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Jewels crown the sands of Masirah
Molluscs and their shells have played an important role in the economies of Arabian territories for thousands of years. Oysters and abalones have been collected for human consumption; bringing out the pureness of female beauty, the pearling industry has left a footprint of its own in the Arabian Gulf. Collectors have spent thousands of hours gathering, admiring, observing. Sunset moments are brought to new heights with the discovery of a glittering shell freshly presented by the waves on the bare sand, near our bare feet. Studying these underwater jewels didn’t begin until 1840.
One species, for long among the great rarities of the shell world, has been first collected from Masirah Island during the first half of the nineteenth century. This island is now known to be the principal haunt of Cypraea teulerei, a beautiful cowry.
Another one is endemic here. Famous amongst collectors for its frivolous orange and semi-symmetrical “crescent moons” on a white background, Punctacteon eloiseae or “The Eloise shell”, was discovered by Dr Donald Bosch for the first time in 1970 after he obtained some specimens from local fishermen in Masirah. Until then the island, now famous for its remarkable shell fauna, had been almost inaccessible to those with a specific interest in shells. Appropriately, the scientific name of this new shell commemorates the name of the discoverer’s wife, Eloise Bosch.
Gifts of the Khareef
Oman has deep and cool waters that favor the development of molluscan life along the coast of the country, and most notably the island of Masirah. Here, the influence of the Khareef in the summer months is decisive for the abundance of molluscs. The Khareef is better known as the South Arabian upwelling. It is caused by the onset of the southwest monsoon, which drives surface waters away from the Arabian peninsula. The surface water is then replaced by cold-water upwelling from considerable depths. Molluscs and other organisms benefit from the rise of nutrients and food productivity created by this phenomenon, especially where subsequent rapid warming helps maintain coral communities.
The most conspicuous result of the cold upwelling is the existence of endemic species along the coasts of southern Oman, and around Masirah Island.
Ras Radum: In Search of Gems
Ras Radum coast stretches along seven kilometers in the east coast of Masirah. A walk not to be taken barefoot, as long, sandy stretches give way to treacherous gravel, hiding spiky fish bones, semi-degraded sea urchins and broken shells that can be sharp as knives’ blades. As long as the walker manages to keep their look away from the turquoise waters, surrounded, in protected bays, by dark, symmetrical rocky formations, the shells appear. At first, the urge arises to collect everything. The colors spring out from shell fragments that have been lying there for days. A simple embrace of the rising tide and the beach canvas comes alive. Entranced by its appeal, you fill your pockets with what will then dry out and, when in a jar at home, seems quite colorless, trivial and unworthy of attention.
The Art of ‘Shelling’
It is only the experienced “sheller” who spots the pieces worth collecting. Seashells have their role in beach ecology, and depleting the beaches could dangerously alter their substance, so necessary for all organisms living there. Being a good “sheller” requires skill, patience, perseverance. An eye for beauty. An eye for accuracy. Natural curiosity. Knowledge of the environment along with lots of respect for it. And patience again. A good shelling guide is necessary when walking on the beach. A stick to “stir” amongst multitudes of fragments and pebbles to discover the “right shell” is needed. Lack of fear for hermit crabs, which will often attack your fingers from the shell you have just picked up and serves as their home, in a frantic attempt to escape the earthquake you are creating by picking it up. Shelling is an art to be developed. Some tire of it quickly, others commit for life.
Over four years of strolling up and down Ras Radum, I have only found seven shells that were interesting and in good condition, worth collecting. I have had a good teacher, Mr Martyn Day, who has lived and worked in Masirah for over twenty years and is the archetype of the amateur malacologist-perfectionist. A diver, keen environmentalist and an artist of “shelling”, he never tires of teaching those who are genuinely interested in everything about seashells and the “ethics of shelling”. He is skeptical about amateur shellers and believes people should need permits to take shells away from the rich beaches of Masirah. I couldn’t agree more.
Moving Sands of Sur Masirah
The west coast boasts a pristine fringing reef, well-hidden from the beaten track in most areas. A teeming marine life is buzzing under the glittering water surface, where waves are usually small, tame and placid, as opposed to the wild splashes of the east coast. North of the reef, by the settlement of Sur Masirah, the mudflats begin. They are vast, stretching over several kilometers, a majestic sabkha hosting thousands of birds, which feast on crabs, fish and other invertebrates. Some say the Eloise shell can be found here. But the explorer must be tough, organized and experienced. Moving mud can sink a powerful car very fast, and the walker may find himself knee-deep in it in seconds.
Thousands on seashells, their tenants “liberated” by waves of flying predators, are strewn on these beaches. When in Masirah, watch carefully where you are walking. It may be on jewelry.
By Nancy Papathanasopoulou
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