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St. Petersburg collector decks the halls with shells

Gretchen Warren shares her shell tree and tips for those looking to begin shelling.
Gretchen Warren's Christmas tree is decorated with shells from her collection.
Gretchen Warren's Christmas tree is decorated with shells from her collection. [ Courtesy of Gretchen Warren ]
Published Dec. 15, 2020

Gretchen Warren says that when you’re a shell collector, there is no such thing as enough.

A former dancer and retired faculty member in the dance department at the University of South Florida, the St. Petersburg resident spends her time on the beach, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and collecting shells.

As a collector for 38 years, Warren has amassed hundreds of shells that live in brown cardboard boxes until she can think of a new way to display them.

This year, because of the pandemic, she decided to decorate outside rather than inside. So she put up her Christmas tree by her pool and tiki hut, and decorated it with only shells and twinkly white lights.

Twinkly white lights play off the shells on Gretchen Warren's Christmas tree.
Twinkly white lights play off the shells on Gretchen Warren's Christmas tree. [ Courtesy of Gretchen Warren ]

“I’ve always picked up any kind of broken shell that had an interesting shape,” Warren said. Those include what she calls the “bones of shells” and ones that have a hole in them, the mark of a predator. She uses those first because of the ease of stringing them.

“I say about them, ‘Somebody ate you, but you have arrived,’ ” she said. “You have a glorious place this Christmas.”

Then she moved onto whole shells, including scallops that her partner, Edward Lafontaine, carefully drilled holes into. A murex shell turned upright makes a pointy tree topper.

Gretchen Warren's partner drilled tiny holes into shells for the Christmas tree.
Gretchen Warren's partner drilled tiny holes into shells for the Christmas tree. [ Courtesy of Gretchen Warren ]

Warren said she decorated another Christmas tree about 25 years ago. It was one of the many craft ideas she’s had for shells, like filling lamps with them or gluing them to the tops of cigar boxes to give as gifts.

She started the hobby when she moved to Florida and a friend took her to Boca Grande, a prime shelling spot.

“That was the beginning of the end,” she laughed.

But it was during her first visits to Florida, when she was 4 and 5 years old, that she observed her grandmother collecting cockleshells from the beach on Indian Head Pass, in the Panhandle, where her grandparents had retired. Years later, as an adult, she returned to the town and found her grandparents’ house. She knew it was theirs by the hundreds of cockleshells filling the planter surrounding the porch.

Once she caught her own collecting bug, she managed to find some rare specimens, including an intact junonia, which she calls a “prize find.” She also has a rare lightning welk, with an opening on the right when it’s typically on the left.

Gretchen Warren with some of her favorite shells.
Gretchen Warren with some of her favorite shells. [ Courtesy of Edward Lafontaine ]

She recalled another story about getting a rare paper nautilus while she was on a Fulbright scholarship in Australia. She’d ventured to Fraser Island, off the east coast, south of the Great Barrier Reef. Her guide miraculously plucked it from the surf while they were driving up the beach in a Jeep. When the guide saw that Warren’s eyes “nearly popped out of” her head, he offered it to her.

Now Warren is among a tight-knit group of collectors who gather shells from St. Petersburg beaches. While she won’t reveal their prime locations, she does have useful information for those looking to find a honeypot of intact shells.

First, there definitely is a season for shelling. It’s during the winter storms, from December through February.

“The best time is when it’s least conducive to go to the beach,” she said.

She said that most desirable shells live deep in the water, so after a storm is when the most shells will wash up intact. And early morning is the best time to find them.

Warren doesn’t count herself among the diehards she knows who get up at 4 a.m., donning wet suits to wade in the gulf to score their treasures.

She explained the places that are best for shelling are the barrier islands, especially ones that have an east-west orientation. She said there is better shelling on the gulf coast than on the east coast of Florida.

“It’s the shelf of the seabed that, if gradual in its incline, makes it easier for shells to roll up onto the beach,” Warren said. “If the shelf drops off steeply as on the east coast, shelling is not as good.”

She named Sanibel, Caladesi Island, Boca Grande and Shell Key as prime shelling spots.

Shellers also watch the tides, she said. Serious collectors come at low tide, after the high tide has come in.

Warren said she has also shopped in shell shops on the beach and suggests they’re great places to get inspiration for crafts with shells.

“Go in a shell shop and see what you could do, too,” she said. “Pick up a few things and get a glue gun and go for it.”

She has more advice for novice shell collectors.

“Don’t despair if you have a barren day. And if you have a bonanza, don’t expect that to happen every time. It’s gambling!”