PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sanibel Shell Museum Delights and Educates

Sanibel Island’s beaches are among the best places in the world to pick up seashells. They attract both serious and casual collectors.  And, for the casual collector who wants to learn more, the island has a world-class facility for doing so, The Bailey-Mathews Shell Museum, which is accredited by American Association of Museums.  

The museum recently added a new exhibit honoring one of its founding forces, the late actor Raymond Burr.

“He really brought lot of attention to the museum,” said director Jose Leal. “We have a few of his shells here and we have some of his cowries actually in the exhibit, all collected by him on his beloved island of Naitauba in the Fiji islands or in Hawaii.”The exhibit also displays the hat and cane Burr made famous in his role as TV’s “Perry Mason.” 

Burr, who was a frequent visitor to the island, organized fundraisers and used his fame to help move the museum from a dream to a reality. He even attended the 1992 groundbreaking for the museum, which opened in 1995.

Today, it sits on a prime piece a real estate and takes its name from the pioneer families who donated the land.  It’s large space. There’s a replica of a giant squid suspended from the high ceiling. The windows are etched blue glass.  

At first impression, a visitor might feel like they’ve walked into an aquarium.  About 50,000 people visit every year and many, like Mike Catrone and his family, keep coming back.

“We’ve been coming to Sanibel for ten years, every time we make a point of coming here,” he said.  “It’s a great day for the kids. They like to learn about new shells so that when we’re on the beach shell finding we know what we’re looking for.”

Local shells are prominently featured in the more than 30 exhibits, but there’s much more.  One of the most popular displays features sailor’s valentines. Director Leal explains they’re a form of decorative shell work developed early work in the 19th century. 

“It was developed in the Caribbean Islands,” Leal said. “They were carefully crafted from local shells by locals and then brought to Europe by travelers and sailors.”

Made from thousands of tiny shells in pastel shades, affixed to an intricate pattern, the result is images of otherworldly, three dimensional flowers.  They are framed in wooden boxes. Sometimes the boxes are heart shaped, thus the name sailor’s valentine.

Leal is a trained malacologist, an expert in mollusks. He has a doctorate in marine biology.   Under his direction, visitors not only see shells, but also learn about them.  Their life cycle begins in sheltered back bays where they are easy prey. 

With mollusks you have lots of fish and crabs and other animals that are looking for the meat inside the shell,” he said.  “And once that animal is eaten the shell may wash ashore.” 

If the animal was removed by crab pinchers, which slip inside and cut away the meat leaving the shell intact, it’s the prize that attracts collectors. 

The bay between Sanibel and the mainland is perfect habitat for incubating mollusks and Leal says the island’s unique shape contributes to the number of shells that wash up on its gulf side beaches. 

Sanibel is shaped like a boomerang with the point of the boomerang facing south and when you combine that shape, that topography, with the prevailing winds and currents during the winter, the cold fronts, that’s when you have the best shelling.”

A visitor will learn, among many things, that certain classes of shells, for example murex, are found on beaches around the world.  But there’s great variation within the species.  A murex found on Sanibel resembles, but is distinctly different from, a murex found on a beach in, say, Japan.  The museum’s graduated display of murex made a lasting impression on local resident Susanna Wohlpart who said she’s visited the museum many times.

All of these years I think of this display, of the baby shells growing up. Ten shells that represent a growth pattern of life and I always remember to leave the live shells because I know that it can get bigger, because it’s a living being, so this visual has stayed with me forever,” she said.  

And for the many children like Silas White from Washington D.C., who visit Bailey-Mathews Shell Museum – it’s a delight. 

“I have my own ocean book but yeah, it’s really good,” he said.

As part of its mission to educate, the Bailey-Mathews Shell Museum sends collections of shells to classrooms around the world.  The packets, which also include suggestions for lesson plans, have gone to more than 2,500 schools.  A fundraiser dinner to help support that mission will be hosted by Trader’s restaurant on Sanibel on Oct. 3. The museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Valerie Alker hosts All Things Considered. She has been a Reporter/Producer and program host at WGCU since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Southwest Florida and has also produced documentaries for WGCU-TV’s former monthly environmental documentary programs In Focus on the Environment and Earth Edition. Valerie also helps supervise WGCU news interns and contributes to NPR programs.