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How to bring shells home

When we travel to other countries, we first check whether there are any specific restrictions about collecting shells. Some places do not have laws against shell collecting but they will create problems if they notice that you are using dynamite - always protect living coral and use common sense to collect (no, you don't need five thousand Cypraea moneta....)

Depending on the accommodations and how many days you are going to stay in one place, the best way to preserve shells until you get back home, is to freeze them. Of course, this is not always possible, so you will have to use a preservative solution strong enough to keep the shells from rotting, but not so strong that it will be impossible to remove the animal later. Alcohol is the best solution if available, but we have used rum and other spirits too.... The only problem is that the hotel staff may think that we are drunkards due to the number of bottles used!

After many years of trying different concentrations, we found out that the best way is to:

  1. Keep the shells immersed in a strong concentration (60%) for a couple of days
  2. Wash to remove the excess alcohol
  3. Wrap in toilet paper or paper towels
  4. Place them in ziploc bags
  5. Wet the wrapping paper with pure alcohol.

This will prevent the shells from rotting and keeps them ready for packing later. If you keep the shells immersed in alcohol too long, they will start to smell and then you will have a big trouble to take them home. Also, if small shells are left in 60% alcohol too long, the animal becomes hardened and difficult to remove. Place them in plastic boxes, best if they have airtight lids.

  • Larger shells should be cleaned as best as you can, using proper tools such as dental picks, microwave or water pressure. You can treat them like the smaller shells using alcohol for a couple of days and try to clean them on the last day of the trip when the animal has started to decay.
  • Very small shells can stay in pure alcohol for a few days and dry completely.
  • Remember to keep each operculum with the original shell, even though you may think you will recognize them later if they are mixed up.
  • Clean as many shells as you can, but don't waste too many hours doing that so you stay in shape to collect more later!
  • If you intend to bring grit to sort later, put it in small bags and take them in your carry-on. It will be easier to explain what the heck is that on the spot than if they have to call you after you have boarded the plane.
  • If you go to a new place or to an isolated island, buy as many supplies as you find: alcohol, paper towels, ziploc bags (try to find a good heavy brand), bleach, etc. Sometimes, there are few places to buy these items and you will regret later not having bought them when available.
  • Take a number of several containers, Tupperware, plastic boxes, small vials, etc. If you don’t have any, buy them on the spot if available. Large Gatorade bottles are very useful for small shells.
  • Use your hotel bathroom to clean all shells but keep it neat. After cleaning shells, put them in a box or drawer, not all over the sink. Maids can be curious and break shells.
  • If you have air conditioning, lower the temperature when you come out of the room so that the shells will dry faster (just be careful with some kind of bivalves which can crack if they stay too long in a dry environment).
  • Buy a bottle of air freshener just in case a “perfume” start coming from your room.
  • Use bleach to wash cleaned shells or shells which are encrusted with algae or coral - they will smell worse than the shell itself after a few days.
  • Do not use alcohol with mint or other flavoring since they will make you hate the smell after staying on the road for a few days. And the dye may affect the shells.
  • Drain the alcohol from all shells before going on the airplane. If they find liquid, they might take all shells from you.
  • Carry the best shells in your carry-on, you never know what may happen to your checked luggage.
  • Never try to give long and complicated explanations why you are carrying shells – tell the truth that you are a shell collector and you got some shells on the beach. But do not volunteer to explain this if they don’t ask.

Check list (some you can bring from home – not alcohol or bleach…)

» Containers – several sizes.
» Ziploc bags and smaller bags
» Alcohol
» Bleach
» Paper towels
» Cleaning kit (dental picks, small forks, scissors, needles, etc)
» Newspaper for wrapping
» Adhesive tape
» A large bowl for bleaching shells

English check by John Wolff


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