Collecting Stamps vs. Seashells-- and why this is not wildly O.T.


During my childhood, I watched my dad indulge his hobby: collecting stamps.

Most of the time his collection hibernated in two large photo albums on a shelf in the family room, seemingly forgotten.

Then once a month, by prior arrangement, he'd receive a package of envelopes and postcards in the mail. Each item sported one or more canceled stamps. Dad would fill a bowl with water, soak the stamps until they floated free, then lay them on a piece of wood by a window to dry in the hot San Diego sunshine. Once they were dry enough to handle, he'd pull out the albums and cement the stamps to blank pages in perfect rows and columns.

One album held foreign stamps, the other domestic. I'd admire their colors and artwork.

Sometimes I'd ask him questions about their monarchs, palaces, and currency denominations. But Dad seemed most interested in the fact that they were each slightly different -- their social, political, or geographical nature was secondary.

When I was six or seven, I started collecting coins in binders, emulating the lazy rhythm of my dad's pastime. This didn't last long because I was soon consumed by an obsession with seashells in all their varied species.

I lived in the perfect place for it. San Diego is famous for its beaches and coves, and I took full advantage of both. On summer weekends, my mother would take my friend Jeff and me to La Jolla, then let us roam while she stretched out on a lawn chair to read and tan. She was oblivious to the risks we were taking.

We found three effective ways to collect shells in their native environment, with escalating levels of difficulty.

First, you could arrive at the beach earlier than anyone else, at low tide, and scavenge for shells among the piles of pebbles and seaweed. This you would do barefoot while dodging sharp stones, jellyfish, and rogue waves.

Second, you might wander far out onto the sandstone formations to find tide pools that hadn't been raided. The substrate was slippery with moss; pockmarked with littoral snails, mussels, and keyhole limpets; and periodically doused by breakers. Yet with luck, you might reach deep into a bucket-sized hollow and find a well-polished chestnut cowrie among the anemones and hermit crabs. Native Americans used these egg-shaped cowries as wampum, and considering their beauty and diversity of form, it's easy to see why.

These two methods soon gave way to what Jeff and I really craved: searching the ocean floor itself for living mollusks. Once we'd both acquired masks, snorkels and fins, there was nothing to stop us and no one to teach us how to do it right. We learned the hard way, swallowing seawater and popping our eardrums in pursuit of the deepest free dives we dared attempt. This was probably no more than 15 or 20 feet. But when you're ten years old, this made you the next Jacques Cousteau. We swam with bright orange garibaldis, snapper, and the occasional bat ray as we scanned the coral shelves for whelks, queen's tops, turrets, cones, and other spectacular univalves.

Now, we could have collected shells the easy way by simply purchasing them from the Cove Gift Shop, like everyone else. We considered this cheating, though, taking pride in our arduous adventures. Our treasure was hard-won.

* * *

A few years later, armed with a ham license, I began a new collection. I worked stations all over the world first in CW mode, then SSB. Even as a teen, I drew a parallel between seashells and DX, not just in terms of rarity or diversity, but in the visceral nature of the hunt.

CW is not any easy skill to master. SSB also requires considerable skill with equipment, on-air technique, timing, and etiquette. Both allow the freedom to carry on short or long QSOs, over wide segments of spectrum while expressing your individual style. Both can be pursued at home or in the field, even operating hand-held, no computer required.

CW and SSB signals are there if you know where and when to look. They're hidden within atmospheric noise, like colorful shells of all sizes hidden by grains of sand. The hunt is still rewarding these days, but more difficult thanks to other preoccupations.

Speaking of which, if you get tired of collecting stamps, let's say with your VFO parked at 14.074 MHz, wander up or down the band and take a crack at doing things the hard way, using other modes. Listen. Search. Wade knee-deep among the hazards, taking chances, employing new skills.

Better yet, become a mollusk. Get outdoors and call CQ from a wild, windy perch. Or from home, aim your beam in a new direction and pound some old brass.

Let everyone else collect you.



Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.