Smoky Payson with a basket of handpicked shells at the Shell Festival at the Community House on Friday, March 3. SC photo by David Staver
Smoky Payson with a basket of handpicked shells at the Shell Festival at the Community House on Friday, March 3. SC photo by David Staver

I had my marching orders and I marched up to the tent that said 'Sanibel Shells' to fill it. I told the lady what I wanted. She pointed. “Go see that gentleman,” and that's when I met Harold 'Smoky' Payson and learned a whole lot about mollusks in a hurry.

The marching orders were to provide 'nice shells' from Sanibel Island. The shell part is the easy part; the nice part sent me to the Shell Festival. I've picked up lots of shells. Some of them I thought were nice only to be told that they were just OK or not even that. Smoky Payson handled the nice part.

Smoky sifted through the boxes filled with different kinds of shells. It turns out he dives for shells and many of the shells for sale in the tent were gathered beneath the surface by him. Suffice to say that Smoky knows a 'nice' shell when he sees one.

Here is one that is pristine, excellent,” he said of an olive that he added to the shell smorgasbord he was assembling for me.

One thing led to another. I learned that he was raised in the Smoky Mountains and Smoky is a childhood name. I also learned that he and his wife of 54 years go way back to childhood with several interesting twists from the Small World Department.

But Smoky had more shells to pick out for me. The more he sifted for perfect shells the more he said about them. He plucked a prickly cockle.

This reminds me of what I feel like in the morning before I shave,” he quipped.

The paper fig got him going.

Mollusks are the second largest family in the world behind insects and all of them have their own life cycles and defense mechanisms,” Smoky said. He had already shown me shells with spikes for defense. Now he handed me the paper fig. It was light as a piece of paper and was completely smooth.

The paper fig's defense is to get big as fast as it can so nothing else wants to mess with it,” Smoky said. “It just tries to grow explosively.”

One thing led to another. Smoky Payson is concerned about mollusks.

Shells are in peril,” he said. “As the ocean temperature rises, the acidity increases and that makes it harder to produce the calcium carbonate to produce shells.”

He believes some shell species will begin to disappear.

We're going to lose species. I think it will happen in the next 50 years,” he said. “All mollusks have different life cycles and I believe it is important to determine where in those life cycles they are most vulnerable. It's a big job, but it would help identify the species likely to be hit first.”

He's serious about it, but that doesn't dampen his joy for the shells before him at the Shell Festival on Friday – the ones he gathered up to fulfill my marching orders. I left with the shells and a whole lot more.