Sanibel Island, Florida - Robert Louis Stevenson once pronounced, ?It is perhaps a more fortunate destiny to have a taste for collecting shells than to be born a millionaire.? I would have argued the opposite before visiting Sanibel Island, which is located in a cluster of spectacular barrier islands off the southwest coast of Florida.
Within minutes of crossing the causeway from Fort Myers and arriving on Sanibel, my shoes are off and my jacket is discarded beside the rolling green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where I eagerly hunch forward to scan the white sands for multi-hued shells, exhibiting the posture known locally as the Sanibel Stoop.
Massive quantities of shells are deposited on these shores. They're loosened from underwater beds by the powerful action of waves during thunderstorms or tidal flows. With approximately 400 varieties, the barrier islands offer some of the best shelling in the world. The islands themselves are made almost entirely of shells and sand anchored in place by slowly expanding mangrove forests.
On my first day, I don't know the difference between gastropods (one-shelled mollusks) and bivalves (two-shelled), or that my pockets are filling with what they call angel wings, turkey wings, Atlantic calico scallops and lightning whelks. I bend to retrieve a glossy mahogany beauty, the so-called Florida fighting conch, from the sucking tide.
Later, at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, I learn that this name doesn't refer to the mollusk's aggressiveness but to its use of a footlike appendage to ward off predators.
The museum houses an incredible collection of local and international shells. I admit that before today my usual experience of shelled creatures has been on a dinner plate. The museum opens my eyes to the many other important roles shells have played in numerous cultures.
The indigenous people of this land, the Calusa , used shells to fashion tools, weapons, utensils and ornaments. They built homes and temples on top of huge shell mounds that had accumulated as waste over an extended period. The mounds, sometimes 12 metres high, provided a good vantage point for spotting invaders. The raised dwellings also caught a breeze that afforded relief from the hordes of mosquitoes that breed in the damp mangrove forests below.
The museum also contains exquisite examples of Sailor's Valentines. These intricate and colourful shell designs were set in boxes that sailors purchased to present to loved ones back home. Fine examples of decorative shell inlay, mother of pearl buttons and exquisitely carved cameos line the museum's perimeter.
Later, near the Sanibel Lighthouse, I watch as beachcombers become so focused on the cornucopia at the water's edge that they miss a school of dolphins leaping in the waves. A flock of pelicans pass with incredible grace, gliding slowly just centimetres above the surf.
The shoreline feast of fish and mollusks attracts all kinds of hungry birds, including herons, white ibis, anhingas, egrets and pelicans. Away from the shore, the startling pink roseate spoonbill feeds on the dark brown mud flats.
During the fall and winter, the already plentiful avian population increases as migratory birds arrive, making this an excellent destination for birding enthusiasts.
A large portion of the island is set aside for non-human residents and visitors. The astounding concentration of birds and sea life is testament to the pioneering work of an early environmentalist whose efforts and name live on at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Sanibel's warm winters make February, March and April the ideal time to visit. The abundant wildlife and relaxed pace attract travellers from across North America and Europe. It's also a popular holiday destination for Florida residents or people who need to kick back after the rigours of Disney World.
At the end of a day filled with sand and sea, I join a group of people who regularly gather at Turner Beach. From this perfect vantage point, we stand in silence until the fiery orange sun melts below the horizon.
Gentle applause sweeps through the crowd as the sky's flaming colours fade to darkness.