The Famous Fort in St. Augustine That Was Built of Seashells

the Castillo de San Marcos fort

Tourist Attraction in St. Augustine, Florida

Photo credit: By National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – click the photo to visit the page.

I find the history of the fort  in St. Augustine, Florida fascinating. Located on the east coast of Florida, the Castillo de San Marcos (which means St. Mark’s Castle) is right on the Intracoastal Waterway.  Today it serves as a tourist attraction with many visitors trudging over those thick walls each day, but it was built long ago to protect the people of a Spanish settlement.

The Spanish settled in the St. Augustine in 1565 and built forts of wood which were too easily destroyed.  Flimsy wood was either burned by attackers, or destroyed by storms. They needed a better and sturdier line of defense.  So they came up with an ingenious idea.

The state of Florida doesn’t have many rocks.  The entire state is very sandy, but of course there is lots of water, and the fort sits right on the ocean.  The builders were resourceful and decided to use hardened shell rock, called ‘coquina‘ which was abundant just off the coast on an island (now, Anastasia Island).   The coquina shell is a tiny thing, but when it’s crushed and compressed with many like it by the sea, it becomes rock-like.  No one was sure how well this coquina material would work, but I suppose their options were limited!

Construction on the fort began in 1672.   The coquina material was cut into sections.   Oyster shells were burned to make lime, which was added to sand, which made a mixture that resembled cement.   And that is how they went about building this massive structure.  It took 23 years to complete.

When the walls were being constructed, no one knew for sure how well the coquina rock would hold up against cannon fire.  Only 7 years after the completion of the fort, they had a chance to find out.   When the British attacked, those thick walls – some were up to 19 feet wide – held up even better than expected, and the attack failed.

It turned out that the seashell walls would give a little when hit, and the cannon balls would either bounce off, or become imbedded.

In 1924 the Castillo de San Marcos fort was declared a national monument.  Please read more about it here.

St. Augustine has much more to see than just the famous fort.  It’s one of my favorite areas of the state.   When you visit, plan to spend the entire day there, traveling through the city on trolley tours, taking a horse drawn buggy ride, shopping, eating, and visiting museums.   The Ripley’s Belive it or Not is a good one.

 

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Combing the Shallows of the ICW Backwater

intracoastal waterway backwater

The Shallows

A day out on the water is always so wonderfully relaxing. When I lived in Florida we owned a pontoon boat and would get over to the ICW as much as possible and cruise up and down the waterway. These days I am land-locked in New Hampshire, but I did get a chance to visit my son in Florida over the summer and we headed to the east coast four times to fish off his little boat. Two of those days turned out to be wash outs with storms chasing us off the water early in the day. One of those days was a very close call. As the super dark and threatening sky moved southward toward the boat ramp, we flew at full throttle down the ICW hoping and praying we would get there before the storm did. And we almost made it. As we were unloaded the boat the rain pelted down while the wind blew. We got soaked, but at least we were on shore.

But the other 2 days we went boating were really wonderful. I took this photo one of those days when we had pulled up to a large shallow area near an island. Most of the islands we were near were inaccessible, but the shallows around them were nice to explore. It also gave us the opportunity to get into the water and cool off. If you can cool off in 85 degree water!

This large area was full of crabs, hermit crabs, and a few stingrays. It’s also where I found the large horse conch pictured in a previous post. It was high tide, or close too it, or this area would have been all sand and no water.  To the right and left of the island the water was deeper, but we were in about knee high water.

My son goes out fishing in the backwater areas often so he maneuvers his little boat around the shallows like a true expert. This is a picture of my two sons who were busy splashing each other and being boys, while I explored the area looking for empty shells to collect.  And I had no luck except for that horse conch!

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The Crown Shell is a Perfect Home for Hermit Crabs

IMG_0607 hermit crbThe crown shell is recognizable by it’s pointy ridges and striped appearance. While visiting the intracoastal waterway this summer, I saw these crown shells everywhere, but they were most often inhabited, not by the mollusk that made them, but by a hermit crab.

Many years ago my kids had hermit crabs as pets. This was mostly due to the fact that my daughter wanted to have one of every kind of animal on earth as her pet. We had to buy gravel to put in a small container for the crab and we had to provide empty seashells for it to move into when it grew. Now I wonder how the hermit crabs we had as pets lived at all, since the ones I saw in the wild stay completely under water. And it’s salt water. They are walking all over the shallows and could be in deeper water too I suspect.

They scuttled out of the way as we backed the boat in, and when we stopped at islands along the waterway the hermit crabs were there too. And more often than not they were in a crown shell.

hermit crab
Then, I finally found a crown shell with it’s owner inside. I took it out of the water for a moment to snap a photo and then I put him back. One day his shell will most likely be a hermit crab home.
crown shell and mollusk inside

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How to Clean Seashells Controversy

tropical seashell photography

Florida Seashells

One question that arises most often when talking about collecting seashells is, how to clean them. Quite honestly when we took a day trip to New Smyrna Beach or Bethune Beach in Florida the kids and I came home, unloaded the car, cleaned off the toys and boogie boards, and jumped into the pool. The pail of shells stayed in the garage and were rinsed at a later time. I didn’t collect shells to display in my home, so I never worried about cleaning them. They were mostly found by the kids, and we had so many!

Of course if you keep shells in the house, or use them in crafts or jewelry making, it is a good idea to clean them some way. It will bring out the color and prevent unwanted odors. Never bring shells home that have something living inside. If the mollusk is still inhabiting it, you will see it’s flap covering the opening. If you see red claws, it’s probably a hermit crab. And in the case of my recent horse conch find, creatures may be attached to the outside of the shell.

Ideas for cleaning your seashells usually include soaking them in some sort of solution. Bleach and water – very small amount of bleach – is the common thinking. Shells that are white, or are supposed to be white can withstand a bit more bleach, or a longer soak. Be careful with delicate shells like the sand dollar, starfish and urchins. To bring out the colors after soaking, apply mineral oil and let dry.

Pam (i love shelling) has a post about using muriatic acid to restore color to shells. She lives on Sanibel Island so just imagine the shell collection! Her post claims the solution will restore color to a ruined or calcium covered shell. But, the acid is dangerous stuff and caution is required when using. As an acid, it eats away the unwanted covering and reveals the colors underneath.

If you know of a good way to clean shells, please leave a comment. Happy beach combing!

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Shelling at Three Sisters Island Florida

horse conch seashell

Encrusted Horse Conch

My recent trip to Florida gave me opportunity to do some shelling, or seashell hunting. The Three Sisters Islands are in the backwater area of the intracoastal near Edgewater and that is where we dropped anchor one day. It was hot and we needed to take a dip in the very warm water (80’s at least) to try to cool off. The area around one of the islands was very shallow so I took a walk looking for shells.
The east coast of Florida is not exactly the best place to find shells, and most of the shells I saw were inhabited by hermit crabs. Those things are everywhere! But suddenly I spotted something large in the murky brown water and when I got up close I saw it was a big shell. When I lifted it out, this is what I saw. The horse conch is the official Florida shell, and I’m pretty sure this is one. I wanted to keep it, and it had no living thing inside, but something attached to it was alive.
Those bumps you can see on the left side in my photo, were squishy and obviously living. I don’t know what they are – maybe some sort of coral? – but I decided to put the shell back. So I took my own advice and took some photos and left nature alone.
The only shells I brought back home were collected along New Smyrna Beach, and they are not super impressive. But this horse conch was definitely my favorite find.

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