Monday, October 12, 2009

Shell Collecting on Guam

Shortly after we began scuba diving people told us of the “poisonous cone shells.” Yeah, right, venomous sea shells. It turns out that this time the urban mythologists were right. There really are venomous mussels. And their toxin is deadly. It will kill a reef fish instantly, but it takes minutes to hours to kill a human because humans have so much more mass than reef fish. The mussels first stick an eye out of the small end of the cone and scout the territory. If they find a target, they withdraw their eye and stick out their proboscis, their nose, which then becomes an honorary blow gun. They snort their dart out, and whoever is on the receiving end of the dart dies. Now here is where it gets tricky for the cone fish. He has to withdraw his nose and stick out his stomach, retroverting it to envelope and digest his prey. It takes a couple of hours for this digestive process to occur, during which the cone shell is helpless.

Not many people on Guam collected cone shells. However, we had many Korean laborers on the island and you could find them on the weekends at the beach, boiling water over an open fire and dropping in mussels we called “Top Hats.” After the animals were cooked, the Koreans would eat them and canned kim chee and beer. We tried it ourselves and found that if you put enough catsup and mustard on the shell fish, it was quite palatable. Of course, with enough catsup and mustard, you could eat a sponge. And that just about described the texture of the boiled shellfish.

We have never regarded sponges as a great delicacy and, beyond that, don’t like the idea of boiling animals while they are alive. I’m told it doesn’t hurt them. Says who?

So, giving up on sponges as a source of protein, we were still interested in completing a shell collection, minus the cone shells. Many people on Guam collected shells. Some had spectacular collections, but the best ones came from living animals. Once the animal dies, the shell loses its glisten. The shell is, after all, a living part of a living animal and it needs nutrition. Without a living animal to provide it, the shell loses something. Being rolled over and over in the surf doesn’t help.

I lost my ambition for shell collecting on one diving expedition in shallow water. I’d found a large spider conch and held it in my hand, ready to store it in my net game bag, when it stuck its eyes and looked at me. Then it extended a claw-like appendage from its shell and flipped out of my hand to freedom. I figured that anyone who wanted to live that much deserved what he got and I would help him survive. I picked him up and hid him away from other divers. I don’t know if my puny efforts at conservation were effective, but over the years I sequestered half a dozen such conchs.

I concluded that a conservationist was someone who had already completed his shell collection.

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