The Beaches of South Africa by Gavin Malcolm

 Table Mountain view of Cape Town  Table Mountain

As a collector of Cones and Olives and an absolute novice on any other species, then a vacation in South Africa was always going to be a challenge as we worked our way up the coast from Cape Town to Durban. So armed with the book on beach Marine Shells of South Africa by Douw Steyn and Marcus Lussi, we headed out.

South Africa has some fabulous tourist sites to visit: the unsurpassable view from Table Mountain, the Cape Peninsula, the Drakensberg mountains and most of all, the spectacular beaches.

Our first couple of days in Cape Town were a great starting point, no clouds in the sky, and we quickly learned to do things the local way. If you are going to rent a car then all the big companies are there but check the insurance terms carefully for highjacking and theft cover. Most South Africans are obsessed with security; every hotel has a guarded car park and every parking lot has approved local entrepreneurs to look after your parked car. Once you learn to pay the small fee and avoid any "unguarded" beaches then you can begin.

So off we went to Hout Bay and Kommetjie down the west side of the Cape via Chapmans Peak to the Atlantic beaches. Armed with a fishing licence from the Post Office, you can collect on most beaches. We stopped at the the shell shop in Hout Bay to be greeted by the Scots born owner from the same village as ourselves. The shop was wall to wall Philippine specimens. One of the great disappointments of this trip was that few shell shops had any South African shells.

Scuba diving is not my thing and I avoid taking live shells so Kommetjie tide pool rocks were a good introduction for my collecting.

My first two finds were probably the best: a fine specimen of Janthina janthina (Linneaus, 1758) followed by a large 39mm specimen of Janthina prolongata (Blainville, 1822), both vivid purple. Diloma impervia (Menke, 1834) Diloma variegata (Anton,1839) and Gibbula beckeri Sowerby 1901 were to become regular finds. Large specimens of black Diloma tigrina (Anton,1839) were everywhere and we quickly learnt that limpets are outsize in South Africa with Patella granatina Linneaus, 1758 weighing in at 70mm.

As the sun set, we headed back to Hout Bay to visit club member and dealer Alan Seccombe. A visit to the shell wing of his house produced some fine cones for my collection but most of all, we were given kind hospitality and good advice on where to go collecting and, equally important, a map to the best wineyards in Stellenbosch for tasting. Alan is a good judge of wines.

 Boulders penguins

Sorry... no collecting here!

Next day it was down the False Bay coast to Boulders to see the penguins. The beach and rocks at the restaurant by the car park proved very fruitful for shell collecting although the penguins make it clear that shell collecting is not allowed in their Nature Reserve. Good finds included Conus algoensis f. simplex Sowerby, 1858, C. mozambicus Hwass in Brugiere 1789 and Marginella lineolata Sowerby, 1866.


Look after your car... Sir?

In the Cape National park, we had a great visit to the Cape of Good Hope and then headed for the beach at Buffels Bay. Alan had given us some advice: "watch out for the baboons on the beach" and after witnessing two cases of assault on the backpacks of unsuspecting walkers, we realised sandwiches and apples are better left behind.

The baboon "watching" park rangers were happy that we collected some dead shells and there were some good specimens including Marginella rosea Lamarck, 1822, Coralliophila squamosissima (E A Smith, 1876) a bit south of its normal habitat, and Conus mozambicus Hwass in Brugiere, 1792.


Patella compressa and P. granatina

On the Atlantic side of the Cape, the sand beach stretched for miles; the beach was covered in large Patella compressa Linneaus, 1758 and Patella granatina Linneaus, 1758. There were many P. compressa specimens in the 100mm range and P granatina up to 70mm.

Our next probe took us for a day trip round False Bay to Cape Hangklip and Hermanus, an upmarket seaside town. Gordon's Bay shell shop was just awake and provided some of the more interesting South African specimens from an old collection. Marginella ornata Redfield, 1870, Gyroscala lamellosa (Lamarck, 1822), Gyroscala coronata (Lamarck, 1816) etc.

Hangklip beach produced many black Diloma tigrina(Anton, 1839) and Diloma sinensis(Gmelin, 1791), black with a bright red flash, which became the most common species for much of the trip. Large shining black specimens of Patella oculus (Born, 1778) were easily gathered. Other notable finds were large Nucella dubia (Krauss, 1848) of various shapes and sizes.

 Bullia digitalis

Bullia digitalis

 Bullia laevissima

Bullia laevissima

Vroeklip beach, Hermanus was one of the stars of the trip. It was my first experience of the elongate Bullia digitalis(Dillwyn, 1817) and oval Bullia laevissima (Gmelin, 1791) which were coming ashore in their hundreds, dead or alive, following the bluebottle seaweed ashore. Donax serra Dillwyn, 1817 and some uncommon Tivela compressa (Sowerby, 1851) were washed up on the beach.

 Conus tinianus

Conus tinianus from Struisbaii

Still bathed in sunshine, it was time to head for Arniston Bay and Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point in Africa. Our hotel in Arniston Bay was displaying a large collection of a nautilus type shell, Argonauta argo Linneaus, 1758, shoals of which had come ashore in the winter. Our trip to nearby Cape Agulhas took in collecting at the fine beach of Struisbaii and at Stinkibaii, a seaweed infested cove. We took in a couple of shell shops which had only a few South African species but this included lots of different local colour forms of Conus tinianus; and so my cone collection grows.

 Patella Struisbaii

Patella from Struisbaii

The main local shell was Turbo cidaris Gmelin, 1791 in many hues of brown together with Turritella carinifera Lamarck, 1822. Other finds were Marginella lineolata Sowerby, 1886 and a vivid orange Gibbula multicolor f. hera Turton, 1932. For the micro collector, there were bright red Tricolia capensis(Dunker, 1846), and Pyrene obtusa (Sowerby, 1832). Turbo sarmaticus Linneaus, 1758 began to become common, the nodular juveniles and the smoother larger adults. Patella cochlear Born, 1778, well named for its shape, in a wonderful ink blue colour and Argobuccinum postulosum f. proditor were to be found in many sizes. Large Patellas, surprisingly dazzling in colors of red and cream, were to be found in the seaweed on the beach. These included Patella tabularis Krauss, 1848, Patella miniata Born, 1779 up to 75mm and the long fingers of Patella longicosta Lamarck, 1819.

Argonuata argo

Argonauta argo

To end the day here, I would recommend to anyone and everyone, a long dinner of seafood and chilled wine overlooking the beaches at Arniston Bay.

Next day, we headed for the Garden Route and took in Mossel Bay on the way. Mossel Bay is a pretty, classic seaside town but with one problem; all South African offshore oil comes ashore to a mega refinery behind the town. However in the old part of town is the Bartolomeu Dias museum with replicas of the ships which the Portuguese Diaz used to come ashore in 1488 and a most magnificient shell museum showing South African and worldwide collections. Well worth a visit.

The next week saw us doing the tourist Garden Route from our bases in Wilderness and Knysna. Having jousted at the hotel buffet with the Stormers rugby squad full of healthy eating giants, we followed some advice and went to the smaller places not on the tourist bus routes, Sedgefield and Still Bay, and were rewarded with fantastic beaches.

SA beach
Turritella carinifera Patella barbara

Turritella carinifera, Patella barbara

Swartvlei (Black Fly) beach at Sedgefield was approached with some trepidation. The surf swept beach was covered in Bullia rhodostomaReeve, 1847, alive with beautiful transparent animals chasing bluebottle seaweed in the surf. Here large Turritella carinifera Lamarck, 1822 were to be found and a domed large specimen of Patella barbara. Haliotis spadicea Donovan, 1808 and colourful Chlamys tincta (Reeve, 1853) were in the tideline.

Next the highlight of the trip - Jeffreys Bay - but there I was on the beach with a strong southeasterly blowing and not a shell in sight on any of the town beaches. The local beachcomber seemed to think that if you are after 5.00am then all the shells are taken - an hour that I do not know too well. How to rescue the day? A trip to the local shell shops revealed the one and only box of J. Bay beach shells: some bags of Conus, Marginella, Phalium etc. And when I realised it was 20 rand (£2) for each bag of 15 specimens, life improved. Across the road, the shell museum was quiet and giving us space and time to enjoy the magnificient display of SA shells.


Need some help with collecting?

Now we were off to Marina Martinique at the Aston Bay end and collecting was better.

My first cowrie: a nice fresh specimen of Cypraea edentula Gray, 1825, followed by my first Olividae - an Ancilla which at first glance seemed beach worn but turned out to be a white specimen of the form A. marmorata f. pura (Sowerby, 1892) and then a large Argobuccinum postulum (Lightfoot, 1786) rolled up the beach. Semicassis labiata zeylanicum (Lamarck, 1822) and its smoother form S. labiata f. iredalei Bayer, 1935 were present with many "leather skinned" Cabestana cutacea (Linneaus, 1768) and some Bullia annulata (Lamarck, 1816). Smaller species included Psittacodrilla bairstowi (Sowerby, 1886), Anachis lightfooti (E. A. Smith, 1901), Clionella rosaria (Reeve, 1846) and lots of bright dark red Tricolia capensis (Dunker, 1846).

I followed up an invitation to visit local collector Arie Jooste and his son Philip who is the diver supplying many of the main shell dealers. Arie is a Conus collector like myself and to see his collection was a thrill. Tempt me? He did, and my SA cone collection has several new species. The family are setting up their own distribution business as Aston Bay shells.

And so to roost in Port Elizabeth and a quick evening search on the beach opposite the hotel; only to be greeted by press cameras. Had news of my speeding camera skirmish spread? The South African cricket team were having a photo team swim before dinner. The West Indians who had made their lowest ever score, the previous night in Cape Town, were "resting" in the hotel lounge.

Melapium lineatum

Melapium lineatum

Our next leg took us to East London with shell stops at Port Alfred, Kenton on Sea and Kidds Beach. Kidds Beach provided the best shelling. A nice specimen of the unusually shaped Melapium lineatum(Lamarck, 1822) was found with colourful red Patella concolor Krauss, 1848 in the tideline. Lots of smaller species, Vaughia scrobiculata (Dunker, 1846), Mitrella elegans (H. Adams, 1860), Mitra latruncularia f. albozonata Turton, 1932, Nassarius conoidalis Deshayes in Belanger, 1832, Nassarius speciosus (A. Adams, 1852), Hastula diversa(E. A. Smith, 1901). Beautiful burgundy coloured Fissurella mutabilis Sowerby, 1834 and Helcion pectunculus (Gmelin, 1791) were found for the first time.

From East London to Durban is a mere 600km through the Transkei tribal homelands of the Xhosa. General advice seemed to be that this was bandit country, especially Umtata, the main town and don't break down! Our refuelling schedule prepared, we headed out and hit Umtata at mid morning in the rain. No stopping at traffic lights, every window/door locked but no bandits... just a busy African market town with pedestrians all over the road. Maybe the 9 police patrol cars were having some impact... or was it the rain?

After many hours of delay for roadworks we reached Durban and our hotel on the beach and it was raining for 3 days. The South African and West Indies cricket teams were both resting in the lounge awaiting the sunshine.

One of the traditions in Durban is a morning swim at the North Beach Club and by 6.00am the beach is crowded with swimmers and surfers. My seashell searches on the beach produced little and did not seem to disturb the locals frolicking in the waves.

SA beach2

When in doubt, head out; and by the time we got 70km down the Hibiscus coast to a town called Shelly Beach, the sun was shining and we decided to seek local advice but the shell museum was permanently closed and the pickings on the beach were sparse.

Time to revert to the Alan Seccombe guidebook and head for Park Rynie beach further up the coast and its near neighbour Umkomaas. One of the more successful days.

Conus coronatus Gmelin, 1791 followed by Cypraea staphylea Linneaus, 1758, Marginella pachista Tomlin, 1913 and then a large Purpura panama (Roding, 1798). A nice Cymatium vespaceum (Lamarck, 1822), Heliacus areola (Gmelin, 1791), Trochus nigropunctatus Reeve, 1861, Oliva caroliniana Duclos, 1835, Turbo coronatus Gmelin, 1791, and a fine bubble shell Hydatina physis (Linneaus, 1758). And for the micro enthusiast Clionella rosaria (Reeve, 1846), Morula granulata (Duclos, 1832), Morula uva (Roding, 1798), Cerithium alveolus (Hombron & Jacquinot, 1854), Peristernia forskalii leucothea Melvill, 1891. The common shells seemed to be Thais bufo (Lamarck, 1822), together with Nerita albicilla Linneaus, 1758 and Nerita polita Linneaus, 1758. Fissurella natalensis Krauss, 1848 and Siphonaria oculus Sowerby, 1824 were colonising the area.

By this time, we had many species and a large bagful of specimens. And so we left the beaches behind to spend a few days in the magnificence of the Drakensberg mountains and a trip through the land of the Zulus to Rorkes Drift to check out the movie scene.

And lastly to Johannesburg airport, keeping to the bandit free highway through the city... only to be trapped in the airport elevator... that's South Africa!

This web page was last updated on 15 January 2005.
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