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Shells from the deep bring delight to a village

SOUTH AFRICA JOURNAL Paper nautilus influx surprises and elates
By John Donnelly, Globe Staff | June 29, 2005

NATURE'S VALLEY, South Africa -- This village that hugs nearly 2 miles of remote beach almost goes into hibernation in winter, becoming so quiet that a young shopkeeper describes the social scene lamentably as ''Antarctica."

Some 300 miles east of Cape Town, Nature's Valley lives by seasonal rhythms: migrating whales smack their tails in the seas starting in September; tourists pile into town in December; and then the 88 permanent residents begin reclaiming their village in late May, when they start their long walks in the Southern Hemisphere's winter on white-sand beaches, keeping warm in their zipped-up fleeces.

But over the last several days, the seas have delivered a marvelous surprise for the hardy year-rounders: shells of the paper nautilus, the Argonauta argo, pearly white half-moons with black ridges along the arcs of the backbones. The shells once protected female cephalopods, which are related to octopi and squid families. Word passed. For those who for years have walked on beaches bent over in hopes that their eyes will catch the glint of a beautiful shell or stone, this seemed a moment that would live on and on -- if they found the treasure. People set their alarm clocks for dawn. They hustled to the beach. Alone, or in pairs, they scoured the sands for any shells washed ashore overnight.

For the lucky ones, show-and-tell followed at Nature's Valley Trading Store, the village's popular meeting point. And many have been lucky, as a few hundred of the shells have washed ashore so far. Nearly all who have looked have been rewarded. ''Can you believe it?" said Leonie Botha, 39, carefully cupping one of her finds in her hands at the store. ''It's an absolute treasure."

Store owner Tish Mance pulled out an old candy box that now held three paper nautiluses she had picked up. Some speculated that stores along Cape Town's waterfront would sell the small shells for $10 and the large ones for $50 or more. But no one was selling their sea jewels here.

In the store, on the village's dirt roads, and on the beach, people wondered why they had been blessed, which is how everyone referred to the shells' appearance. Some speculated it was a byproduct of global warming; some called it God's gift; others said rough seas washed them in.

Andre Riley, conservation manager for the Tsitsikamma National Park, within which sits Nature's Valley, sided with the rough seas theory.

''Where they wash up is dependent on the currents and the land mass, including which areas are deposit zones of the sea," Riley said. ''Typically at this time of year, we have very big seas, and that tends to bring up more animals to the beach." Paper nautiluses live in temperate zones around the world, appearing, if somewhat rarely, on beaches from Florida to Australia. In Africa, they are found in the Indian Ocean from southern Mozambique to Cape Point, south of Cape Town, Riley said.

Other beaches in South Africa have recorded the paper nautiluses in the past, but Nature's Valley typically doesn't get them, he said. The sea dumps very few shells there. The beach is better known for its very strong undertow -- three people drowned in the last year -- and its high seas, which attract surfers.

The appearance of the paper nautilus shells, though, has been a far different event. Morning after morning, the shells brought a village to the water, inspiring much happiness.

Rosalie Van Heerden, 52, found one shell that measured more than a foot long. After she discovered it: ''I came running back from the beach, shouting, 'This is mine, this is mine!' People thought I was mad. But I thought I had picked up a diamond."

She adores it so much that she glued the bottom to a wooden plank, to better protect the fragile shell. Every morning at 8, Van Heerden sets out for the beach. She said she's addicted. ''It's like gambling. The more you get, the more you want," she said. ''Now the shells seem to be getting scarce. But I keep thinking I'll get lucky again."

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com
Paper Nautilus
Copyright 2003 Maaike Pypekamp. All rights reserved.
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