Seashell Artesian


 Camille and I first heard about Ella Mae from a local resident of Great Harbour Cay in The Berry Islands. They were admiring a piece that Camille was working on made of beer bottle caps. They said it reminded them of something Ella Mae would make out of seashells. He started to describe her work, then stopped and said, “You just need to see it.” So we did. He put us in touch with her and we met her at her home.

Seashell entry with Bullocks Harbour in the background

Seashell entry with Bullocks Harbour in the background.

     Ella Mae lives at the water’s edge of Bullocks Harbour with her family. She grew up on Long Island, and although she has lived in Bullocks Harbour now for many years, most of her family and many friends are on Long Island. In fact, most of the shells that she uses for her work come from Long Island. She recently traveled “home” to assist family devastated by hurricane Joaquin. She came home with her suitcases full of shells, a new crop dredged up from the storm.

     Camille and I were awestruck on our first visit. Not only did Ella have several pieces on display, she has also decorated the door frames and window frames in her home with seashells. She had several seashell floral arrangements ready to send out for Mother’s Day orders. They looked like real flowers, however, a closer look confirmed the petals were shells. In fact, everything in the arrangement came from the sea. The leaves and stems were from sponges and coral.

Ship made of seashells

Ship of Shells

     Ella Mae creates pieces by request or by inspiration. The ship was commissioned by someone employed by one of the cruise lines that stops at nearby Stirrup Cay. She also makes small pieces for sale to tourist at the straw market on Stirrup Cay. Sometimes she will start a piece without a clear idea for the end result and let it evolve. The Koala bear was created in this manner. Using common materials in an unusual way, Ella sees potential that others miss.

     I asked Ella about her source of seashells. I was curious because I didn’t see the volume or variety of shells that she would need here in The Berry Islands. She said that most of the shells she uses come from Long Island where there are more of them. Still, she sources from several different places in The Bahamas in order to be able to use the variety she does. None of the shells were collected alive. For instance, the Queen Conch shells had been discarded after the meat was harvested. The small shells are collected by sifting through beach sand. Ella recruits family and friends to help with the time consuming and laborious process of combing the beaches and mining the sand.

Koala Bear of seashells

Koala Bear of Seashells

     Ella Mae isn’t the first Caribbean to create striking artwork using seashells. Early in the 19th century, Sailor’s Valentines made of seashells began making their way out of Barbados. These pieces framed by octagonal compass boxes and sometimes customized for a loved one left behind in Europe. Later in the 19th century, L.D. Powels wrote in The Land of The Pink Pearl about women in the Out Islands of The Bahamas who approached him to buy their Sailor’s Valentines for his return to England. Even though they were originally created for sailors to take back to Europe for their loved ones, by the end of the century, travelers were buying them merely as works of art. The Shell Museum in Sanibel, Florida, has a wonderful collection of Sailor’s Valentines on display.

Ella Mae

Ella Mae presenting her 2015 Cacique Award

     As common as it was, few artisans in The Bahamas work with seashells nowadays. Ella Mae was recognized by the Ministry of Tourism and  presented The Cacique Award of 2015. The entire community of Great Harbour Cay is proud to have a local artist recognized by the whole of The Bahamas. Camille and I, as well as her neighbors, appreciate the inspiration she gives us for creating stunning artwork from the very material we tread on at the beach.





Water Like Glass

by Camille Klingele

We have all heard the expression. And until I finally purchased a prescription snorkel mask, calm water provided my only view below the surface of the water. I am always curious about the underwater world.  

Camille showing new prescription mask

Camille sporting new prescription mask

Mirage is currently anchored just beyond the cut into Great Harbour Cay. We have a quiet boat until our next tour. Lately, we’ve had steady winds and numerous rain squalls. In a moment of calm, I jumped onto a paddle board hoping to get some clear views of the bottom. As luck would have it, the sun went behind clouds and breezes disturbed the surface slightly. I saw some blobs but nothing to satisfy my curiosity.

Then, just as we finished dinner, a light rain started falling. But instead of causing more disturbance, the wind calmed completely. I jumped back on the board and headed for a small, rocky island nearby. At last, water like glass. Everything looked a little magnified. The nurse shark that I usually see was absent, but I saw a menagerie of brightly colored tropical fish, sponges, coral and sea urchins. I took several turns over the coral before heading back to Mirage.

paddling around small cay

paddling around a small, rocky island

Once back on board, I stood on the bow and spotted a crab walking sideways through the turtle grass. Another was on a collision course. They sparred briefly and then continued. From the deck of Mirage, the water was so clear and calm that it appeared as though the water had been replaced by air.

Before I acquired my prescription snorkel mask, these rare moments of calm were my only chance to clearly see the bottom that I spend some much time floating above. I still enjoy relatively calm water for snorkeling, but it doesn’t need to be glassy. If you are myopic, like I am, and you want to enjoy snorkeling, an internet search will reveal several vendors who specialize in prescription snorkeling masks. I found mine at Snorkel Mart. The dive shops have masks with lenses for the far sighted, so they can read gauges. Prescription masks for the near sighted must be special ordered. Custom ground lenses are available, but are much more expensive. They instead use a combination of right and left, ready made lenses closest to the prescription to build the mask of your choice. This keeps the cost down and is close enough that I can’t tell the difference between my mask and my glasses (except I can’t breath out my nose wearing the mask). Mine cost about $86. Captain Keith, with perfect vision, bought his for about $50.

Coral in turtle grass

Coral in turtle grass

Don’t let myopia keep you from exploring the undersea world. Good luck.



Shark on Bone Fish

The tide fell and left this juvenile nurse shark stranded at Lizard Cay in The Berry Islands, The Bahamas. Watch it in hot pursuit of juvenile bone fish also stranded by the falling tide.


What Is It?

Close up of sea foam shadows on sandy ripples

What is it?

I was paddling across Great Harbour Cove in the middle of the day, June 24th.  My goal was to paddle into a mangrove estuary and continue on through the tidal creek between Great Harbour Cay and Haines Cay. In order to do this, I had to cross a sand bar at the mouth of the estuary. There was a channel, but it was hot and not a breath of air was moving, so I elected to take the shortcut directly across the spit. I could tell the tide was dropping and the current was flowing out of the mangroves because the normally clear blue water was turning yellowish brown. First, my paddle started hitting the bottom making me take shallow strokes. I kept going, as I always do, instead of turning back thinking that it won’t get any shallower, and I’ll just skate through. Then the hull began dragging bottom just slightly and I cussed a bit. I put the paddle on the combing and started poling with both hands, lifting the hull with each lunge and coasting until the hull drug again. Finally, there was no coasting after lifting the hull and lunging. This was the point at which walking was easier. I was paddling alone, so I muttered a string of obscenities out loud to myself as I got out and slipped my paddle under the deck rigging. Once upright, it struck me that I was standing in a sea of foam bubbles. I hadn’t seen it from the perspective of the cockpit. The angle of solar incidence is about 85 Sea Foam Shadowsdegrees at midday in late June here, so the sandy bottom was covered in shadows. I immediately took out my camera and shot these photos.

white sea foam casting shadows on the shallow bottom

A kaleidoscope of shapes casting shadows on the shallow bottom

The bubbles came from tannins in the water agitated by wave action at the edge of the spit. The tannins came from the mangroves. The waves came from an almost imperceptible swell from beyond the cove. It was a calm day, so the bubbles didn’t blown away. Had I not been so stubborn and turned around when it got too shallow to paddle, I would have missed this beautiful and unique display of natural processes.