The Life of a Seashell in Cabarete, Dominican Republic
and our mini guide to ethical shell collecting
She sells seashells by the seashore. During strolls along our endless beaches here in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, you can spot some pretty unique and beautiful shells.
Seashells come in a vast array of shapes, sizes, and color, but the one thing they do have in common, they are the exoskeletons of marine animals that have deceased. Slightly morbid, we know, but this life cycle is remarkable in its own way. There are hundreds of thousands of animal species that grow and leave behind seashells, which range in size from microscopic to sofa size! The main shells we see are made by marine mollusks as they are the sturdiest and longest lasting shells. Similar to our fingernails, shells are made up of Calcium Carbonate and proteins that are acquired, from the animal’s food source and the water around them. The different shapes and types of shells come from different animals and are adapted to the animals needs. Elaborate shells often come from areas where predation is fierce and will have spikes, ridges and anything else that makes it difficult for predators to move them. However, some shells will have a sleeker shape so they can move faster and discreetly.
Even the shells that are already vacant play an important role to ocean life. Fish use them to hide from predators, hermit crabs change from shell to shell as they grow, they offer an attachment surface for algae, seagrass, sponges and a host of other microorganisms. Once they’re washed onto the beach, they are still used by nature as birds use them to help build their nests.
In Cabarete, you will mainly find mollusks, which includes clams, cockles, whelks, conch, scallops, tellinas and if you look extra hard, you can sometimes find our favorite of them all, sand dollars. It’s important to check for life inside the shells before handling them, as you will often find shells that look vacant, but inside have a little hermit crab hiding away! Many of the shells you will find will already have small, perfectly round holes in them. Once again, it’s a little dark, but they’re caused by predators, often moon snails, who drill into the shell to get to the meal inside! We understand collecting shells is part of holding on to those holiday memories and those who are fascinated by shells are also fond of nature.
Here’s our mini guide to ethical seashell collecting:
Don’t take anything that is alive!
Removing live animals from the ocean has a catastrophic impact and affects the entire ecosystem. Even small creatures play a huge role, and the common perception of ‘one less won’t hurt’ causes reefs and ocean life to suffer. Ask yourself, “Do I need this conch shell more than the conch trying to survive inside?” Don’t forget, you can still be a hero too! If you do find a live sea creature high and dry on the sand, pick it up gently and return it to the ocean, preferably plop them out as far as you can but please don’t throw them. These animals are unlikely to survive in the hot sun until the next high tide, by simply helping them back to the ocean; you’re saving a life and checked off your good deed for the day!
Leave spiral shells.
We realize this is quite specific and you’re probably wondering why only spiral shells. Well, there’s another shell collector, and he clearly needs them more than you do, the humble hermit crab. There are over a thousand species of hermit crabs around the world and each one of them moves to larger shells as they grow. If the hermit crab can’t find a larger shell, it will die of exposure or predation. Every time you leave that spiral shell instead of taking it home, you’re enabling another hermit crab to grow and move into a roomier shell!
Take less, or even better, take photos.
The impacts of collecting shells have been much debated, however, scientific studies have shown that a reduction in the number of seashells found on the beach has many consequences such as increased beach erosion, changes in Calcium Carbonate recycling and declines in diversity and numbers of organisms which depend on shells. This goes with the saying ‘take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints’.
We’re not banning you from taking shells; however, we’re asking you to spare a thought for the creatures that rely on these shells for survival!