Coron, Philippines

THE LONG LOST SEARCH FOR SHELL CITY

AUTHOR
Andi Cross
PHOTOGRAPHERS
Marla Tomorug & Adam Moore
October 2, 2023
|
8 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

During my childhood, family visits to the shores of Ocean City, New Jersey and the Outer Banks, North Carolina were a staple. Alongside millions of others, I cherished moments spent on those overpopulated, sandy beaches in the peak of summer. 

I was a delicate kid, uncoordinated and lacking athletic abilities, so my interaction with the ocean, though adored, was limited. My encounters with the waves were even more limited, the occasional leap over the approaching tides or a tentative stint on a boogie board practically still on the shore. However, my obsession with the ocean was undeniable, and it was in the tranquil solitude of early mornings and late nights that I loved the most. Armed with anticipation during the off hours, I'd scour the beaches in search of "Shell City."

Shell City was a whimsical creation of my father, a clever invention designed to achieve dual purposes: first, to entice me into joining him on morning runs, and second, to foster my connection with nature, a necessity considering all of my unfortunate athletic shortcomings. 

Our mornings would start early. My father’s persuasive charm, coupled with the enigmatic allure of Shell City, would coax me from the comforts of my tiny bed. He’d spin tales of this magical place, asserting that if we ran fast enough, we would stumble upon it without fail. Shell City, as per my father's depiction, was a haven where millions upon millions of unbroken shells lay scattered, ready for observation and if I was lucky, a small and humble collection could be mine. 

For many years of my life, I bought into the concept of Shell City. Without hesitation, I followed my father on his morning runs asking, “are we there yet” repetitively. I couldn’t understand why someone would want to wake up, run until their stomach hurts, and then have to turn around and do it all over again. 

The trickery went on for a long time. I preferred the night excursions, as we’d take slow and steady walks, observing the marine critters that come out when no one else was around. My love of crustaceans and cephalopods started here, and that love has stayed with me ever since. 

We never made it to Shell City. 

But, those quests were some of my favorite moments with my father. Regardless of the ever-present pain in my stomach, the thought of actually making it to this wondrous place and the spirit of adventure kept me engaged. It was throughout these years that my curiosity about our natural world spiked, and my deepest desire was to live out my days searching for places like shell city. I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to actually find this magical place on earth. It had to be more than a figment of his imagination. 

As I got older and started to travel more, I was always, in a way, looking for Shell City. I encountered places that hinted at its existence, and occasionally, I’d stumble upon a shell that seemed a direct extraction from the fabled place. However, the complete manifestation of Shell City remained elusive. 

Moving to Western Australia, the dream inched closer to reality. The pristine, untouched beaches there were adorned with an abundance of unique, albeit small, shells. Each discovery was thrilling, but still, the childhood dream had yet to be fully realized. 

With every new exploration, I came to realize there are shells that rule them all—like the rare white-toothed cowry or the gorgeous Caribbean conch shell. However for me, there was one shell in particular that I was craving to see in the wild, that would finally relinquish the life long quest to uncover Shell City—the nautilus. If you don’t know about this one, let’s get stuck in for a moment, as this creature holds the “shell of all shells” quite closely. 

The nautilus, a marine critter of ancient lineage, has captivated marine biologists and ocean enthusiasts alike. Residing in the deep slopes of coral reefs, these marine cephalopods are often regarded as living fossils, having maintained their distinctive characteristics for millions of years. Adorned with a spirally coiled, chambered shell, a nautilus embodies a blend of natural artistry and functional, flawless design. 

The creature resides in the outermost chamber, utilizing the others to control buoyancy by adjusting the gas and liquid content. With up to 90 tentacles, absent of suckers, the nautilus navigates its deep-sea habitat, a stark contrast to the more complex appendages of squids and octopi that share a family. 

It’s also the only cephalopod that has a shell. 

Nocturnal by nature, nautiluses ascend to shallower depths at night to feed on shrimp, small fish and detritus, showcasing a dietary preference as ancient as their form. Reproduction is a slow process, with females laying a limited number of large eggs that demand up to a year before yielding new life. 

Nautiluses are hunted by humans primarily for their ornate, spiral shells, a highly sought-after item for collectors, and occasionally for their meat. They are often caught with baited traps placed at varying depths, set at night when they ascend to shallower waters to feed. In certain areas where the nautilus ventures into more accessible depths, they may also be captured by hand or handheld nets, though this method is less common.

The hunting pressure, coupled with other anthropogenic activities like pollution and habitat destruction, has placed significant strain on nautilus populations. These creatures, already listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, face further vulnerability due to international trade, leading to their inclusion in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The slow reproductive rate of the nautilus exacerbates the impact of overharvesting, as their populations are unable to quickly recover.

While in the Solomon Islands, by complete chance, I stumbled upon one of the most incredible, shining cowrie shells that I’ve ever seen that had washed up on shore of a deserted island. With a perfect patterned combination of brown and white, this shell was bigger than any I’ve held in my hands before. Celebrating the find, our local guides in the Solomons told me this was a sign of good luck. Although it was not the nautilus, perhaps I was getting closer. I noted this as a step in the right direction. 

A few weeks later, we touched down in the Calamian Islands, with over 50 islets all distinct from mainland Palawan in the Philippines. With zero expectations for what we might find, we met up with Susan Santos de Cárdenas and Al Linsangan III, two Fillipinos committed to the preservation of these remarkable islands. They were taking us to some of the more remote and untouched locations in the region, with one such being Sangat Island. 

Sangat Island is advantageously positioned close to the mainland. It offers accessibility to more populated surrounding regions but also an escape into nature’s more secluded ones. The island’s intrigue is carved out from its lush biodiversity, pristine waters and tranquil environment. Its island neighbors are also equally epic, leaving you feeling like you’ve taken a step back in time and you have the whole earth to yourself.

Exploring the surrounding seas and shores on Coron's first solar powered boat, created by OceanTera, Susan and Al were showing us what best practices in sustainable eco-tourism can offer for a region that’s sitting on the borderline of overtourism. With the electric boat motor quietly humming, we navigated in stealth mode to a nearby, completely uninhabited island. Once there, our team dispersed, going off on our own respective mini expeditions to try and uncover the things we love most. For me, as always, this was the perfect opportunity to continue my ongoing quest for Shell City. 

I was grouped with Susan and Al, taking small steps with hands behind our backs and heads turned down looking at the sand. It was clear each of us were avid beachcombers, with a keen eye for finding hidden gems. While discussing the history of these islands, and acknowledging what this duo has spent their careers trying to protect, we simultaneously picked up and marveled at sand dollars, tiny intact shells, bivalves, and more. I started to notice that the shell count was rising rapidly. With every small step forward, the concentrations of shells increased. 

I couldn’t help but ask myself, had I finally made it? Did we find Shell City? 

I made it abundantly clear to the group that I had an ongoing shell-bound mission, a long-time quest to find my “shell of all shells.” And suddenly, just like that, there it was. In perfect form. Washed up on shore sitting amidst a pile of perfectly unbroken beauties, all just as wonderful as the next. We had found the majestic nautilus shell.

So, maybe it sounds like I’ve derailed here a bit. I’ve lost the plot on an off-topic side quest to find a fictional wonder of my childhood. After all, aren’t we here to tell untold stories of conservation and restoration from the edges of earth? 

For me, a huge part of this expedition was birthed from reigniting that lost passion of mine, tracing all the way back to my early childhood. And quite honestly, going all the way back to the tall tales of Shell City. This is where imagination, curiosity and wonder were born for someone who didn’t have the ability or access to make the ocean a second home during my earliest years. 

Passion and wonder are easy when you're a kid, and not inhibited by the jaded nature of adulthood. I had the fortune of reliving this sense of childlike wonder on the isolated shores of Sangat Island. And frankly, every day since being on expedition. 

I encourage you all to hold fast to your dreams, to anything that you can draw your passion from. And if it’s a relic of your childhood, go out searching for it. You never know what might wash up right at your feet on the shoreline. 

To be continued …

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