Sanibel & Son: A Beach Story

By Mike Tidwell
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 11, 2001

It's our last day of vacation and finally the conditions are perfect. There was a violent storm last night and now dawn is breaking at the exact moment the ocean is reaching maximum low tide -- just what we'd hoped for. The guidebook says we're at precisely the right spot, the perfect beach, a stone's throw from the island lighthouse. If it's going to happen, now's the time. Here's the place.

My 3-year-old son, Sasha, his blond hair already awash in sand somehow, holds his mother's hand and waves goodbye from a clump of sea oats as I step, MacArthur-like, into the surf. "I shall return," I mumble into the wind, "and I shall bring back the goods."

"Get a big one, Daddy," Sasha says. "A big one!"

We've traveled to Sanibel Island, southwest Florida's sanctuary for endangered wildlife and reclusive millionaires, to do what all the tourists do: comb the water and beaches for those ornate outer skeletons of mollusks otherwise known as seashells. Indeed, if colorful, delicate, infinitely varied shells are what you're after, shells with names like baby's ear and shark eye and spiny jewel box, you can't do better anywhere on Earth than 12-mile-long Sanibel Island -- unless you travel to Australia's Great Barrier Reef or a few select beaches in the Philippines.

So my expectations are high as I strap on my diving mask and edge farther into the surf. Sasha's running up and down the beach like a sideline coach, rooting me on. Meanwhile, the reason for Sanibel's conchological richness lies gleaming in the corner of my left eye. It's the morning sun, and it's rising to my left, not behind me, because Sanibel Island, 125 miles south of Tampa Bay, lies perpendicular to Florida's west coast, an exceedingly strange posture for a barrier island. So situated, the island sticks out into the northward-moving Gulf Stream, meeting the ocean current head-on like a fallen tree in a mighty river. The surrounding sea is very shallow, meaning seashells -- with or without occupants -- are vulnerable to both bullying wind and ocean currents that wash them up onto Sanibel's wide sandy beaches.

No fewer than 160 different types of shells can be found here, and Sasha and I have already located our fair share over the past three days. Back at the hotel beach, surrounded by loggerhead turtle nests and the swoosh of brown pelicans with six-foot wingspans, we've spent hours leaning forward and looking down, stuck in that posture locals call the "Sanibel Stoop." Our increasingly weighty beach pail bears the fruit: calico scallops, clams and other bivalves, sand dollars galore, several lightning whelks, a king's crown, a banded tulip, even an apple murex.

All are beautiful and not easily found elsewhere in Florida, but none is exceptionally large or exotic for Sanibel. So part of me has begun lusting for a big, fat, trophy shell, something freakishly pink and polished, to put on the mantel back home. Never mind the Harley-Davidson biker who, just the day before, showed us how to find the youngest, smallest, most delicate shells on the beach, tiny guys smaller than grains of rice that, the brawny biker lamented, are overlooked by the droves of less sensitive, less gentle tourists stampeding by.

But truth be told, my ambitions lean more toward the football-size Florida queen's helmet and the giant horse conchs we see on the shelves of shell shops across the island, places with video-camera surveillance systems and names like Neptune's Treasure and She Sells Sea Shells.

"Whooooaaaaa! Those are bigger than ours," Sasha gasped at one such shop. The innocent comment left me feeling nonetheless like a deadbeat dad when it comes to locating the sea's grander sculptures of calcium carbonate.

Which is why, just now, wading into the surf on this last day of vacation, I can barely control my excitement. The conditions are superb. Low tide means I can go farther out into the water. Dawn means most of my competition is still sleeping. The lighthouse beach means better collecting because the ocean current hits particularly hard here. And finally, the storm last night practically guarantees a new crop of washed-up shells, all lying just below the surface.

Trophy shells. I'm sure of it.

But the pressure's on as I take one last gulp of air. Above the hiss of ocean wind I can still hear my son's high-pitched, expectant cries: "A big one, Daddy! A big one!"

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