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Combing the Beach for the Junonia


Some call this spotted mollusk the Holy Grail of all shells found on Sanibel Island. Retired shelling guide Mike Fuery called it the ghost. This shell is both.

     What is it about the junonia that motivates people to travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva to search for this brown spotted and cream volute? Is it the thrill of the hunt? The notoriety you receive when finding one by getting your name in the local paper? The joy of adding it to your collection? Or is it just the shell’s natural beauty?

     The elusive junonia is a deeper-water shell, living in depths from 95 to 400 feet. The waters off the Gulf Coast of Southwest Florida are shallow. When you stand on the beach on Sanibel and see a boat offshore, it is in about 40 feet of water. Occasionally, especially after a storm, a rare junonia will wash ashore, awaiting the next sharp-eyed sheller.

     The question I get most asked as a guide is: Have you ever found a junonia? The short answer is yes, but we are jumping ahead of the story. Even better is being with someone at the moment this sought-after shell is found.

     My favorite junonia story features a woman from Iowa. She had been shelling for years on Sanibel, but had never found a junonia. We were on Cayo Costa finding a nice variety of shells and came upon some old tree roots in the water when she became extremely excited and sped toward the downed tree stump. She reached in and pulled out an amazingly beautiful junonia. Hugs were shared, and to this day it is one of her most prized shells. I remember that day and her excitement every time I go by the same stretch of beach.

     Then there were the twins. These 8-year-old boys were with their mom (who had been shelling her whole life) and dad (who wasn’t much into shells). I was walking beside the mom in clear water just off the beach on North Captiva. She was finding great specimens of many different shells. The twins were right beside us—occasionally wrestling around like all good twin brothers do—when I spotted a very nice-looking apple murex. My eyes locked on to this beauty, and as I was bending over to get it, one of the twins grabbed another shell a mere four inches from the murex. “Mom, is this a junonia?” he asked. It was. Moments later the other twin found a huge piece of a junonia. Meanwhile, their mom kept looking all day but no junonia.

      This past January I took a day off to show an old friend from high school the natural beauty of Cayo Costa. It was his first time visiting Florida and he had never been to such a beach or even seen a shell. Five minutes into our walk I spotted a junonia, half buried in the sand on this stretch of beach where I have been shelling for more than 20 years. I was a little stunned at first, and my friend was even more stunned at the peculiar way I was acting. He had no idea we had just stumbled upon the Holy Grail of shells.   

 Capt. Brian Holaway is a Florida master naturalist and has been a Southwest Florida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His boat charters visit the islands of Pine Island Sound, including Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Pine Island and North Captiva.