of shells in prehistoric graves indicate that their symbolic power was thought to continue after death.
Basically a sexual symbol because of its traditional female image, the shell’s significance was carried down through the religions of the great civilizations that followed. Popular as a motif in Greece and Rome, it was the scallop shell and the sea that gave birth to Aphrodite the Goddess of love and beauty in Greek mythology.


…jewelry stores make jewelry out of local materials and have incorporated shells into many of their items

For ancient Catholics, the Jacob’s scallop held importance. Pope Alexander the Fourth thought it had such distinguished character that he decreed that it could only be bought in Compostella, Spain, and that only pilgrims of noble birth could wear it.
Shells still hold significance for contemporary Sudanese natives who adorn themselves with ornamental chains of cowries during their ritual dance asking the spirits to grant rain for their crops.
The Victorians were among the most dedicated of history’s shell collectors and the most creative in their uses for them. During this period shells were often embedded along with minerals in wet plaster to decorate rooms. In many English mansions, baths and marble seats were entirely encrusted with shells and minerals.
In 19th century France, rococo shell work was popular. Homes contained both shell mosaics and elaborate wall decorations. Flowers made of shells and arranged in ceramic or wood vases were also popular in Europe at this time.
Today, man’s fascination with shells has continued. On Tortola shell work is as popular as it was 100 years ago, and shell art and decorations are seen in many British Virgin Island shops and homes. There are several extensive collections to be found locally, and many island craftsmen make shells into Christmas tree ornaments and incorporate them into straw bags and baskets.
Several local jewelry stores make jewelry out of local materials including the pink interior of the conch shell. And books on shells and shell collecting can be found in Road Town stores.
What is it about the shell that has sustained man’s interest through the centuries? Hugh and Maguerite Stix in their book The Shell: 500 Million Years of Inspired Design, offers this clue, “Man became interested in the shell as an inspiring model upon which to base aesthetic principles. The small animal’s achievement in building with intricate beauty and unending variety, instinctively embodying complex mathematical formulas to create a functional incredible architecture, must have been the main reason for its importance in the mind of man.”

Although one of the most popular, the shell is probably one of the world’s most taken-for-granted animals. Casual collectors who gather their shells off the beach, rarely stop to think that the shell once contained a living organism with many of the same properties of animals everywhere.


Of the animal family which have no backbones called mollusks, the soft bodies of these small organisms are protected by an outer mantle of calcium base. As the animal grows, this outer shell forms a distinctive curling, sculpturing and marking. Like the rings of trees, the ridges and depressions in this sculpturing also reveal the animal’s growth and rest periods.
Mollusks fall into two general groups. First there are the univalves, animals with one shell, generally curled in a snail-like spiral. The soft part of the body is hitched to the shell near the top by a strong muscle. The foot which propels it can be withdrawn when resting or hiding.
Then there are the bivalves which are two shells hinged together, as in oysters and clams. The animal is attached to the hinged part by one or two strong muscles on either side. Bivalves can move around, like the active coquinas, or anchor for a length of time like an oyster.
As with other living things, shells eat and raise families, and have a heart, stomach and brain, all on a miniscule scale, of course. Bivalves use a strainer around the outer edge of their shell to take in sea water and feed on the microscopic organisms it contains.
The univalve has a head which it can project from its shell. Its specialized tongue has sharp boring teeth which it can use to drill holes into more helpless shells and eat the animal inside. All mollusks lay eggs. Some keep them in the parent shell until ready to hatch, while others form a protective capsule and string thousands of eggs together to hatch by themselves.
The age span of mollusks widely varies from one to 15 years, but some East Indian specimens are at least 75 years old. The largest shells found today are the giant clams of the western Pacific.
Shells of today differ little from their ancient ancestors. Palaeontologists have found fossil shells that date back over 300 million years and when in recent times the South Florida canals were being dredged, the excavated fossil shells were of the same basic form as the ones alive today.
Our own Caribbean shells developed slightly differently from the ones of the Pacific. At one time they were all basically the same, but once the land bridge between South and North America formed, the animals evolved different characteristics.
The local collector is quite lucky to be where he is for the Caribbean is a perfect place for shell gathering. Because the waters are relatively protected, specimens are in better condition, unlike an area such as Hawaii where most shells are crushed by the surf.
Shells prefer relatively quiet waters, and areas rich in algae form the most prolific breeding grounds. Generally there are fewer shells found in cold water than in the Caribbean and they are usually duller in color.
The majority of shells are to be found on continental shelves or coral reefs, between the low tide line and depths of 400 feet or less, although some are known to exist three miles or more down.
When shell collecting in the Caribbean, here are a few types to keep an eye out for in the univalve category. One of the most valuable are the cowries. Found under rocks and in crevices during the day and feeding over the rocks at night, they are a smooth and glossy shell. When alive, the dark fleshy mantle of the animal surrounds the shell and keeps it highly polished.
When alive conchs are covered with a brown flakey skin, but once this is removed they are salmon colored. With their colorful interior face down, and the outside covered with marine growth, conchs blend in so well with the bottom, that they are usually mistaken for rocks by divers.
More than just a decoration, the conch is used for practical purposes. Considered a delicacy in many areas, the meat can be made into steak, salads and chowder and is often found on local menus. Jewelry made from its pearl-like interior, commands high prices and by sawing off its end and removing the visible spiral column, the Conch can be turned into a horn, which when blown sounds like a trumpet.
The carnivarous murex shell, feeds off his fellow shells and other marine life. It is commonly found on rocks and coral formations in shallow water. Preferring sand to rocks which they burrow under so they are barely seen, the helmet feeds on sea urchins, sea biscuits and sand dollars. Because of their beautiful coloring they are often used in cameos.
A mere half inch long, the four spotted trivia gets its name from four brown spots on the back of its shell. The outer shell is intricately etched with 20 to 24 riblets. The animal, which is deep purple, lives beneath intertidal rubble.


Of the bivalves, one of the most popular specimens to collect is the pecten, whose large variations in color are always tempting to the collector. One of the most showy of the bivalve group is the spiny oyster whose long curved spines and beautiful color variations range from white to orange to purple. Mostly found in water 100 or more feet deep, shallower waters produce smaller shells.
The common Caribbean donax is a pale colored bivalve that can often be found burrowing in the sand near the shore’s edge. Another bivalve to add to your collection is the bright and glossy tellin, whose shell has rays that look like a sunrise.
Although not technically shells, there are several other underwater organisms which are valued by the collector. Snorkeling over reefs and turning over rocks will produce a wide variety of Starfish. These unusual creatures feed on shells and sea urchins and will regrow arms, if they are broken.
Sand dollars and sea biscuits are part of the urchin family. When alive they are covered with spines which can either be long and sharp or soft and hairy.


With a bit of persistence, the diligent collector should be rewarded with a beautiful range of shells. But all collectors should be aware that in the water, shells, along with coral, sea fans and star fish, are living creatures and are better left in their own environment, until they are washed ashore waiting to be displayed in a collection.


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Official webpage of The BVI Welcome Guide. Source of information for everything in the British Virgin Islands since 1971.

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