Safe shell collecting
There are a number of dangers to consider when collecting shells. The points below should be taken into consideration by all who venture on foreign shores in search of shells, and some are important to those collecting within the UK, too.
Beware of incoming tides In some areas they can turn very quickly and it is easy to get caught out when concentrating on finding shells. Remember, time flies when you're having fun.
Take notice of beach signage and red flags warning of dangerous currents or undertow.
Wear suitable clothing and sun screen when collecting shells. Bending over to pick up shells or snorkelling with no shirt can lead to serious sunburn. Always wear trainers or dive boots when walking on reefs, and suitable gloves if handling dead coral – coral cuts take a long time to heal.
Beware of certain shark species It is good practice to understand the species that inhabit the area where you will be collecting. Shark attacks are rare but do happen. Great Whites are an obvious danger in some places to divers and snorkellers but you are more likely to encounter a Bull shark or Tiger shark when collecting on reefs in shallower water, or in bays where rivers meet the sea. Avoid swimming alone in murky water near river mouths and at dawn or dusk, when sharks tend to feed.
Look out for moray eels and sea snakes when turning rocks or dead coral. Morays have a nasty bite and although sea snakes hardly ever bite they do have an extremely powerful neurotoxic venom that can kill.
Avoid certain jellyfish They can occur in large numbers at certain times of year. The deadly box jellies or sea wasps should be avoided at all costs. The extreme pain from their stinging nematocysts can cause people to drown through shock. Their range extends from Japan through the Philippines, Indonesia and tropical parts of Australia. It is said that urine or vinegar will stop the nematocysts from firing but medical attention is essential if you are unlucky enough to be stung.
The Blue-ringed octopus is a very pretty but lethal creature that should also be avoided. Its neurotoxic venom makes it one of the most dangerous animals in the sea – a bite from one will kill you. These tiny octopus live in shallow reef areas from Indonesia to Australia and could easily be encountered by shell collectors turning dead coral at low tide.
The stonefishes use camouflage to launch surprise attacks on passing fish. They live in the shallow reef environment and are another good reason to wear those trainers or dive boots when walking on coral or rocky reefs in tropical areas. The dorsal spines can inject deadly venom if you have the misfortune to step on the fish.
Cone shells are all venomous, but some more so than others. Species known to have killed people are Conus geographus, Conus tulipa, Conus textile, Conus marmoreus and Conus striatus but there must surely be many other species that are just as capable. Handle cones with gloves and take extreme care – watch the anterior (pointed) end of the shell for the extended proboscis at all times. Never put a live cone snail in your pocket.