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The giant Pacific octopus is a big star at The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. The Sanibel Island museum recently reopened its new aquarium. Fort Myers News-Press

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People love sea shells. They love looking at them, collecting them and finding them on the beach.

They’re beautiful and fascinating, obviously. But what else do people know about shells?

Not much, says Dorrie Hipschman, executive director of the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.

And she hopes to change that.

“Most of the people that we talk to, most of the people in the world, don’t know where a shell comes from,” Hipschman says. “They love shells. We have this affinity for shells and an emotional connection to them.

“But almost no one knows that a shell is part of a living creature. And it’s a permanent part of a living creature, like your backbone.”

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That’s why the Sanibel Island museum opened its new $6 million aquarium exhibit in March. The exhibit’s displays and 11 aquarium tanks — each between 100 and 900 gallons — show both sea shells and the critters that live inside them, otherwise known as mollusks.

That group of animals includes conchs, whelks, scallops, sea slugs, nautiluses and giant clams — all on display in the new permanent exhibit. Plus mollusks that either have internal shells (such as cuttlefish) or no longer have shells at all (such as octopuses).

The exhibit is home to two octopuses (a common octopus and a giant Pacific octopus). Like other shell-less mollusks, their shells eventually disappeared after millions of years of evolution, Hipschman says.

The museum’s giant octopus is one of the biggest stars of the new exhibit — although he’s not always up to meet his adoring public. The octopus sleeps up to 18 hours a day, Hipschman says.

When he’s awake, however, the octopus is usually engaged and curious about its visitors beyond the glass. He plays with a toy ball, oozes across his big tank and keeps a close eye on museum visitors outside his watery world.

The octopus often delights visitors by changing texture and color with its “moods,” says education coordinator Leigh Gay.

“You can tell when he’s angry. You can tell when he’s curious,” Gay says. “They change colors based on how they feel.”

Angry is a deep, deep red. Curious is a mottled, lighter red with small dark spots. “And when they’re sleeping, they turn this really white color, only a little bit of orange or red in them,” Gay says. “And they basically don’t move for hours.”

The exhibit — “Beyond Shells: The Mysterious World of Mollusks” — opened March 1, but hardly anybody got to see it. Thanks to the pandemic, the museum closed just 16 days later.

That was disappointing, obviously. They'd been planning the aquarium exhibit since 2016 and were excited for the world to see it, Hipschman says.

“Oh, that was hard!” she says. “That was hard. But it was the right thing to do. We actually closed sooner than most places in Lee County.”

The museum finally reopened May 23, and since then it's been seeing modest crowds of 150 to 200 people a day. The tourist attraction is operating at 50-percent capacity, and masks are required — along with the rest of Sanibel Island. The aquarium gets a deep clean twice a day, before opening and after opening.

The 5,000-square-foot “Beyond Shells” exhibit takes up the entire first floor of the museum — what was previously just storage space. That doubled the amount of public space in the museum, which includes a second floor full of shell exhibits.

And it's all devoted to the soft-bodied critters in phylum Mollusca, the scientific classification that includes octopuses, squid, clams, mussels, scallops, oysters, chitons and so much more. There are more than 50,000 known mollusk species in the world.

Visitors can see many of the creatures at the museum and touch some of them in two touch tanks: One for warm-water creatures, and the other for cold-water.

One of the biggest stars of the aquarium exhibit is a live junonia, a sea snail known for its cream-colored shell with brown spots. They’re common in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but their shells are rarely seen whole on the mainland, if at all.

“The junonia is sort of the holy grail of Sanibel shelling," Hipschman says. "When you’re shelling on the beach of Sanibel, that’s what you’re looking for.”

The museum’s scientific staff was looking for them, too, she says. They went on a couple of expeditions and ended up bringing back a few live junonias. Now the museum is the only place in the world to display a living version.

Another popular attraction is the California sea hare, a sea slug with two stalks on its head resembling rabbit ears. And you can even touch them in the cold-water touch pool.

“They’re adorable,” Gay says. “They have two little things that look like ears sticking up off the top of their heads. But they’re not ears. They’re really called rhinophores, and they use them for smelling."

Then, of course, there’s are the two octopuses. The common octopus is the smaller of the two, and it can be harder to spot in its tank,  Hipschman says.

“When we got him, he was so small, we weren’t even sure where he was,” she says. “But we knew he was alive because everything, the clams and things that we put in there, kept disappearing. And he has grown enormously since we got him.”

The giant Pacific octopus is much bigger and friendlier. He's expected to eventually weigh up to 50 pounds.

“He’s a very sociable animal,” Hipschman says. “When you come up to the glass, he will come over and ‘talk’ to you.”

Just make sure you take off your hat.  

“He doesn’t like baseball caps,” Hipschman says. “We don’t know why. But he tends to not like baseball caps.”

The giant octopus can often be seen handling toys or other objects with its eight arms (they’re not called tentacles, by the way. That’s a squid).

“They’re highly intelligent animals,” Hipschman says. “And because of that, we’re constantly doing enrichment with them. He’ll have to unscrew something to get his food, or his food will be in a ball.”

Hipschman hopes the new aquarium exhibit helps people better understand mollusks and what makes them special. They're pretty, yes. But there's a lot more to them than just their shells.

"We started a couple years ago with just a few small touch tanks," Hipschman says about the aquarium exhibit. "But then we realized we needed to expand this so people get a sense of the breadth of this phylum of animals."

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The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the only U.S. museum dedicated exclusively to shells and the living mollusks that create them. The museum offers various exhibits and programs, and it also supports scientific research on mollusks and shells.

Want to know more about mollusks? Here are some more facts from the museum:

  • Mollusks are sea creatures that create shells that are permanent parts of their bodies.
  • There are more mollusks in the ocean than all fish and marine mammals combined.
  • Mollusks are the second most diverse group of animals on the planet, behind insects. They’re present in nearly all of the world’s natural environments, from cold mountain springs to rainforests and the deepest ocean trenches.
  • Many mollusk species are endangered and going extinct faster than researchers can describe and name them. And because they’re such a widespread group, impacts to mollusks are capable of changing the planet irreversibly.
  • The giant Pacific octopus is a mollusk, too. It’s related to scallops, oysters, snails and slugs, but it no longer has a shell. That’s disappeared after millions of years of evolution.

If you go

What: “Beyond Shells: The Mysterious World of Mollusks”

Where: The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, 3075 Sanibel Captiva Road, Sanibel Island

Hours: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Admission: $23.95 for adults, $21.95 for seniors, $14.95 for children ages 12 to 17 or students with ID, $8.95 for children ages 5 to 11, free to children under 5 and active military.

Info: 395-2233 or shellmuseum.org

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