A Different High – Martin Daly and Shell Collecting
Most surfers would probably be familiar with the Martin Daly story: Salvage diver, explorer, Indo pioneer, architect of the Quiksilver Crossing, posting up in the Marshalls, etc.
With COVID, Martin’s been locked out of Oz for over a year now, which is a hell of a long time away from his loved ones in Perth: wife Lee, and kids Alexandra, 22, and Walker, 20.
Between some patience-testing stints stuck in various South Pacific ports, Martin’s been finding consolation at anchor alongside numerous empty breaks – in essence identical to his younger self some forty years ago.
Martin spoke with us whilst motoring to a mooring after a fine day of waves.
Martin Daly, 63. Been shell collecting for 50 years
I first got into shell collecting as a kid when my parents moved up to Townsville in North Queensland.
I was about 13 or 14, and there was no surf up there, obviously, so I started diving and got a job as a deckhand on a charter boat called the Sea Cock, captained by a bloke called Cocky Watson. We did spearfishing and diving trips out to the Barrier Reef, and we’d take the Townsville Shell Club out as well.
The Townsville Shell Club was mostly made up of all these old ladies – they’d come out on the boat, walk across the reef at a super low tide, and my job was to help the old ducks turn over rocks and so on, and they were keen to ‘use my sharp young eyes’.
I started to get familiar with what they were looking for, and started to learn the Latin names of the shells, what was rare, what was common, etc. They were very passionate about it, and it rubbed off on me.
It got to the point where I’d wag school every month when the tides were really low, head out with my mate Tony Ragget, and look for shells.
So I ended up with a pretty incredible shell collection – I’ve been reliably informed it’s comparable to the Auckland Museum’s – which I kept at my parents’ place for safekeeping. My dad passed away last year, and my mum’s in a nursing home – it’s actually a pretty sad situation. There’s a guy who befriended my mother, and he’s managed to get her to sign over the family home to him. He’s discovered my shell collection in the attic and doesn’t plan to relinquish it. It’s pretty messed up, unfinished business I’ve got to take care of when I’m allowed back into Australia.
Shells have always captivated me. It’s almost like they make you believe in a higher power or something, because they’re just so incredibly beautiful… and you just go, “Why? What’s the point?” I mean some shells live face down in mud their whole lives, they’re covered in seaweed, you turn them over and they are just the most amazing things, the most colourful and incredible designs you’ve ever seen. If that doesn’t fill you with wonder, what will?
Shells are made of calcium carbonate, secreted as bone material by the animal, which starts off without a shell. It secretes it and keeps on secreting it, usually in a circular or spiral form, apart from bivalves like oysters and stuff.
Some people get upset about shell collecting. I posted a photo on Instagram of some of my shells and copped some shit about ‘taking coral and shells’ – and I replied, "Well I agree about the coral part", so I don’t take any, but as far as the shells are concerned, particularly if they’re dead, they’re just gonna be sand sooner or later.
Shells, particularly rare ones, used to be a valuable commodity, but their cash value isn’t what it used to be, and for me it’s never been about the cash anyway.
Here’s a story that illustrates how prized some shells used to be: This fella named Wally Gibbins, an Aussie salvage diver, was in the Solomon islands in the early ‘70s and there was this really rare shell called the 'Glory Of The Sea' cone shell, Conus Gloriamaris, and at this stage I think there had only ever been a handful found, and they were worth over a thousand dollars each, which doesn’t sound like much now, but in those days you could buy a decent house for $8,000, so that puts it in perspective.
So, using his knowledge of the Gloriamaris’s diet, Wally honed in on their habitat on the backside of Guadalcanal, and Wally and his two mates found 300 of them! He put an ad in a shell magazine and said ‘I have a single Gloriamaris for sale’… and by the time the world figured it out – because there was no Internet in those days – he and his mates sold most of them, and made an absolute fortune.
Nowadays, really rare shells – shells that you would never find as long as you live – you can probably buy now for like five or six-hundred bucks.
Like, I’ve never found a Golden Cowrie, Cypraea aurantium, or a great Spotted Cowrie Cypraea Guttata, or a Gloriamaris Coneshell.
It’d cost me ten times what they’re worth in diesel and time just to find them, but to find them would be a lifetime achievement of sorts.
That’s the difference: If you buy a shell, they’re just ornaments, but if you find ‘em, there’s a whole story, a whole narrative tied to ‘em, a memory associated with that moment.
When I was travelling around on the Quiksilver Crossing going to all these different parts of the world, I’d always find a shell to bring home and give to my daughter. She’d have ‘em lined up along the back of her bed, and she knew the story of each one, where it was from, etcetera. And that was kind of a big deal for me. It was a way that we were connected. Not just for her to be reminded of me, but whenever I was out there, looking for a shell for her, she’d kind of be out there with me as well.
I’ll be turning 64 shortly, and when I come across a shell – whether diving or beachcombing or coming out of the water after a surf – it still takes me back to that feeling of being a kid again.
Come to think of it, I’ve kind of come full circle, I’m getting fired up again! I was actually stuck in a harbour recently and was diving in the harbour and found three species I’ve never found before my whole life – just sloshing around under the boat. Commercially they’re worth nothing but for me, personally, it was very satisfying.
As far as tips for young players go: There’s a couple of shells you should avoid. A live Cone Shell can kill you. It’s got this dart that comes out with a very strong venom. You pick them up by the crown and you’re alright, but don’t put them in your pocket or anything. It’s always better to find dead ones anyway.
And no matter what shell, if you’re taking live shells – if you’re comfortable with that – only take two. Once you’ve got a pair, that’s it, you’re done. And alive or dead, why diminish the environment by taking more than what you need?
If you’re on a surf trip overseas (yes, it will happen again)… and you’re collecting shells generally you’re okay to bring ’em back in through customs – as long as there’s no critters inside – all except for the Triton shell Charonia tritonis. This is a CITES* protected species ‘cos it’s the only known predator of the Crown of Thorns Starfish.
Corals on the other hand, that’s a no. Leave the coral.
Actually, there’s another shell you can’t take – the giant clamshell.
I had a couple from Malibu out in The Marshalls a few years back, the fella’s passed away now. They were going mad on collecting the shells. I wasn’t stoked but didn’t want to cause an issue about it. They packed a few boxes of shells up and sent them to California. Unbeknownst to me, they listed me as the ‘owner’ of the shells.
And – you can probably guess where this is going – they had some protected clam shells in the box. As a result, every time I went through customs into the United States for the next five years, I’d get a 'Secondary Inspection', because there was a fish and wildlife warrant out for me for those clams.
No good deed goes unpunished hey. Bloody clams, always get you into trouble.
(Note, your interviewer interjects here with “especially bearded clams”’, which was met with a polite chuckle, and at which point it seemed a good spot to wrap up the conversation.)
*CITES: (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.)
// MARTIN DALY (as shared with GRA MURDOCH)
Opening photo Ted Grambeau