I went to the ocean today. The heat was severe at home. The trees, weary from the heat, curled their leaves in protest and seemed to bow to the heat as if conceding. “You win,” the trees whispered to the sun. There weren’t many at Bachman’s Beach on the south shore. I was surprised. I thought there would be hordes gathering at the water’s edge to find relief. The breeze off the water washed the heat off my skin and soothed my anxiety. I kicked off my sandals and tip-toed into the water. The water was icy cold, muscle cramping cold. I couldn’t get in much deeper than over my ankles, so instead I walked.
When I walk on the beach, I search for the perfect stone. I don’t know what qualifies as a perfect stone, but I know it when I see it. What caught my eye today was a tiny seashell not quite the size of a kernel of corn but the same colour. Its appearance caught my attention. I love anything yellow, but Sesame Street taught us – one of these things is not like the other. I picked it up, thinking it was a bit of plastic debris, but it was a perfect miniature-sized seashell. I wondered about the tiny mollusk that used to call it home and what message she might be sharing with me.
Marine mollusks, if you remember from school days, create their own hard exoskeleton, a home they carry around that protects and supports their body. The mollusk secretes calcium carbonate from its mantle to create this take-it-with-you home. This tiny mollusk spent its entire life building its home, leaving it on the beach for me to find when its use for a mobile home had ended.
Not all mollusks grow shells, but those who do build their home as all good homes are built – from the bottom up. The colour of the shell comes from the environment. Cold water does not lend itself to colourful shells the way warm water does. The spiral shape of the seashell follows a logarithmic pattern, a math equation built right into it. The shell grows with the animal and once they are done with it, the abandoned shell provides a home or attachment for algae, seagrass, and sponges. The hermit crab moves into empty seashells and has been home-borrowing for over 150 million years (www.questionableevolution.com. All shells eventually dissolve, the environmentally sound materials slowly flowing back into the ocean.
Then there’s the argonaut. No, not the football playing variety or the heroes from Greek mythology, but a unique mollusk from the family of octopuses. It builds and repairs its shell using its arms, only the females, making each shell a unique design. The argonaut uses its shell as a floatation device, allowing it to return to the open ocean to explore. All other types of octopuses live on the ocean floor, needing the protection of its surroundings – a limited life for sure. We still have a lot to learn about these creatures.
There are 200,000 mollusks in the world, all creating their own version of seashells. Interesting fact – most shells open on the right – referred to as dextral shells. The rare sinistral shells open to the left. The largest collection of shells can be found on Shell Beach in Western Australia with billions of shells that cover 70 kms and is 10 metres deep. We are all tempted to collect seashells as we walk the beaches of the world. The oldest collection of seashells dates to Pompeii in 74 AD and I picture those people in my mind, strolling along beaches, their heads down, waiting for something to catch the eye. Our habit of collecting seashells began to have a negative impact on ecosystem health in the 1970s. Marine Conservationists tell us to take only photos and leave only our footprints. Good advice.
I managed to dunk myself into the icy water before heading home, just barely managing not to scream. My confession – I brought home the tiny little yellow shell. It sits in honour with my collection of stones, my Rainy Lake stone in the place of highest honour.