As I dig into summer book review reading, my mind occasionally wanders to a recent Maui trip.

Day 2 sunset
[Golden Maui sunset, Napili Point; photo by Ariane Colenbrander]

Offering gorgeous sunsets and scenery above the water, Maui’s underwater charm drives my husband and me to spend time in its natural aquarium.

Molokini snorkel 6
[Molokini snorkel trip; photo by Ariane Colenbrander]

However, a thought came to mind while on our trip: Why are there so few shells to be found on Maui, given its abundant sea life?

I emailed Thomas Eichhorst of the Conchologists of America, and he weighed in:

“The Hawaiian islands’ isolation means a high degree of endemic species (those found in Hawaii and nowhere else). These species have either died out elsewhere due to various pressures (predators, climate change, etc.) not found in Hawaii or they have been on the islands long enough to speciate – become different from their originating species. 

There is a lot of ocean between Hawaii and anywhere else. Unlike the Indo-Pacific areas centered around the Indonesian-Malaysian Archipelago, you don’t have a lot of varied islands, mainlands, shallow seas, and associated varied habitats that give rise to a plethora of species. 

Instead, Hawaii represents a stable environment (for the last 5 to 10 million years anyway) where different species can fill a niche and remain, without most of the pressures found further east or west. This means fewer total species. 

Link that with the lack of encircling coral reefs and you can have some difficulty finding shells. That being said, if you’re willing to dive in often chilly water down to 100 feet, there are some real treasures to be found. Snorkel or dive in Kaneohe Bay on Oahu and you’ll find a great habitat for all kinds of marine life, but apparently the currents and prevailing winds are such that beached shells are not as common as they are in other areas of the world.”

Growing up, our holidays often involved a long sandy coastline providing hours of beach combing. I’m torn by websites that discuss the merits of leaving (even dead) shells behind. I often find the temptation too great.

We got very lucky on a couple of occasions, and came up with three shells in 10 days.

Maui shells
[Shells found on Maui; photo by Ariane Colenbrander]

I’d love to hear if you feel the same way about beach holidays. Is a beach vacation complete without beach-combing treasure?


  • Comment by jeanette — June 18, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

    Wow! We had the same question when in Maui last week … where ARE all the shells!? Anyway mom my definitely had a few beach treasures in her suitcase. Me, just pictures. 🙂

  • Comment by arianec — June 18, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    Seriously? Your mom found shells too? Were they cowries (such as the purple one in the photo above)? Funny how many websites show gorgeous photos of shells found on Hawai’i, but no one bothers to mention that Maui just isn’t a shelling island. Oh well, there’s always the Indian Ocean and its island resorts 🙂

  • Comment by Tom Eichhorst — June 8, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

    I saw your posting with my blurb about the lack of shells on Hawaii and thought I would add a couple more comments. At present count there are well over 1,300 species of marine shelled mollusks in Hawaii. Seems like a big number, but this is way lower than say New Caledonia (for the reasons I mentioned). About six decades ago there were more than 750 species of land snails on the islands. Sadly about 3/4 are now extinct – due to development and introduced species. The larger shell in your photo (on the top) is Achatina fulica, the giant African landsnail. It was introduced by the Japanese in the 1940s and raised havoc with local crops. Our less than wise experts introduced a predator snail, Euglandina rosea, the rosey wolfsnail from the eastern US. It was supposed to eat the giant African snail, but instead went after the much smaller native snails. Now almost gone. Bureaucrats making “scientific” decisions. Tom

  • Comment by arianec — June 8, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

    Thanks for the additional comment, Tom. I’m amazed at how difficult it is to find shells anywhere in the world anymore. The best luck we had was back in 2000 in Sri Lanka and Maldives!

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