Shelling in New Caledonia
by John Batt
Photography by John Batt
Photography by John Batt
In early September 2003 we set off on our long-awaited trip to what many people call the end of the earth, the beautiful subtropical island of Grande Terre, New Caledonia.
Both my wife and I along with my parents arrived in Sydney, Australia some twenty hour after our departure from Heathrow, including a one-hour stop in Singapore for refuelling. We had decided to stay and recover in Sydney for five days with my wife's cousin who lives near Bondi. He was more than happy to act as our guide and show us the usual tourist sites in and around the city. On our first day we decided to visit the Opera House, botanical gardens and Sydney Harbour Bridge and over the following four days visited the Koala Park, Blue Mountains, Sydney Aquarium, and took a boat trip around the harbour. We searched Sydney high and low for shell shops but never came across any. I did have the address of one but when we eventually found the place it had closed down. On our last night we had dinner in the restaurant at the top of the Sky Tower to try such delicacies as kangaroo, emu and camel, and then returned to Bondi to pack for our onward flight the next morning to New Caledonia.
Our flight with Air Calin departed from Sydney at 11am and we arrived at our hotel, the Kuendu Beach Resort at 3pm. The resort is about ten minutes' drive from the capital Noumea and about one hour from Tontouta international airport. New Caledonia is a French Pacific territory in Melanesia. The main island of Grande Terre is the fourth largest island in the South Pacific after New Guinea and the north and south islands of New Zealand. It is about 400km in length and 50km in width and is surrounded by the second largest barrier reef in the world after Queensland's Great Barrier Reef, but New Caledonia's lagoon is the world's largest.
We stayed in a traditional palm-thatched pillared bungalow with all of the necessary self-catering facilities and colour TV. I awoke at about 6am on our first morning and was far too excited to wait for Goga (the wife) to get up, so I slipped off down to the beach to see what I could find. The sea was quite choppy and had washed up many Bluebottle jellyfish, along with hundreds of Spirula spirula L., 1758 and as many Janthina janthina L., 1758 as you could wish to collect, still alive with the bubble sacs attached. I found a live Ficus subintermedia Orbigny, 1852, a couple of Strombus mutabilis Swainson, 1821 and picked my way through hundreds of beached bivalves, most with both valves and many in good condition. After a couple of hours I returned to our bungalow to freeze the live specimens and get myself ready for our morning trip to Noumea.
As a cowry collector my main interest in visiting New Caledonia was to collect melanistic and rostrate cowries (I will refer to these as M&R in the text). Many of the 44 known species to be found M&R can be collected in shallow water so I hoped that I would get lucky and find some on this trip. Realising the rarity of these shells I knew I would have to purchase the majority from the various dealers and shops in the city. On our way to Noumea I spotted a shop called Caldoshell Creations but was unable to stop as we were on the hotel shuttle bus, but I knew that once we had our hire car we would be free to do as we pleased.
On arrival in Noumea we changed up some money and set off in search of some new specimens for my collection. We headed straight for the market at Port Moselle and found many stalls selling native crafts and an amazing fish market with some of the strangest looking fish I had ever seen. Luckily there was a stall selling specimen shells and they had a lovely assortment of M&R cowries including some splendid specimens of Leporicypraea mappa viridis "montrouzieri" Dautzenberg, 1903. They were, however, a bit top heavy in the price department so I thought I would hold on and see what else I could find around Noumea. Walking back from the market we spotted a shop called Ocean Distributors and this is where I purchased the cowries pictured below.
From here we went to pick up our hire car to return to Kuendu for an afternoon on the beach. After a great day we decided to go for an evening meal in the hotel restaurant followed by a win for me against my mother in the all-new South Pacific Scrabble Championships – there is not much to do in the evenings at Kuendu!
We decided that a trip to Prony Bay (pictured here) on the southern tip of Grande Terre would make for a great second day in N. Caledonia, so we packed some food and drink along with my snorkelling gear and set off for the south. As soon as we left Noumea we noticed very little in the way of civilisation, just a few small villages containing a handful of houses and the further we drove south the more the roads deteriorated, especially through the mountains. We were told not to venture south if rain was forecast as in N. Caledonia they have depressions in the roads for rivers to run through instead of bridges over them so it's easy to get cut off. We must have looked a picture in our tiny Renault Clio rattling over six inch potholes and covered in red dust. We eventually arrived at Prony and found ourselves too far up the river and the only shells we could find were Cerithiums. Looking at the map it would take us too long driving back inland to reach the other side which is more easily accessible from Goro and Port Boise. It turned out to be one of those days that nothing was going to go right. We realised today that southern N. Caledonia is a difficult place to get around but it was a lesson that we needed to learn.
We thought that it would be nice to stay around the Noumea area on our third day, so we decided to check out Magenta beach, as I remember reading an article in the past relating to collecting M&R cowries there at low tide. The beach is right at the end of Magenta airport runway and is a muddy bay where the tide goes out quite a long way. I waded through water about 12 inches deep at low tide and found many specimens of Strombus gibberulus gibbosus, Roding 1798 with very dark brown banding live crawling over the muddy sand, totally exposed along with a beautiful live specimen of Phos senticosus L., 1758. I headed towards the rocks and dead coral towards the right-hand side of the bay and found Erronea errones "caerulescens" Schroeter, 1804 and Erosaria moneta L., 1758 under just about every rock or slab that I turned over, but no luck with M&R specimens. I was led to believe before the trip that the M&R cowries are very rare these days and that the majority were collected throughout the 1970s and 1980s but are still collected very occasionally these days.
On our way back from Magenta we stopped at Caldoshell Creations, the shop that I noticed on our first day on the bus to Noumea and my luck was about to change. I introduced myself to the owner, who luckily spoke good English, and I explained that I was looking for M&R cowries. He replied that he did not trade in them any more due to their expense but he did have a large number of other N. Caledonian Cypraeidae. He had a magnificent selection of Erronea subviridis subviridis (Reeve, 1845) so I picked out a large 36mm specimen and a small, almost albinotic specimen as well as four superb Erronea bregeriana (Crosse, 1868), one at a whopping 31mm, an unusual small pale specimen and two very dark pieces. We were very lucky to buy a fantastic pair of rare deep-water main reef forms of Leporicypraea mappa viridis (Kenyon 1902). All are pictured below.
These map cowries differ from typical mappa viridis by being far more callus around the margins and extending further at the canals, as well as lacking the usual prominent basal blotch; they are very heavy for viridis and may well deserve a separate name at form level – I have to speak to Mr Lorenz about this one. Along with these acquisitions I also purchased a large Leporicypraea mappa viridis "montrouzieri" (Dautzenberg, 1903) with a very wide open map pattern, a Strombus thersites Swainson, 1823, Bistolida stolida crossei (Marie, 1869) and several specimens of Nautilus macromphalus Sowerby, 1849.
The owner of the shop mentioned that he had a friend who was the treasurer of N. Caledonia's shell club that published the Rossiniana magazines – now finished – and that he had a marvellous collection of M&R cowries. He arranged for me to meet Mr Gilles Naveau the following morning and from the shop we headed for his home to view the collection. Although Mr Naveau had given up collecting some time ago he still had an impressive collection and did not mind selling specimens from it.
I was really taken by the map cowry pictured below, although I thought the $7,500.00 price tag was a little bit out of reach at this time. However, I did purchase the slightly less dark but still impressive specimen also pictured here. I also purchased the pair of Cribrarula cribraria cribraria (L., 1758), an exceptionally dark Mauritia arabica arabica (L., 1758) and a small but very rostrate Bistolida hirundo rouxi (Ancey 1882). I asked Mr Naveau if it was still possible to collect M&R cowries around the Noumea area but he said probably not, you will have to travel south to Goro, where you should look for the old, now-derelict mine where there is a large metal structure jutting out into the bay on large concrete pillars. It was an old conveyor for loading nickel onto ships when the mines were operational. He said that he had collected arabica, mauritiana, eglantina and pallidula in this area.
We thanked Mr Naveau for his hospitality and headed off to one of Noumea's beaches for the remainder of the day, and to catch low tide. With nothing very interesting found this afternoon we decided on day five to take the taxi boat to Canard Island and spend the day snorkelling on the reef, but we found out that in March a powerful hurricane hit Noumea and it seemed to have largely damaged the reef and huge piles of dead staghorn coral were piled up everywhere. At low tide we walked out to the edge of the reef dodging the numerous sea snakes to turn some dead coral slabs. I found the usual common species like Erosaria annulus (L., 1758), Erosaria moneta (L., 1758) and a couple of Erosaria caputserpentis caputserpentis (L., 1758), when Goga shouted for me to come and look at something. She had found a live specimen of Lyncina leviathan titan Schilder & Schilder, 1962 crawling amongst the dead staghorn coral, the first and only one of the trip. Another day had passed with no sign of self-collecting any M&R cowries, so we decided that we would rise early the following morning and head for Goro bay in the south to check out the area around the old nickel mine.
It took us about three hours to reach Goro, crossing the mountains towards the village of Yaté on the east coast and following the coast road down to Goro Bay over some very bumpy dusty tracks. This was certainly not a place to be visited by people who suffer from arachnophobia. All along the road from ground level up to the telegraph wires were huge spider webs and it was not long before we noticed one of the residents, a huge Orb spider the size of the palm of my hand with a massive bright-green abdomen amongst other black-and-white specimens dotted about everywhere. I could not help but prod big "greenie" with a stick to get him to show us his fangs – awesome! We then crossed the road onto the beach in search of some shells.
There was no evidence of shells washed up on the beach so I headed for the piles of large rocks built up against one of the huge concrete columns holding up the conveyor. The water here was about 18 inches in depth and the same orange colour as the beach, a mixture of metallic elements like nickel, cobalt, manganese and iron. It certainly seemed a likely place to find M&R cowries so I began to turn some of the rocks. I immediately found a sub-adult Mauritia mauritiana (L., 1758) which I left under its rock and then my first specimen of Mauritia arabica arabica (L., 1758), not melanistic but still very dark and in perfect condition. Throughout the next two hours of low tide I found fifteen specimens of arabica, but only kept four of them, all variations in pattern and size. As the tide began to turn I hurried frantically looking for at least one melanistic specimen, crawling on my hands and knees peering into the crevices of rocks that were too large to move. I noticed a cowry deep in between two large boulders so I reached in and grabbed the shell. To my great surprise it was a melanistic Mauritia mauritiana (L., 1758), about 85% black and a perfect flawless mature adult. I could not believe what I had just found. I had bought quite a few M&R cowries back in Noumea from the shops but to find one myself was a far greater pleasure. We could not help but wonder how many more we could have collected given more time in Goro but happy with my finds it was time to start heading back to Noumea before dark, as we had been warned of how dangerous it is to drive through the mountains at night due to stray animals on the roads and a lack of crash barriers on the corners.
The following morning, day seven, I woke early to defrost my cowries from Goro but was unable to extract the slugs so they needed to be re-frozen. We then headed into Noumea for a day of souvenir shopping and to hand back our hire car. Just along from the hire-car centre we noticed a shop called La Bougainville with a selection of shells in the window so in we went to find a wonderful assortment of N. Caledonian cowries. I purchased a spectacular main reef orange form of Cypraea tigris L., 1758, very rare these days, and the largest specimen of M&R Bistolida stolida crossei (Marie, 1869) that I ever recall seeing at a huge 49.1mm, along with four smaller specimens of stolida, three rostrate Erosaria moneta L., 1758 and a M&R Erronea cylindrica lenella (Iredale, 1939). It turned out to be a fruitful day albeit a costly one, so we returned to Kuendu resort to relax on the beach for the remaining hours of daylight.
At Kuendu beach I got chatting to Tarawake, who owns the dive shop there and the company that runs boat trips to some of the uninhabited islands offshore. He and his partner Anabella invited us on our last day to sail to a small unnamed island six miles offshore for a day of snorkelling, water sports and a beach barbeque.
We had a fabulous day on the island with a superb barbeque and some great snorkelling. I did find a pretty specimen of Lambis lambis L., 1758 with a bright orange aperture buried in the sand at about three feet but that was about all I found in the way of shells worth keeping.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Grande Terre and I am sure that N. Caledonia has so much more to offer, especially for those able to dive. I will definitely return and hopefully spend a lot more time around the Goro area in search of more melanistic and rostrate cowries.
This article by John Batt was first published in our magazine Pallidula in April 2004.