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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Big snorkeling day

We've been looking at the incredible cowrie shells our friends have collected and our desire to have one too has peaked. The thing is, most of the shells that our friends have taken were alive and they removed the animal. Rarely people say that they found the shell empty. Killing animals just to have their shells may sound like a vain activity, but the fact that the Marquesans take these shellfish by the dozens makes the one or two shells per boat seem pretty insignificant. It's interesting to note that the Marquesans don't collect the shells because they can sell them or because they find them pretty, they collect them to eat. Every beach has a pile of broken cowrie shells where the locals have smashed them to extract the meat.

So my snorkeling focus lately has been trying to find the 'perfect' cowrie. If we're going to kill one, I want it to be a good one. Once I figured out where to look for these beautiful shellfish the search got a little easier, if not more risky. These animals live right in the inter tidal zone; between the high and low tide mark. This is also where most of the surge is and since the cowries don't really like living where it's calm, you have to get close to the rocks in areas where the waves threaten to slam you if you're not careful. I'm getting pretty good at it though.

I swim along the shore, clinging to the rocks with my gloved hands, being careful not to get above a sea urchin lest a wave take the water out and drop me onto its spines while I poke my head into cracks and holes looking for shellfish. Every once in a while, when the waves get too big, I'll swim out away from the rocks and look around. Yesterday this looking was very interesting. During my search I saw two sharks, a school of big Jacks and a lion fish. The biggest and most impressive things I saw were five manta rays. These, in addition to the three I saw from the dinghy on the way to my snorkeling area, make a personal record of eight mantas in one day.

I even found what I thought was just about the perfect cowrie. The colors on its back looked like a tropical sunset. I carefully pried it from the rock and carried it with me for a while admiring it. Then I realized I couldn't go through with it, I couldn't bring myself to kill this animal just so I could have its shell. So I put it back where I found it and decided I'd just have to wait until I found one that was uninhabited.

One of the things I've noticed in my search for cowries is a yellow coral that seems to trap things in its network of vertical bars. I've seen many old, growth encrusted shells in the clutches of these fan-like formations so I decided that I would focus on these coral heads to see if I could find a newly trapped, recently deceased, empty cowrie. And that is exactly what I found after about 10 minutes of looking. It's not quite the colors I would have chosen, but we now have a very nice example of a Marquesan cowrie and I didn't have to kill the animal to get it.