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81st Annual Sanibel Shell Festival to feature all things shell

March 2, 2018
By TIFFANY REPECKI ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

With the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva well-known for their seashells - and the collection of them - it is no surprise that the community hosts the country's oldest-running event spotlighting them.

Organized by the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club and Sanibel Community Association, the 81st Annual Sanibel Shell Festival will be held March 1-2 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and March 3 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at The Community House on Sanibel. It will feature a juried show, exhibits, shells for sale and more.

"This shell show is the longest-running and the most prestigious shell show in the nation," Joyce Matthys, of the Sanibel Shell Festival Committee, said. "Because of its history, it's a premier show."

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Hosted by the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club, the 81st Sanibel Shell Festival will feature a Scientific Division Exhibition Hall. The event will take place March 1-3 at The Community House on Sanibel.

Co-chairs for this year's festival are Sue Schoenherr and Mary Burton, along with Matthys.

The inside of The Community House will hold the competition portion of the event, along with an author's table, shell identification assistance - for those unknown finds - and children's games.

Matthys explained that the show is broken down into scientific and artistic divisions.

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"There are about 200 entries," she said of the artistic division.

Items entered range from traditional sailor's valentines and bouquets of flowers, to jewelry and even antique collectibles. For the first time last year, one man brought a ukulele made of conch shells.

"It can be mirrors, there's photography. We have people who enter paintings," Matthys said.

"Artistic creations made entirely from shells and sea life," she added.

As for the scientific division, it will features about 450 linear feet of exhibits.

"Some of these entries are 40 feet in length," Matthys said.

Entries include individual shells and collections of shells, broken down by categories like Sanibel-Captiva finds, Florida and Caribbean finds, and worldwide finds. The shells are self-collected.

"It's the rarity of the shell or group of shells," she said of how the entries are judged in the scientific division. "It's the presentation or how the exhibit is presented."

One entry this year involves 165 venomous snails and images of the poisonous harpoons that they shoot at prey, while another features sea-silk - a rare fabric that dates back to antiquity, only found in museums and private collections. Attendees get to touch sea-silk spun from the hairs of pen shells.

There are nearly 100 areas to complete in between the two divisions.

"There are about 98 classes of competition," Matthys said.

The show is open to shell collectors and artisans from around the world.

Award winners have come from as far away as New Zealand, India, Japan and the Caribbean.

According to the Sanibel Shell Festival Committee, this year's competitors range in age from 6 to 99. Grace Horn, who will mark her 100th birthday in June, entered three shells collected on Sanibel during her early years on the island. She has been collecting on the island since 1956. Naples resident Hayden Osborn entered a decorative shell box in the Student Artistic Division and is the youngest competitor.

The author's table will feature 15 writers, with four of them - Pam Boynton, Richard Batt, Jennifer Schiff and Anne Joffe - also club members. There will be book signings and meet-and-greets.

"It's a variety of topics, including shell-related books," she said.

Dr. Jos Leal, the science director and curator at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, will be on hand to help attendees identify shells they may bring in, as well as answer questions about shells.

"Shells that they may have picked up on the beach and they don't look familiar," Matthys said.

There are also children's games set up, with prizes like a shell or free club membership up for grabs.

"We also have a scavenger hunt for the youngsters," she said.

Some shells, books and other miscellaneous shell-related items will be for sale inside.

"We usually have two documentary videos playing that describe the life of a mollusk," Matthys said.

Outside, however, attendees will find the anything and everything shell-related to buy.

The shell tent will house thousands of shells, starting as low as 25 cents each.

"We will sell bags of shells and loose individual shells," Schoenherr said. "We've got a lot of nice Sanibel shells. We have some other shells that are from other parts of the world."

"We get donations of shells constantly throughout the year," she added.

Under the artistic creations and the creation tents, attendees will find hand-crafted items made with shells. They range from flower bouquets and holiday decorations, to "shell critters" and jewelry.

"All created with shells and sea life," Schoenherr said.

The Shell Crafters, who meet at The Community House, create it all throughout the year.

There will also be a live tank area set up outside, containing mollusks.

"Many people don't realize that every shell on the beach was once a living animal and they have a big part in the ecology of our oceans," she said. "It's a wonderful way to get acquainted with these marvelous animals that create these beautiful shells and gives us all purpose to protect these animals from being taken live and (from) over-collecting."

The event will also feature a raffle, with items donated by award-winning artists.

Admission is free, with a $5 donation requested to enjoy the inside show. The donation also grants attendees free admission to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum during the festival.

In addition, the first 2,300 people to donate will receive a free bag of shells.

Proceeds raised inside will fund grants to marine education and conservation organizations in the community, along with scholarship to the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science and Florida Gulf Coast University's Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences.

Proceeds raised outside will go to the maintenance and support of The Community House.

For more information, call 239-472-2155 or visit

The Community House is at 2173 Periwinkle Way.



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