By Fran Pelham
Photograph of Cara Bowers by Fran Pelham
Photographs of shells by Cara Bowers

A shell is a source of beauty. Mother Nature creates the most amazing creatures. — Cara Bowers
Driving along a sunny road on a family vacation to Florida, Cara Bowers’ father decided to pull over to the side of the road for a brief stretch. Cara, the last to exit the car, saw her mother and sister, Amy staring down at a white chunk of coral on the side of the road. Curious, she joined them and viewed a picture of nature that remains with her to this day. Peering into the coral, she saw a band of small, colorful fish swirl around the hollowed-out coral. That was the day Cara got hooked on the sea and all its wonders.

Years later, she and her sister Amy traveled to Bonaire Underwater National Park in the Caribbean for their first snorkeling trip. Here, Cara experienced a stream of serenity in the clear, turquoise waters, and sensed a growing fascination with shells. “I am filled with wonder and awe as I explore the world beneath the sea. It is like opening a treasure chest! I spied my first beautiful, shell on the sandy bottom.” She took a deep breath of air, dove down, and scooped up the empty shell. A picture of that first shell find still sits on Cara’s mantle today. “It reminds me of the first snorkeling trip that led me to becoming a collector.”

An avid shell collector and true steward of the sea, Cara always checks first to see if there is a living organism inside. “I never remove a living shell or coral from the sea: You can find plenty of shells with no living organism inside and dead coral washes up on the shoreline.”

Throughout the following years, Cara and Amy, the adventurous sister-snorkeling pair, have taken boat trips to the Coral Triangle, The Philippines, and in the sea off the coast of Indonesia. Closer to home, Cara’s favorite shell-hunting expeditions are on the beaches of Sanibel Island, Florida.

Whether she is far away or walking the beaches of Long Beach Island, shells are an omnipresent and important part of her life. Her framed collections line the walls of her home. Cara found her creative expression inspired by her many journeys. Moved by the splendor of beach seascapes she was led to collect a palette of shells from around the world. A favorite was given to her by her sister, Amy, a beautiful replica of a shell found in the Lascaux Cave, France.
“People often ask me if I have ever gotten bitten when snorkeling.” Cara laughs “Once I was snorkeling in shallow water. Suddenly I felt something pinch my ankle. I stood up quickly to search beneath the wave and there at my feet a small dog was leaping about in the water looking for his owner.”

Cara does not want or need a studio. “I want my shells all around me, a part of my daily life. The entire house is my studio where I work and where my collections hang.”

“Before arranging my shells or making a gift from them, I hold the shell in my hand and reflect on its meaning and how it inspires me,” says Cara. One of her creations from gathering shells is called a Sailor’s Valentine. The tradition dates to long ago when lonely sailors aboard ships made gifts for their loved ones back home, from shells they had collected on shore. “I made one for my husband,” she says, proudly pointing to her beautiful, artful work hanging on the wall.

As an experienced collector, Cara offers timely tips and advice to those new to shell collecting:
“Of course, never take a live shell. Go seeking when the tide drops; clean shells in soap and water; store shells away from light, as they can lose their color; do not walk along the shell scrim — you may crunch the treasures. Lastly, look online for help in identifying a shell, then look for a Wikipedia entry to learn about the shell and its former occupant. When I prowl the beach, look for three things: the unusual, the perfect and the tiny, uniform shells.

“Most important of all,” Cara advises, “learn from nature because humans and all of nature are connected in many and mysterious way.”

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