Is there a human being who lives on or has ever visited Nantucket Island who hasn’t gone for a wonderful relaxing walk along a mile or two of the 88 miles of beach edging the land? And of course, most beachwalkers find themselves bending down now and then to examine or pick up interesting objects—shells, stones, bits of wood, seaglass, or any of the variety of other objects that wash ashore such as pieces of wood, part of a fish skeleton, seaweed, or whatever.
Beachcombing is perhaps the easiest and certainly most accessible family excursion you can plan. You need absolutely no equipment except for a container such as a pail or plastic bag. (Which prompts a reminder that an excellent flourish on this particular family excursion is to pick up any beach litter you find, place it in a plastic bag, and dispose of it after your jaunt.) And beachcombing is perfect for a family of any size or age range. Though it’s pleasant to just let your mind go pleasantly vacant as you walk, listening to the sound of wind and waves, we propose a sort of treasure hunt for your family.
Among the best beaches for shell- and stone-collecting are Eel Point (lots of whelk and moon shells), Brant Point (small but good pickings for the very young), Pocomo, and Wauwinet. A number of interesting small objects can also be found at Great Point, where the powerful opposing forces of two strong currents sometimes wash up great finds onto the beaches. I once found a flat, 2-inch-long piece of smooth turquoise rock there. Although the southern shores of the island often yield up interesting treasures, the surf pounds in so relentlessly there that it’s a bit more of a challenge. At times, though, Surfside and Nobadeer also yield some ocean treasures. While Nantucket doesn’t have as many shells on its beaches as some other spots on the eastern seaboard, this just makes it extra-special when you find good things. We’ll give you some idea of what you’re likely to find.
Scallop Shells. If there’s any shell that says “Nantucket Island,” this is probably it. The shape of this fluted beauty has been used as decoration on fine china, wallpaper, furniture, clothing—you name it. It’s a bivalve mollusk of the genus Argopecten that swims by rapidly clapping its fluted shell valves together. If you could see a live scallop, it would look as if it had a number of blue “eyes” peering out of a partially opened shell at you. Scallops taste wonderful (people usually just eat the muscle, but the whole thing is edible), but in olden times people believed they were poisonous; in fact, there used to be a story that if a cat ate a scallop, its ears and tail would drop off!
Scallops come in all shapes and sizes; there seem to be no two alike, which makes it fun to collect them. See who can find the tiniest one, and the largest, or the whitest and the most interestingly colored. You can glue the shells in an interesting shape on a board or piece of driftwood, or line them up next to the ceiling all the way around a room. Or you can use smaller ones to make a necklace, or to glue around the edges of a picture or mirror frame. Two scallop shells can hold potpourri or a small fancy soap. Some people cover each tiny clear Christmas-tree light on a string with a scallop shell, and find that strings of these soft lights make great decorations all year round. It’s fun to see what creative uses you and your children can dream up for these beautiful shells.
Look for the growth lines, which appear every spring, on the scallop shells. Also, look for tiny hitch-hikers, shells or barnacles that grow on the inside and/or outsides of the scallops. I have a favorite scallop shell with just the right arrangement of barnacles to make it look like a surprised face with bulging eyes. Tiny barnacles or limpet shells adhering to sea objects can be wonderful decorative objects. A small piece of whitened coral with mini-barnacles on it is pretty enough to place in a wee frame or hang on a chain and wear as a necklace. When I found something like this a while ago I dropped a tiny dollop of glue inside the shells and spilled a bit of sand into and around them on the bleached coral and it made a wonderful piece of jewelry—a youngster I know said, “You’re wearing the ocean!” Barnacles, by the way, are part of the marine crustacean family and are often found on shells, rocks, pieces of driftwood, and the bottoms of boats. Limpet shells, low and cone-shaped, also cling to objects; these are marine gastropods, like other mollusks such as snails and whelks.
Whelks. You’ll find Channeled Whelk shells and Knobbed Whelk shells on various beaches on Nantucket. Look for large ones, and also living ones, at Eel Point. Those with living creatures inside are usually “sealed” within the shell with a sort of thin, hard “stopper” of thick, dark, shell-like material. This is called the operculum. If you’re patient you may see the animal shyly ooze out a little way. Best to leave these on the beach where you find them—they have more living to do. Some people have a somewhat eternal quest to find, if they can, the rare unbroken whelk shells, with gorgeous rosy interior. Whelk are spiral-shelled gastropods of the family Buccinidae, and they are used as food in some parts of the world. The shell is pear-shaped and has five or six “turreted whorls.” The soft body of the creature is held within the larger part of the shell, and the shell gradually diminishes in size until it ends in a longish, straight point. The body whorl of the Knobbed Whelk has about six knobs. “Whorl” is a wonderful word, hard to define, but tell the kids to think of the word “whirl”—a whorl is something that also goes around and around, and the shape of the whelk defines the word better than other words do. Another wonderful word is “conch,” pronounced “conk”—another name for whelk.
How do you distinguish a Channeled from a Knobbed Whelk? One way your kids won’t forget is that the large end of the Channeled Whelk looks like a Dairy Queen cone. Some of these snail relatives can grow up to 9 inches in length!
One of the most wonderful finds on Nantucket beaches are literally the children of whelks. You’ll have little trouble finding them. Look for a string of a dozen or more separate flattened disks which look a bit like buttons on a necklace. Find one that’s pretty dried out. Carefully pull one of the “buttons” from the string and open it up in the palm of your hand—you’ll see many, many miniscule whelk shells. This is absolute magic. For “the person who has everything,” a couple of these buttons could be the most unusual gift ever received.
Quahog Shells. Despite the “a” in Quahog, most New Englanders pronounce this “Quo-hog.” Quahog clams are wonderful to eat, and their shells lying about in the sand can be quite beautiful, with different shades of purple on the smooth inner side. Native Americans used to make wampum, used as money, out of the purple parts of the shell. Wampum was also made from the inside of the twisty part of the whelk and cut into long beads used for jewelry and a means of exchange. Wampum jewelry is still sold in many coastal areas. To find a live clam, look for tubes sticking out of the sand in shallow water. The creature actually has two tubes, or siphons. Water and microscopic foods are sucked into one tube and waste products come out of the other—very efficient.
Moon Snail Shells. Speaking of snails, you’ll easily identify a Moon Snail shell. It’s round…like a moon. A nice clean unbroken moon shell makes a good potpourri holder, or you can place a small airplant in it and perhaps hang it. Like the whelk, the Moon Snail feeds on other shellfish by boring through their shells and then sucking the animals out. Sounds pretty grim, but of course these creatures are no danger to human beings…and they have to eat, after all. You may find soft, jellylike rings shaped a bit like collars in the sand; these held the young Moon Snails, which have already crawled away.
Jingle Shells. In an excellent shell book from the Peterson Field Guide Series (Houghton Mifflin), jingle shells are called “perhaps the most abundant and familiar shells on many beaches.” The book notes: “It used to be popular custom to string these shells on cords and hang them in an open window or doorway at a shore cottage, where each passing breeze produced a pleasing tinkle.” Some are yellowish or reddish, some are white or silvery, and most are very thin. See if you can find enough with holes in them to string into a windchime or necklace, or even earrings.
Slipper Shells. The Peterson’s Guide calls these shells “limpetlike gastropods, cap-shaped, with a shelly plate (platform) or cup-shaped process on the inner side of the shell.” Like the limpet, the animal in this shell lives with its whole “house” attached to objects such as other shells, stones, coral, pieces of wood…or even to one another. The kids will love its other names: Quarterdeck or Boat shells. Peterson’s notes that they’re fun to float as tiny boats in tidepools or to use as scoops for digging sand, and says that they’re useful because “many tons are annually scattered over the ocean floor for embryo oysters to settle upon.” In this case, they’re called Quarterdecks.
Horseshoe Crabs. In May, these truly prehistoric creatures, which many call the spiders of the sea because they’re actually from the Arachnid family, come ashore to mate, so that’s the best time to see them. Later, especially in places like Eel Point, you may find their empty shells, of all sizes. Looking like a disk with a sharp and pointy tail, the Horseshoe Crab existed in much the same form 200 million years ago! These shells can be quite fragile, so collect with care; but if you and your kids manage to find a range of sizes, quite an artistic arrangement can be made. Try sprinkling just a bit of sand onto glue on a heavy mat or board, then arrange the shells graduated by size so that the final product looks like a large family…on an excursion of its own. Alive, these creatures look scary as they move along in the shallow water, but they are not dangerous at all.
Mermaid’s Purses. One of the most exciting shore treasures I ever found was a Mermaid’s Purse, the pod of a sea skate, with a living embryo inside. That was on a long, heavenly walk near Smith’s Point. I took the pod carefully enclosed in seawater to the Maria Mitchell Aquarium on Washington Street, but unfortunately it only survived a few days. Most of the pods, which look like black leather cases with extended corners, are empty, dry, and rather hard. Mine was brownish, fat, and when held up to the light revealed the shape of a small skate, or “ray,” inside. The dry Mermaid’s Purses look wonderful in dried flower arrangements…and you or your kids could add it to any artistic displays of shore finds you make (in among the Horseshoe Crab shells, perhaps).
Mermaid’s Tears. Bits of glass that have been beaten, scoured, and smoothed by constant washing in sea and sand are called Mermaid’s Tears. These are rare finds indeed on Nantucket beaches, but a sharp-eyed child closer to the ground than a tall parent often spots these beautiful treasures. They can be clear, brown, blue (extremely rare nowadays), green, or pale aqua.
Sand Hoppers. Occasionally you may find a bunch of sandy-colored little creatures, about an inch long, hopping out of the sand; another name for them is “sand fleas,” but they are really crustaceans and they won’t bite you! They like to burrow in wet sand or seaweed. Sand Hoppers can’t breathe under water, but they must keep themselves moist to live.
Needless to say, we could go on describing various possible beach finds for quite a while. When your family has finished its shore treasure hunt, why not settle down in one spot and build a sandcastle? Your beachcombing finds can be used for decoration. Whatever you do, remember to put the large shells up to your ears. I guarantee you’ll hear mystical sea music.
One more idea: How about planning ahead for a quiet time after your hunt, in which each family member reads aloud a short poem or piece about the sea? Doesn’t every parent remember her and his own Mom and Dad reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s familiar lines:
“When I was down beside the sea,
A wooden spoon they gave to me
to dig the sandy shore…”
And speaking of planning ahead, you might also visit the Maria Mitchell Aquarium to see the various forms of life found on and in Nantucket’s shorelines and waters. The Aquarium, on Washington Street, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 to 4. The Atheneum on India Street is also a good source of information. There’s a great book for children and their parents called Beachcombing: Exploring the Seashore, by Jim Arnosky that is available at Bookworks at 25 Broad Street. Many families will want to take advantage of one or all of these wonderful resources before and maybe especially after a beachcombing excursion.
Anyway, happy treasure hunting. Your beachcombing excursion may provide the best day of the summer for you and yours.
a Mary Miles classic, updated