- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - For Priscilla Ellison of Blacksburg, going to Virginia Beach and walking along the sand to find seashells is child’s play.

Try going to the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, where one has to brave barracudas, four kinds of sharks, stingrays, Portuguese man-of-wars, stinging coral and more to collect sea shells (not to mention having to go underwater to get them). Ellison, 86, had to look out for these scary species when she and her husband, James, lived in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, for a time.

“We were there because my husband was a mechanical engineer working for Mobil Oil,” she said. James Ellison was in charge of helping build a computer control center there.

The Ellisons lived in Saudi Arabia for a little more than four years, from 1983-1987, and because of the differences in culture, the beach was one of the few places they felt totally comfortable. Priscilla Ellison, who was born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, was thrilled to be near water again. They never collected shells from anywhere else because no where else had the same crystal blue water like the Red Sea did. “We could see the shells, and the shells were beautiful,” she said.

“I just enjoy the beach,” she said.

But her seashell-collecting hobby was a little dangerous, and it wasn’t just because of the creatures in the water - in some cases, it was because of the shells themselves.

“We had to be very careful of the geographus cones and textile cones. They are predatory and have poison for killing their prey,” she said. These shells house a creature that uses its “radula,” a biological microscopic needle, to inject a conotoxin to kill its prey.

“We wore leather welder’s gloves and made sure to pick up the shell from the fatter end,” Ellison said. The radula protrudes from the skinnier end.

Unfortunately, Ellison couldn’t keep the living creatures inside their shell as part of her collection. “We had to remove them,” she said. “Unlike others that we were with who thought microwaving the shells was the best way to kill them, I chose to do it the most humane way possible. What we did was put water in the opening and we would change the water everyday until the creature decayed.” The time it took to do this depended on the size of the animal, but it almost always took a few weeks.

It seems like a lot to go through for a collection, but to the Ellisons, the shells serve as reminders of their experiences and friends in Saudi Arabia.

“Every month, 20 or 30 expatriates from a dozen different countries would get together to spend a day swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, picnicking, enjoying the coral reefs and looking for seashells,” Priscilla Ellison said. “It wasn’t just for social exercise, but we traveled as a group because we might need to help one another when someone got stuck in the wet sand.”

Their worldly friends came from countries such as Singapore, Japan, Holland, Germany, Australia and South Africa.

During their time in Saudi Arabia, the Ellisons collected 147 seashells. “Over the years, (we) have given away that and many more,” she said. Some of their favorite pieces are five specimens of a conch at different periods in its life cycle.

“(I have) the baby with barely a curving shell, the juvenile with beginning ‘fingers,’ the adult that (people) are most familiar with, the middle-aged with fingers beginning to be worn down and an old with no fingers at all,” she said.

Bringing the collection home wasn’t as difficult as one would think, “We were there in the ‘80s. If there were any rules about it we didn’t know and we were never told, and if any of the creatures we took were endangered we weren’t told of that either.”

The variety of the collection doesn’t stop there. The biggest shell she has is a “Triton’s Trumpet” that measures 9?1/2 inches long; her smallest is a “strawberry top” at 1/2-inch wide. She also has species that are found only in the Red Sea.

The Ellisons’ collection is a way for them to remember a time when they experienced a different country, but because of the dangerous nature of these shells, Ellison couldn’t wear just any old bathing suit into the sea.

“To provide some protection, I always wore a long-sleeved T-shirt, tough blue jeans, heavy leather gloves and thick-soled sneakers, or sometimes I wore a wet suit.”

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com


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