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NC Shell Club members seek the extraordinary on Ocracoke

Doug Wolfe explains why shells are so extraordinary. Photo by C. Leinbach

Doug Wolfe explains why shells are so extraordinary. Photo by C. Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

Members of the North Carolina Shell Club think shells are rather extraordinary.

“A creature that makes a shell like this is kind of wonderful,” said Doug Wolfe of Beaufort, as he admired a tulip shell during the group’s meeting March 19 on Ocracoke.

The group of shell enthusiasts meets several times a year at various coastal locations, said Everett Long, president, and one of the best meeting spots is Ocracoke.

Wolfe, a retired marine scientist and the club’s go-to identification person, related his shell-inspiration story: When he was about five years old, he found a giant horse conch on the Jacksonville, Fla., beach.

To his youthful horror, he had to leave it on the beach.

“But I’ve been collecting shells ever since,” he said, noting that he has thousands.

Shells, Wolfe said, are 98.6 percent calcium carbonate. The rest is composed of proteins exuded by the snail.

The calcium carbonate holds the shell together and produces the colors and patterns.

Ann Sommers talks about the shells she has collected on wrecks diving off Cape Hatteras. Photo by C. Leinbach

Ann Sommers talks about the shells she has collected on wrecks diving off Cape Hatteras. Photo by C. Leinbach

“The snail genetically knows where to put the colors,” he said about the animal inside. “The amazing thing is that they put the pigments in the right spots because a lot of these creatures live in 100 feet of water where it is dark.”

Wolfe explained all this while looking at the collection of the evening’s speaker, Ann Sommers of Centerville, Va., a club member who has collected shells diving on shipwrecks off of Hatteras for more than 30 years.

In her talk, Sommers added to Wolfe’s explanation of shell colors and patterns, noting that it’s all about taste.

The mollusk uses taste to determine where it left off in its shell-creating process, thus the different bands of color, she said. This she learned from a new book on shells called “Spirals in Time,” by British marine biologist Helen Scales.

To a reporter’s question about why some shells found on the beach are black, Wolfe explained that his best guess is that there are anoxic sediments in the ocean floor in which shells get buried for long periods of time—maybe centuries–where no light gets to them. Hence their black color. Then, through whatever force, they get churned up and tossed onto the beach.

Club members took a day trip to Portsmouth Island, and a table was laden with their catches of the day, as it were—various shells, coal, old decoys and other detritus that can be found on the beach.

Dora Zimmerman of Mechanicsville, Md., had captured the “find of the day,” as adjudicated by Wolfe. This was a scotch bonnet with two adult lips.

“Most scotch bonnets don’t have two mature edges,” Wolfe told the assembly of about 40 in the Ocracoke Community Center.

The groups table full of items found on Portsmouth.

The groups table full of items found on Portsmouth.

Scotch bonnets—the state shell—are the prizes to find, Long had said in an interview prior to the club’s arrival. 

The club has about 84 members from all over North Carolina and the Eastern shore.

Portsmouth Island across the inlet is a major draw for the group.

“As soon as the boat lands at Portsmouth we scatter like cockroaches,” Zimmerman said about the quest for beach treasures.

Her friend, Nancy Timmerman of Wilmington, was on the second boat of club members to hit Portsmouth’s shore and so was not in the first wave to hit the beach.

But she’s OK with that since, while everyone ran off to the beach, she looked down and found a scotch bonnet right beside the boat.

“I like finding things,” she said about what interests her about shelling and the club. “I like finding whatever there is to find.”

Nancy Timmerman and Dora Zimmerman of the NC Shell Club.

Nancy Timmerman and Dora Zimmerman enjoy finding whatever they can on beaches as members of the NC Shell Club. Photo by C. Leinbach