In Search of the Great White…..

Back in the 80s I went on a field trip to Skye with the Conchological Society.  I had not long joined the Society and this was the first week-long trip I had joined.  Nick came with me.  The meeting gave me a series of shelling experiences the like of which I had never experienced.  Investigating the shore at low water was a revelation in showing me molluscs and other marine invertebrates living in their habitats and within their niches.  My most memorable experience, and one that has stayed with me throughout my many shelling highlights, was the finding of a freshly cast-up snow-white Chlamys.  This was the lovely scallop species Chlamys nivea.  I was very taken with the shell and also curious to understand its distinction from Chlamys varia.  One thing led to another and a fellow CS member, Phil’ Palmer, encourage to measure a few shells, carry out some biometric tests, track down other specimens in museums and the like and eventually write a short paper for the Journal of Conchology.  This was my first foray into the scientific world and was to lead me  ultimately to unimagined places, both physical and intellectual.

Some of the shells that I borrowed to measure were Orcadian giants.  These were examples collected from Orkney shores by Ian Smith, who first discovered a colony of large white Chlamys living at low water along a causeway leading from Grimbister out to the small island of Holm.  So it was that finding myself on the doorstep of this distinct, possibly unique variety of Chlamys varia I wanted to see if there was a tantalising possibility that the population would be extant.

Bas and I found our way to the site as described by Ian, with the assistance of Sonia as our driver.  We arrived on the shore whilst the tide was still ebbing.  But a causeway was beginning to reveal itself, along with an isolated and artificial stone slab wall projecting perpendicularly from the beach.  The slabs were stacked like books with plenty of room for nestling species to settle in the joints and spaces between.  I found a few very large mussels which I steamed out of their shells later and popped in my mouth there and then.  But first I waded about in the shallows and picked up plenty of valves of large white scallop species.  Some very fresh and there was evidence of predated shells on the beach, most probably left by feeding otters.  The predation traces on the shell are all similar.  We found empty mussel shells too, all broken in the same pattern.  Bas also found one articulated individual containing a decaying body so the population would appear to be extant.

As the tide ebbed Bas and I picked our way along the causeway to the little island of Holm. At some point a man came wobbling his way along the slippery and uneven ridge of the tract of rocks and slabs carrying a petrol can and a bucket of brambles to start planting a hedge.  We talked.  He owns Holm and has done for 21 years.  An Essex man, he lives alone and has another property on Orkney.  He keeps a bit of livestock on the island but has never fished or potted for food from the sea.  He knew nothing of otters on his patch although he had seen seals, but not this year.  He reminded me of Harry Enfield.

Although Bas and I worked the rollable boulders along the causeway methodically we saw no sign of living Great Whites.  However at the end of the day I had a very large bag of white scallop valves to measure.  Time to revisit my 1986 J. Conch paper.

 

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