CLEARWATER BEACH — Some of the most beautiful and exotic shells from around the world are coming to Clearwater Beach.
Not as beach drift, but as part of the International Seashell Expo at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort.
More than 40 dealers from as far away as South Africa, Brazil, Australia, Greece and the Far East will fill the Grand Ballroom of the resort as part of the Conchologists of America's 38th annual convention.
Thousands of shells will be priced anywhere from $2 to $2,000, said Carolyn Petrikin of Clearwater, a founding member and a past president of the Suncoast Conchologists, the local organization hosting the convention.
Price is determined by rarity and depth of the water — those shells found in the deepest ocean waters typically fetch higher prices, she said.
For the uninitiated, shells are the exoskeleton of a group of animals called mollusks, though not all mollusks have shells.
Shells have been used throughout history as tools, decorations, jewelry, musical instruments and currency. Generally, warmer waters produce the most colorful and ornate shells.
According to the Conchologists of America Web site, food, climate, heredity and accidents or fights make each shell distinctive.
For instance, long spiny extensions indicate the mollusk probably lived in quieter waters, since rough waters would discourage such growth. Battle scars tell of combat with predators. Color changes can point out changes in diet. Thick, dull shells may mean the animal is older.
The Suncoast Conchologists club is a 50-or-so member organization made up of seashell collectors who live mostly in north Pinellas and Pasco counties. Their signature shell is the Strombus alatus, or Florida fighting conch, which has been stylized into the shape of a cruise ship for the convention logo this year.
"This is our silver anniversary — our 25th year as a club," Petrikin said. "And it's the first time the annual convention is being held in Clearwater ."
Petrikin has been a passionate shell collector for decades — ever since she moved from Ohio to Pinellas County in the late 1950s.
"There were many more shells on the beach back then," she said.
She has scoured U.S. coastlines and Caribbean islands for treasures to add to her collection.
She displays them throughout her house and inside a 29-gallon saltwater aquarium.
There are three levels of collectors: casual beachcombers, conchologists (amateur collectors) and malacologists (scientists who study mollusks). A portion of the proceeds raised at the annual convention will go toward funding scholarship grants in malacology.
Bob and Joan Pierson, both 79, have been seeking seashells since the '70s.
The Spring Hill couple moved to Florida from New York in 1977 and began beachcombing on the weekends.
He remembers picking up a shell when a critter moved inside of it.
"I was so startled I dropped it," he said. "I didn't realize (until then) that shells were the homes of little animals."
One day, the couple was picking up shells on Treasure Island's Sunset Beach when she spotted a beautiful but broken tulip shell.
"I thought I'm not going to be happy until I see what a whole one looks like and that began our hunt for shells," she said.
She has a message for prospective conchologists:
"If you have ever picked up a shell on the beach and admired it, you should come to the expo," she said. "You probably won't have an opportunity like this for a while."