The best way to tell you about our coast is to take you with me, out to the Reef. There are many inexpensive "beach-cottage-hotels" available along the coast-line of Kenya where we can wait until the tide begins to uncover the reef. This is only half a mile away, and we could go out by canoe, but the best way is to be independent and to wade and swim out in tennis shoes, an old pair of pyjamas over a swim suit, and a beret or an old waterpolo cap. The equipment needed is a knife, a hooked rod for pulling over lumps of coral, a nylon mesh bag which hangs from a waist belt, a sponge bag for the smaller specimens, and snorkel and goggles for under-water hunting.
Octopus abound but are not large enough to hurt you; your only dangers are sea-urchin spikes and the stone-fish (which is very rare and need not deter you). Sting rays will flee and eels will attack only if provoked.
Sharks on the far side of the reef are often curious, but they are also nervous and leave one well alone.
The first shells to be found are the Cassis rufus or helmet shells lying in the pools or on the reef. Under water, each knob on the periphery shines up, reflecting different shades of yellow, red and purple, and this helps you to spot them. As you get your 'eye in’, you begin to find specimens of the Lambis genus, first the huge ones and then the smaller kinds. Others which come without much trouble include Stromtus avreus, Thais, Clanculus, Gemmicula the 'strawberry shell', topshells Turbinellidae) and several Cones including C. textile, geographus, literatus, botulinus, virgo, and many others only slightly rarer. A fair selection of Olives, Haliotis, Murex, Tun-shells, and two varieties at least of the beautiful Harp shells are soon found. One soon becomes very choosey and. selects only first-class specimens, especially as they all have to be carried several miles along the reef preparatory to a swim to shore.
The cowries you will usually find underneath the coral lumps, which have to be turned over for the purpose. Under red coral you may find Cypraea cribraria cribraria, the other sub-species C. c. teres, and C. chinensis, all of which have scarlet animals. C. stolida is very rare here, in fact I have found only one to date; C. argus (the pheasant), C. punctata and C. testudinaria (the tortoise), also need a long search. On the other hand you would be unlucky if on your first day you could not find C. moneta, C. annulus, C. helveola, (the star cowrie), C. lynx, C. carneolus, C. vitellus, and C. tigrinus; less common are C. scurra, C. mauritiana, and C. erronea. We have in all about forty five known cowries, all of which I have found at one time or another. I should mention in this connection that ny children are all export swimmers and we stay in the water for hours at a time - the temperature is usually about 80° F - so that we have everything in our favour for collecting. Naturally, all the specimens are in beautiful condition and make a brilliant display in a collection. Until one has seen perfect specimens in their natural habitat, or has access to an unusually fine museum, it is difficult to appreciate fully what these fine shells can and should look like.
I find that many experts, who know far more about shells than I do, boil or soak their cowries instead of allowing flies to breed maggots in them to rot the flesh. The shell should be left in the shade for a day or two, when the flies will have laid their eggs. The shells should then be put in tins with layers of sand and taped up for two or three weeks. In the tropics this system is easy and perfect, and when the tins are opened (with averted nostrils), and the shells are washed under a garden tap, they will be found perfectly clean. The Cassis, Lambis and similar genera also respond to this treatment, which leaves the brilliant surface in perfect condition, but cones and top- shells are different and you have to be careful to rot them thoroughly.
Lambis panellis and the Tritons are two of the most showy of our shells.
The former can grow to ten inches in length, and the Triton, one of the most beautifully coloured and patterned shells in the world, will grow to eighteen inches and more-
The currents and the fresh water springs have a lot to do with, the reef life and each mile of coastal reef seems different from the next a poor reef often lies next to a good one, and the tine of month .and state of the tides are important in timing your visit. Zanzibar is a good area, but most of the specimens are found in shallow water at low tide; the lovely reefs at Mombasa are the finest of all, and these have furnished most of the shells in my collection.