Cabinet of Curiosities

Bobbing Along

photograph of 4 violet sea snail shells
Violet Sea Snails

I am going to take you to the western seaboard and share with you some of the unusual items I have picked up over the years while beachcombing with my wife Lindi. The warm water current known as the Gulf Stream, which originates in the Gulf of Mexico, blends into the North Atlantic Drift and passes along the west coast of Ireland on its way towards more northern shores. Carried along by this water conveyor-belt is a whole range of amazing items including plants and animals of various descriptions. One of my favourites is the violet sea-snail (Janthina janthina). This mollusc spends its entire life floating upside down on the surface buoyed up by a raft of bubbles. This buoyancy aid is formed by trapping air-bubbles in a mucus which the creature secretes from its foot and the shell is also very light. It feeds mainly on jellyfish and has a palate particularly partial to the Portuguese man-o-war and By-the wind-sailor. One of the more unusual aspects of the life cycle of violet sea-snails is that they are protandric hermaphrodites – born male but developing as they progress through life into a female – so that they get to experience the best of both worlds! They are found in equatorial and temperate waters and are blown ashore by strong winds. The specimens shown here were collected on a beach on Achill Island.

Photograph of 3 sea hearts
Sea hearts

Other Gulf Stream passengers from sunnier climes are the so-called sea-beans or sea-hearts. These are the seed of a tropical legume, (Entada gigas), a member of the pea family. Growing in profusion in central America and the Caribbean, the plant uses the support of trees to climb towards the light and in a short space of time can completely mantle expansive areas of the forest. Also going by the name of ‘monkey-ladder’, because primates use it to help them traverse the high tree canopy, the plant holds the world record for producing the largest pea pod, which can be up to 6 feet long. These consist of a number of individual compartments, each of which hold a single seed. The mature pods fall from the plants and as they decay the seeds are released. Many of these are washed into streams and rivers during tropical rains and are carried to the ocean where huge numbers begin their long sea voyage northward in the waters of the Gulf Stream. It has been calculated that the seeds take around 15 months to reach the west coast of Ireland where they are sometimes washed ashore. When Christopher Columbus visited Galway city in 1477 it is said that he was shown a collection of sea-beans which had been found locally along the coast. He apparently pondered that these were seeds from exotic plants growing in lands far to the west. In the Azores they are known as ‘fava de Colm’ – ‘Columbus bean’. Through the centuries they have excited interest and found a multiplicity of uses. In Norway a drink was made from the beans to alleviate pain during childbirth, British sailors carried them as a good luck charm for safe voyages and they were made into snuff boxes and lockets. The photo shows 3 sea-hearts, one each of which I found on beaches in Mayo, Donegal and Clare. The larger ones are 2 inches across.

I picked up the two coconuts, on separate occasions, on a beach in Clare. These are the fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) and probably originated in the West Indies. The tree can grow to 80 feet in height. The nut is housed in a fibrous husk and both its flesh and liquid are nutritious. As Robinson Crusoe learned to his advantage, its leaves make an excellent material for thatching, umbrellas and baskets!! The tough fibres of the husk are processed for the manufacture of ropes and matting. The specimen below to the left in the photo has an intact husk. 


Join me for more curiosities in the coming days…..