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Hunting Southern Shells

Dr. Charles Rawlings, author of the new coffee table book Living Shells, reveals his shell hunting secrets for Southern beaches. 

With his first career as a doctor focusing on neurosurgery and pain, his second as a lawyer and third as a photographer and writer, it’s safe to say Dr. Charles Rawlings has varied interests. Shells were an underlying interest for Rawlings from a young age, and he has spent much time over the past 30 years diving for, researching, photographing and identifying living seashells from his home base in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His recent book Living Shells explores the intricate lives of these fascinating ocean organisms captured in their natural habitat.

Writer Leah Bley interviewed Dr. Rawlings by phone recently to find out about his favorite Southern shells and where to find them.

LB: When were you first introduced to seashells? 

CR: I would say my first introduction was probably when I was kid — maybe 5 or 6 years old. I would say that they took my fascination then and have always fascinated me since.

LB: Do you have a favorite beach for shell hunting in the South? 

CR: I would say my favorite place would be Sanibel, Florida, just because there are so many shells there. The other really nice place is around Fort Meyers in Sarasota — the inlets, breakwaters and piers. You can find really nice shells around there.

junoniaLB: What are some shells common to the South that beach goers should keep an eye out for this summer?

CR: Probably the most common would be little coquina shells. If you’re in Florida or even along the coast, say Alabama, you can find king crow shells or conchs. Further south in Florida, you can find the queen conchs. You can also find the cone shells. Occasionally, you can find the junonia (pictured) washed up on the beach. It’s very rare to be washed up on the beach and is a pride to find.

LB: What’s the rarest shell you’ve ever found on a Southern beach? 

It would be a junonia. They’re usually found miles into the Gulf in fairly deep waters. It has to take a powerful storm to wash up the dead shells.

What does your own shell collection look like?

My collection has some interesting and unusual items collected from all over the world — all the way from the Arctic to New Guinea, Indonesia and South Pacific. I have flip shells, which are the oldest shells, and have been unchanged for 300 to 400 million years. They live in deep water 400 to 2,500 feet. You have to take a submarine to collect the shells there. I do some photographs of shells, because I photograph live shells. I don’t collect them after I photograph them because I would have to take the live animals.

For more information on Living Shells, click here

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