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Searching for Shell-Halla in the dead of winter

Searching for Shell-Halla in the dead of winter

The Weather Channel was in ghastly form.

Three-quarters of the country below freezing. More than 40 percent experiencing wintry precipitation.

Snow angels, Southwest Florida style.

And measurable amounts of the white stuff falling in North Florida from Tallahassee to Gainesville.

But just when it seemed the Jim Cantore basic cable film festival would never end, a thought suddenly occurred to me:

It doesn’t snow in Southwest Florida.

So while friends at nearly all points in the contiguous U.S. preoccupied themselves with the travels of “Winter Storm Grayson,” I grabbed my outdoor adventurer’s cap, scooped up the wife and son and again set out for the high Lee County seas.

That meant a return trip to The Marina at ‘Tween Waters Inn, where we booked ourselves three seats on an afternoon beach/shelling excursion to Cayo Costa — a north/south barrier island about eight miles from the resort via Pine Island Sound.

Another day in winter paradise.

The boat docked on the island’s southeast side after a 30-minute ride, and a brief trip across a boardwalk and a tree-lined sandy path ended at the entry to a pristine white-sand beach that stretches the length of the island along the Gulf of Mexico.

And even on a blustery 55-degree day, it was a shelling Shangri-la.

The three-hour trip allowed for two hours of beach time, and the remoteness of the island — it’s accessible only by boat or helicopter — provided untrammeled shoreline and tidal pool examination simply not available in places with more traffic.

Frenetic 9-year-old Ryan crammed a pair of one-gallon bags full of conchs, murexes and pretty much anything not nailed down, while the more discerning (age withheld) Danielle — with a single bag in tow — sought a very particular treasure consisting of olive shells, snail shells and fully intact sand dollars.

The biggest lightning whelk on Cayo Costa, alongside a regulation-sized quarter.

We were in full-on competition with a few fellow passengers for a couple hundred yards, before the field flaked off to just the heartiest hunters once we’d been walking for 45 or so minutes.

Of course, armed with the Tennessee determination (read: stubbornness) of her mother Sondra, Danielle was hell-bent to go 20 yards past the longest survivor, and her indomitable nature was rewarded in the form of a barnacled lightning whelk as big as my head that weighed in at a cool seven pounds.

Her semi-educated guess was that it had been in the water for half a century, which paired nicely with the Nike swoosh-shaped piece of sea glass she figured had been wet for roughly a decade.

We lugged our haul to the boat to claim prime return seats, a choice that paid off with a clear view of a frolicking bottlenose dolphin herd about 50 yards off the bow. Any shot at glimpsing manatees, however, was short-circuited by the cold snap that drove the regal sea cows to the warmth of a nearby power plant.

Sand dollars, shells and other treasures.

Absent our mammalian pals, Ryan, Danielle and I rode out the final few miles spotting islands, flamingos, and buoys for blue crab traps — while simultaneously making advance choices for our dinner at the Crow’s Nest Beach Bar & Grille and thinking up mocking Facebook posts for our freezing-cold friends up north.

Incidentally, Danielle and Ryan shared a Crow’s Nest Burger and an Ultimate BLTAE and posted half a dozen shots of the TWI sunset … while I had the grouper sandwich, then made up a catty meme for a friend in Niagara Falls whose pipes froze over the night before.

“Greetings from Shell-Halla, Grayson… Wish you were here.”

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