PEOPLE | CULTURE | HAPPENINGS
Collecting seashells is a serious hobby
BY SHEPHARD SULLIVAN
IKE MANY LOCAL BUSINESSES, Dr. Brady Semmel’s office
decor features a coastal motif. Look a little closer,
though, and it becomes clear that there is some-thing
Shells are displayed in every room. Not just your
typical cockles, scallops and quahogs that might be found on a walk
along Wrightsville Beach or a trip to the craft store. There are conches
and whelks, Scotch bonnets and pen shells.
By trade, Semmel is an oral surgeon, but by passion he is a serious
shell collector, spending his time exploring uninhabited islands and
marshland in search of his next big find.
“Most people think of collecting shells like, ‘Oh, I’m at the beach, I’m
going to pick up some shells,’ and that’s it. This is kind of a different
level,” Semmel says. “I go where other people don’t go.”
His exquisite collection includes shells that must be magnified to
see details to ones that have set records for their size.
Semmel has been a collector since he was a child, beginning with
stamps and coins. His love for nature comes from his experience as a
Boy Scout in Pennsylvania and from his father, who was an elementary
school science teacher.
He moved to the Carolina coast in 2002 but did not get into serious
collecting until eight years later. Since then, he has found close to 200
different North Carolina species, 24 of which hold state records for their
size. A large pen shell found at Lea-Hutaff Island, scientifically referred to
as a pinnidae, could potentially be certified as a world record, he says.
The catalyst for his hobby was seeing all of the collections on dis-play
at the North Carolina Shell Club’s annual show in 2010. The show
has been held in Wilmington since 1971. Collectors come from out of
state and even from other countries to display their finds.
“They may display shells from Indonesia or shells from somewhere
exotic, and it’s nice to see those because you don’t see those locally,
but I concentrate on the local,” he says.
Semmel is a member of the North Carolina Shell Club. The club,
founded in 1957, meets four times a year, including once for the shell
show and once for a shell auction, and brings together a group of
members ranging from novice to professional shell enthusiasts.
He entered the show for the first time in 2012, and won the Best
North Carolina Collection award. He’s taken that prize nearly every
year since then, getting bested only in 2015.
“I’ve been lucky; the public likes my display. I think a lot of it is
because it’s local. I think they appreciate that,” he says.
His showcase for the 2012 show was a completely intact tulip shell
that he found in August 2011, after Hurricane Irene. One of Semmel’s
secrets for finding the best shells is going right after a storm.
“That was the first time that I found some of these good, whole
specimens, and that really got me interested. Then, that next year is
when I started really entering the show,” he says.
Semmel plans to showcase some of his larger, state record-holding
shells at this year’s show, scheduled to take place Sept. 28-30 at its
new location, Wilmington’s Coastline Conference and Event Center.
Semmel practices and promotes humane shell collecting. A seashell
is basically the exoskeleton of a marine invertebrate, usually a mollusk.
He won’t take a shell if the animal inside is still alive.
Because all of his shells come from animals that have died in natural
ways, Semmel has won the conservation award at the show several
“Even though it’s just this tiny little thing, it’s still a living thing,” he
says. “It’s going to die at some point and it’s going to leave its shell, so
sometimes you have to work harder to find a good shell from some-thing
dead, rather than to collect the live one.”
He definitely isn’t afraid to work harder; he ventures into marshes and
tidal pools in search of new shells. Often, that’s where he finds colorful,
intact shells that have not been broken up and battered by waves.
As a conservationist, Semmel volunteers with the National
Audubon Society and the North Carolina Sea Turtle Project. While out
with these groups, he visits Masonboro Island and Lea-Hutaff Island.
The uninhabited barrier islands, accessible only by boat, are among
his favorite collecting locations.
Dr. Brady Semmel with a sampling of his award-winning shells collected along the North Carolina coast.
WBM september 2018